Irving Berlins Yule music plays again &mdash on S.F. stage

Where would Christmas be without the Jews?

Not only was Jesus himself Jewish, but Rudolph has Jewish origins as well. Or at least the song does.

Don’t tell those Yuletide carolers down the street, but Jews wrote many of the most popular songs of the season, from “Let It Snow” (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne) to “The Christmas Song” (Mel Torme) and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Johnny Marks). And then there’s the all-time No. 1 holiday hit, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”

The 1954 film of the same name (which starred Bing Crosby and the Jewish Danny Kaye) is a perennial favorite, almost as popular as “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Though Berlin, the Belarus-born son of a cantor, is one of the fathers of the American musical, “White Christmas” remained only a celluloid relic. Until now.

A new musical version of “White Christmas” is currently in its West Coast premiere run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, as part of the Best of Broadway series.

And in keeping with the tradition of Jewish involvement with the holiday, “White Christmas” was conceived and produced by Jewish stage director/producer Paul Blake.

Drawing on the movie’s simple story line (two ex-GIs team up to form a song-and-dance act; romance and merriment ensue), Blake took some liberties with the plot of the film, itself an adaptation of the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn.”

“Most movie musicals translated to live theater are disasters because they try to put the movie on stage,” says Blake. “I kept all the iconic moments, then tried to create something that was not cinematic but theatrical. I wrote a whole new show, but you think you’re seeing the movie.”

Blake started working on the show five years ago. Then, as now, he served as executive director of the Muny, a 12,000-seat theater in St. Louis. With “White Christmas” showing up as a movie favorite in poll after poll, Blake got the idea to turn it into a stage show.

“Irving Berlin had three daughters,” he says, “and they control his estate. I had to get their approval and the rights from Paramount.”

Blake worked on the show over several years. All the songs from the movie are included as well as other Berlin tunes, one of which, “Love and the Weather,” had never been performed. “I didn’t want to do the Irving Berlin hit parade,” adds Blake. “It’s like having too much chocolate.”

Eventually, Blake turned to Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum (“Rent,” “Ave Q”), two top Broadway producers. Together they put the finishing touches on a show even the Berlin daughters loved. After a world premiere at the Muny, Blake and his creative team brought the show to San Francisco for its first extensive out-of-town run.

Blake is well aware of the Jewish/Christmas connection, and he chalks it up to the central role Jews have played in American entertainment history.

He happened to grow up in a non-observant household in a predominantly Jewish Bronx neighborhood. “I didn’t know what people were talking about with anti-Semitism,” he recalls. “Everyone was like me. In New York, on Jewish holidays the schools closed down.”

A lifelong love of theater paid off when he got a job in the Catskills. Through his connection with theater there, he found a connection with Judaism. “The theater has so many Jews,” he says. “There’s an instant recognition of landsman with fellow Jews. Out of that I saw myself as a Jew in the world.”

Blake went on to a distinguished career in the theater including a lengthy tenure at ACT in San Francisco Says Blake, “San Francisco is one of the greatest theater towns in the country and has always been lucky for me.”

Which probably explains why he decided to bring “White Christmas” here.

But for Jews who may feel a bit uneasy about attending a musical about that other winter holiday, Blake has a bit of advice.

“Go,” he says. “Don’t be stupid. There’s nothing in the show that would offend anyone of any faith, unless they don’t like good theater.”

“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: the Musical” is now playing 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, with 2 p.m. weekend matinees and some 7:30 p.m. Sunday shows, now through Dec. 26, at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, S.F. Tickets: $30-$85. Information: (415) 551-2000 or www.bestofbroadway-sf.com/whitexmas.html.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.