Long before Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye starred in the 1954 holiday classic White Christmas, Crosby was singing about glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. A black-and-white spectacular scored by Irving Berlin, Holiday Inn starred Crosby and Fred Astaire as the song-and-dance duo Jim and Ted, chronicling Jim’s quest to leave show business behind and start a Connecticut inn that’s only open on major holidays.
Holiday Inn was a hit, earning an Academy Award for best original song, turning “White Christmas” into a Christmas classic, and even inspiring the name of a certain hotel chain. Now, that tale is coming to Broadway for the first time ever as Roundabout Theatre Company’s Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical.
Bryce Pinkham stars as Jim, who finds that giving up show business to run a Connecticut farm is a lot harder than he expected. When he meets a talented schoolteacher named Linda (Lora Lee Gayer), however, the two concoct a plan to turn the farm into an inn with elaborate song-and-dance performances to celebrate each holiday. Things get complicated when Jim’s best friend Ted (High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu) shows up and tries to lure Linda into Hollywood stardom.
For Bleu, Holiday Inn is the perfect forget-your-troubles throwback musical, complete with some of Berlin’s most recognizable and iconic songs. Plus, it gave him a chance to revisit his tap dance background after studying tap in his youth. Still, he admits, it was intimidating to tackle a role originated by Astaire.
“I think the main intimidation was the dancing,” Bleu says. “When you watch Fred dance, it makes everything look so easy. He just glides. And I think that was my main focus and goal with approaching the choreography, which was to make sure it was in my body enough and to make sure that it didn’t seem like it was work.”
Holiday Inn got a few tweaks in its move from Hollywood to Broadway, including the addition of other classic Berlin tunes like “Blue Skies” and “Shaking the Blues Away.” Bleu also says that the show eliminates the love triangle between Jim, Ted, and Linda: Instead of Ted competing with his best friend for Linda’s affection, his motivations are now purely business, and he hopes to recruit Linda as his dance partner to help his own quest for Hollywood stardom.
And, the Broadway musical cuts some of the film’s dated and tone-deaf depictions of race, including a notorious number where Crosby and Majorie Reynolds performed in blackface.
“I had seen [the original film] before, but it had been a long time. I went back again and restudied it, and I had forgotten there was a blackface number in the movie,” Bleu says, laughing. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, right. This is kind of dated.’ So, obviously, we’ve made some updates. There are no blackface numbers. Instead, they just hired a black guy.”
One of the numbers that did make the transition to Broadway was Astaire’s iconic tap number to “Let’s Say it With Firecrackers,” a madcap routine performed with live explosives at the dancer’s feet. On stage, Bleu doesn’t actually light and throw fireworks at his feet (which is probably a relief to the audience members in the front row), but he does have to carefully dance around faux pyrotechnics placed into the floor of the stage.
“When I’m doing the number, it’s not just tapping, it’s not just making the rhythms,” Bleu says. “The movement along the stage has to be timed out perfectly and land in the perfect spot on the stage or otherwise I’m going to get a blast of smoke in my face.”
Holiday Inn isn’t Bleu’s first time on a Broadway stage — he previously played Usnavi in In the Heights and Jesus in Godspell — but it’s his first time originating a role and his first time showing off his tap skills on Broadway. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another role haunting him backstage at Studio 54.
“One of our stagehands ended up getting my doll from High School Musical,” Corbin says, laughing. “They have it propped up with his hand up, so whenever they finish a number, they walk by and they go, ‘High five, Corbin!’ And they high five it. So that started. I was not a part of the creation of that backstage tradition, but I think it’s hilarious.”
Holiday Inn is in previews now and opens Oct. 6 at Studio 54.