Shop n’Sing

Every year about this time, I look forward to my annual pilgrimage uptown to see the department store Christmas windows. To me, it is a spiritual rebirth, a reassuring beacon of the unchanging nature of the world, no less than the birds returning in the spring or the leaves turning in the fall. No matter that these trips usually end with me near tears, wretched with the disappointment that another year has passed and I am still overwhelmed by crippling shallowness, and resentful self-pity—WHY CAN’T I HAVE IT?!?!?? WHY!? WHY!?

Never mind. Christmas has come again. It is time to buy. It is time to be cheerful. Should one be at home in the Midwest, it is time to wish gentiles a merry Christmas too loudly and too frequently, lest they suspect that your house is as free of light and cheer as an inner-city school cafeteria. Was Ebenezer Scrooge Jewish? Adam Sandler says no, but one thing is for sure; Fagin was.

So I was uptown yesterday, lunching at my aunt’s apartment. It was mild, and I felt overstuffed and in need of exercise, so I decided to face the tortuous holiday crowds at Macy’s and Bloomie’s and all the other stores we identify as brands to check out their offerings this season. Perhaps this is obvious—I have come very late to social consciousness—but was Christmas always so blindingly commercial? There is not a department store window in Manhattan that does not have a corporate tie-in—either plugging a current movie, an obnoxious magazine, or in the case of Lord and Taylor’s, the U.S. Post Office (?). Excuse me, the history of the post office. Mail in America—now there’s a rich subject for you. Mail through the ages. The windows are lined with sinister little people in period costume receiving tiny packages as they sway futilely back and forth. I pity audio-animatronic figures like these and the ones in Disney World because their anxiety is never relieved. The fretting mother will never actually receive the letter that her son’s ship has arrived safely in the New World, but will raise her hand to her forehead, her hand to her forehead in aggrieved desperation until she short-circuits. The red-headed boy in knickers will never find his missing ice-skate, but is condemned to search and search on his circuitous route for all eternity. “It’s the dog, Rusty!” I want to shout. “That stupid dog’s got it in his mouth! Get off your mechanical track and get it, or we can’t have Christmas!”

Why, oh why, is every movie that has Tom Hanks in it deemed an instant family classic? Is it not enough that “The Polar Express,” my least favorite book from childhood has been made into a ubiquitous film, must it also fill the windows at Macy’s as we try to buy a pasta dish? The answer, I suppose, is yes, of course it must. This is America, after all. We are Tom Hanks and He is us. Tom Hanks is our best self—our worst… well…who wants to see an Antonin Scalia themed Christmas window? One might never shop again.

Of course, I couldn’t help but imagine a few Christmas windows of my own—displays without corporate tie-ins but nevertheless, long on entertainment value. A Children’s Crusade series, for example, in which God’s bravest little soldiers march courageously through France, winnowed by the Plague and starvation, through Central Europe, and in the name of the real, if rather cruelest meaning of Christmas, are sold into slavery by the very people who brought them there, the babies roasted alive on spits and eaten by hungry Visigoths. Perhaps a “Children of the Sub-Sahara” window, where dark children lie languishing in filthy AIDS hospices, riddled with sores and too weak to move, until the American Santa comes and…nothing! Merry Christmas! Or most subversive of all, a Chanukah window! Hah! Imagine that! A Chanukah window! What a hoot!

But making up for it all was Bloomingdale’s, its festooned windows advertising…yes. Yes. Joel Schumacher’s film of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Phantom of the Opera.” OH YEAH.

Listen. I don’t care how fancy and post-modernist you are or if you’re a dance-theater choreographer or do video art and performative installations or something, but if you’re working in theater today and you’re anywhere near your twenties, than you know every single song of “The Phantom of the Opera” and if you say differently, you’re lying. I stood transfixed in front of the biggest window, where the chandelier of the Paris Opera crashed to the floor over and over again.“The Music of the Night” assaulted my ears and I thought for a moment, I was going to cry. I was transported, back to the laborious games my sister and I would play, acting out our favorite musical exchanges in “Phantom.” I would be Christine, in my dressing room after my brilliant performance, frightened, pale, and very, very, beautiful, except for the brief moment when I was obliged to break character in order to pull the Phantom, a free-standing hat-stand dressed in my father’s Davenport College scarf and a full-head rubber Albert Einstein mask, out of the closet. I begged my parent’s for a I.V. stand—if the Phantom could roll out, guided by a string, I wouldn’t have to stop being Christine even for a moment, and could instead work on mastering her tricky colortura vocal work in that section, but my mother said, “Where the fuck am I supposed to get an I.V. stand from? Target?” and that was the end of that. My sister would be Meg.

“I’m always Meg,” she would whine unattractively. “Why do I always have to be Meg?”

“Because,” I would say to my four-year-old sister, with the withering condescension of eight-year-olds and the people who run temp agencies. “You’re an ALTO.”

Years later, at drama school, I would look up from the floor, where I was trying to feel my liver move, at the flamboyant, brightly-colored, inarguably talented musical theater kids with a painful mixture of pity and envy—“there but for the grace of God…” and “if I had only been a slightly better dancer…”—before I would return to my world of speaking in a normal register and trying to feel.

I’m not much of a feeler.

But Christmas demands it of us—demands that we feel, even if all we feel is envy, exhaustion, and broke. Christmas demands we look back to the Christmases (or lack thereof) before and see where we’ve been, who we are now, and how we got to be that way. Of course, so does New Year’s, Rosh Hashanah, birthdays, graduations, and Veteran’s Day. The difference, of course, is the shopping.

Culturebot Question: So before you knew better, when you were just a little drama duckling, what musicals did you act out/learn all the words to/torture your family with? Don’t be embarrassed. Let us know! Give us stories! And when we’re done, we’ll take all the songs and make a Culturebot Musical Theater Holiday Revue! Just kidding! But let us know anyway.

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