Friday, December 25, 2020

Have Yourself a Sweet St. Louie Christmas (An "Unprecedented" Meet Me in St. Louis)

Christmas movies—the old-fashioned kind—tend to be short, sweet, uncomplicated, and sprinkled with music. The Christmas movie that comes to mind right now is Meet Me in St. Louis, the 1944 musical that was one of the first features directed by Vincente Minnelli, and the one that introduced him to his future wife, Judy Garland.

 Not that Meet Me in St. Louis is entirely set in the Christmas season.  This wholesome story about a large, chaotic family living in a big Victorian house on St. Louis’s Kensington Avenue actually covers an entire year. It’s an eventful year for the Smith family, beginning in the spring 1903 with preparations for the St. Louis World’s Fair and ending with the blaze of electric lights that dazzled fairgoers once the fair opened in April 1904.  In the interim, youngsters get lost and get found, and their siblings fall in and out of love. But the most serious plotline involves the announcement by Mr. Smith (the predictably autocratic but slightly addled family patriarch) that a job promotion will send all of them packing for a move to New York City. As Christmas 1903 approaches, seventeen-year-old Esther Smith (Garland) and the others are sadly preparing to leave their comfortable St. Louis life behind. That’s when Garland, with that characteristic quaver in her voice, croons to her sad little sister (Margaret O’Brien) the indelible “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

And what a little sister! I was surprised to see seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien billed in second position, just below Garland, but in many ways this tyke is the one who makes the movie sing. Her character is based on Sally Benson, who grew up to pen the nostalgic New Yorker stories that became the basis for this film. As portrayed in Meet Me in St. Louis, she’s an adorable scamp, one who delights in subjecting her dolls to grizzly fates, then stages funerals for them in the family’s garden. Her comic cakewalk duet with Garland is a delight. She also reminds us of a time when a little kid could safely roam the streets of her neighborhood, without interference from the older generation.  

 What sent me back to Meet Me in St. Louis (which is charming, but hardly the best movie musical to ever come off the MGM lot) is an “unprecedented” stage production by the Irish Repertory Theatre. This group normally presents dramatic works by Irish and Irish-American playwrights at their cozy playhouse in New York City. When the pandemic hit, they found a way to continue performing, by having the actors play their roles individually, from wherever they were quarantined, against a common specially-designed Zoom backdrop. In a play like Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, it looks as though all the characters are interacting in a tavern (most Irish plays seem to be set in taverns!), even though solo performances have actually been stitched together via clever editing techniques. The IRT’s Meet Me in St. Louis takes this one step further. Company head Charlotte Moore actually directed from St. Louis, where she has been quarantining with family. The actors may all seem to be singing “The Trolley Song” in unison, as they ride a tram toward the World’s Fair site, but in fact they have all recorded themselves separately on their cell phones. Common backgrounds make the illusion of togetherness almost seamless.

 Which makes an apt metaphor for this complicated season. In the words of Garland’s big song, “Through the years we all will be together/ If the fates allow . . . so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

 Here’s actress Melissa Errico’s recounting, in the New York Times, of what it was like to be part of this unique production. 

 Deepest thanks and holiday wishes to Beth Phillips, who got me hooked on the IRT’s very special work.


No comments:

Post a Comment