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Radio City Christmas Spectacular: Backstage With the Rockette-Turned-Director at the Helm

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The Rockettes perform during the 2017 Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes Opening Night at Radio City Music Hall on Nov. 16, 2017 in New York City.

Somewhere deep inside the historic Art Deco theater that is Radio City Music Hall in Midtown Manhattan, Julie Branam is keeping her eye on the clock. “Thirty minutes till showtime,” she says nonchalantly. “What keeps the show fresh for me is that it’s just always exciting to be a part of.”

The show Branam is referring to is the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a musical holiday extravaganza that has taken place every November through January at Radio City since its inception in 84 years ago. It’s a production that features an army even the Spectacular’s main attraction, Santa Claus himself, would marvel at: 80 of their famous precision dancers dubbed the Rockettes, a 36 member orchestra, sixteen singers, ten elves, six boys, three girls, donkeys, sheep and a camel. (In other words, seemingly everything except a partridge in a pear tree.)

“It’s incredible to continue the Spectacular legacy,” says Branam, a native of Des Moines, Iowa who got her start as a ballet dancer, scored a coveted gig as a Rockette, and now holds the distinction of being the first former Rockette to take the helm of the show as its director and choreographer. “It’s a huge production and backstage is just as choreographed as what you see on stage,” notes Branam of the complexity of churning out holiday merriment. “There are so many moving parts, it takes an army to get it up and running and keep it running. Everything is precisely timed out, from moving the sets backstage on elevators, to the performers making costume changes in 78 seconds. It all has to work smoothly or else we run into problems.”

For the show’s cast and crew, Christmas essentially starts in October. That’s when the company begins rehearsing six days a week for six hours a day. After three weeks of intense run throughs, a technical portion starts were Branam and her team begin experimenting with lighting and costumes. Initial audiences feast their eyes on the show in early November, which continues with a whopping 30 shows per week until New Year’s Day. (In order to prevent burn-out, two entirely separate casts split up show duties; 36 Rockettes and four swings each, all hooked up with microphones down to their dancing shoes so audiences can clearly hear their famous taps.)

It all amounts to a tradition that’s thrived since the show’s humble origins in the early '30s when the Spectacular was originally concocted as a pre-film event at a time when Radio City Music Hall served as an ornate movie theater. While many elements of the show have changed in the intervening decades, including a massive LED screen that provides a backdrop to the action and scenes that include eye-popping 3-D elements (cardboard glasses are given out to the audience), some scenes haven’t changed a single step. For one, there’s always been a memorable appearance by Santa Claus. (Kris Kringle declined to comment to Billboard for this article.) There’s also show’s two most famous sequences: a Wooden Soldiers bit where the Rockettes fall on top of each other, and the finale and its living Nativity (notably featuring a host of real donkeys, sheep and camel who live in a stable underneath Radio City and can be regularly seen getting exercise walking around Rockefeller Center.) Both sequences have remained unchanged since the Spectacular’s very first production on December 21, 1933, a year after Radio City’s grand opening. “The choreography on stage is exactly what they did in the early '30s,” explains Kristina Larson, a Rockette who’s been a part of the Spectacular in various capacities for the past 17 years. “Even the costumes are the same. I think that’s what makes it special.”

For Larson, it’s that special quality that led her to dream of being a member of the company after first seeing the show as a teenager. “Growing up, I trained everywhere I could in all styles of dance because I wanted to be the most versatile performer I could be,” says the Chicago native. “My friend was in the ensemble, so I went to New York to see him not knowing too much about who the Rockettes were or what the Spectacular was. I left crying and said, ‘I want to do that.’”

For an aspiring Rockette however, joining the esteemed company can be a grueling experience. “Auditions are usually a couple days long,” explains Larson who scored the gig her second time trying out. “You learn a jazz piece and then they do a cut, then they teach a tap routine and they make a cut, then you learn kicks and make a cut. Then you leave and you either get a phone call that you got it or a letter thanking you for your time.” Since joining the production, Larson has performed in approximately 1,600 shows; somehow managing to maintain a steady dose of the holiday spirit throughout her run. “Since I’m away from home until New Year's, I usually decorate for Christmas in January and decorations come down around Valentine's Day. I can’t help it. I just love it.”

For Branam, the simple fact that Radio City Music Hall is her workplace gets her excited for the holiday grind. “It’s incredible to walk into this building every day,” she says with ten minutes to go before the night’s show, the fourth and last of the day. “Most of the time I’ll get here before the house opens. To sit in this beautiful theater by yourself is one of the greatest things ever. I have to pinch myself and say, ‘How lucky am I that I get to do this?’”