By Marc Snetiker
November 27, 2013 at 08:06 PM EST
Everett Collection

As Thanksgiving dinner looms, allow me to take you back into the Broadway vault with the legend of “Turkey Lurkey Time,” an unassuming dance number from a late ’60s musical that has reached iconic status in the musical theater world. Quite frankly, I can’t think of another song in the Broadway lexicon that co-exists with “Turkey Lurkey” in that unique space between wondrous and WTF.

The song is from a 1968 show called Promises, Promises — a musical adaptation of the 1960 classic The Apartment — which featured music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David, and a book by Neil Simon. The show follows insurance salesman Chuck Baxter as he gets caught up in the corporate ladder by offering his bosses the use of his apartment for romantic trysts.

During the show’s out-of-town runs, the creators were having a hard time ending the first act; the show was already running long, and the creative team was stumped. Enter choreographer Michael Bennett, a rising star who had six Broadway credits but hadn’t yet shined (he would later go on to choreograph and direct A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls). Neil Simon equated him to an eager college football player begging the coach to be let in the game. The team gave him a chance, and so, inspired by West Side Story genius Jerome Robbins, Bennett and his assistant Bob Avian took Bacharach’s quickly written “Turkey Lurkey Time” and transformed it into a legend.

Behold, “Turkey Lurkey Time” as performed by the original cast on the 1968 Tony Awards:

“Turkey Lurkey Time” is the act-one finale, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the story (though you can glean comparisons between the song’s Tom Turkey and Chuck’s adulterous ways). It’s a big blowout dance number set at the company Christmas party, meant to underscore the festivity behind a more dramatic scene involving Chuck and his secretary/love interest Fran. The song is led by three enthusiastic secretaries — dancer Donna McKechnie (who would later marry Bennett), Margo Sappington, and Baayork Lee — who take the floor at the party as the office’s “entertainment committee.” Later, the company joins in, and what results is one of the strangest, weirdest, most bat-sh– crazy dances to ever grace the Broadway stage. And it’s wonderful.

“This was the first-act finale and he knew it had to be strong enough to bring the audience back after the intermission,” McKechnie wrote of the song and Bennett in her 2006 memoir. “The dancing was incredibly athletic, one of those times where you come off the stage and want to go directly into an oxygen tent.”

The choreography would later become infamous — the sultry trio, the seamless alternating stagewide crosses, the marionette-like spasms that accompanied the ensemble repeating “jingle bells, jingle bells.” There’s really no way to describe what it is that goes on in “Turkey Lurkey Time,” but it put Bennett on the map and subsequently became a cult classic in the theater community. Perhaps, as an illustration of Broadway’s uncanny ability to dive into non-diegetic fantasy with every bell and whistle. Or perhaps because the choreography is so insane and begs for limbs to be detached.

After Promises closed in 1972, the song largely fell out of practice, as the musical would not be seen on Broadway again until a 2010 production starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. Prior to that revival, the next great iteration of “Turkey Lurkey” appeared in the 2003 movie Camp, which follows teens at a performing arts camp. For its real, unsentimental take on gay characters, that movie has achieved its own level of cult stardom, but fans definitely recall the film’s brightest moment: an almost perfect re-enactment of Bennett’s original choreography.

But if you really want to know how far “Turkey Lurkey Time” has come, look no further than last season’s episode of Glee, which found Kurt and Rachel indulging in a little TLT with Sarah Jessica Parker. That’s not to say that Glee is any indicator of pop cultural status, but damn if I didn’t love the homage.

So there you have it. A brief rundown of the vaguely turkey-related Broadway song that you possibly didn’t even know existed. Come Turkey Day, every Broadway fan knows that someone, somewhere will be indulging in “Turkey Lurkey Time”… even if it’s actually a Christmas song.

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