BWW Interviews: Chatting With the Holiday Guys, Marc Kudisch & Jeffry Denman!

Two of Broadway's most endearing musical leading men, Marc Kudisch and Jeffry Denman, have teamed up for a seasonal engagement at off-Broadway's York Theatre Company, The Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas. It would be easiest to call it a holiday revue. But also inaccurate. Perhaps a cabaret cum fireside chat cum holiday free-for-all might be more accurate. Oh yes, The Holiday Guys features singing of Christmas carols, as well as songs from your favorite Christmas TV shows (but in unique new renditions). There's also--naturally, with Denman present--tap dancing. Kazoos and a ukulele. A medley transposing a Hanukkah tune in Hebrew with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." One of the guys in pajamas. A stage littered with holiday tchotchkes. And guest stars--a different one each night, drawn from the likes of Tyne Daly, Bobby Steggert and Carson Kressley.

picDenman (left), who choreographed and performed in York's acclaimed 2010 musical Yank!, was the longtime star of the stage production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas as it made its way to Broadway in 2008 via four years of regional productions. Kudisch (below) is a Tony nominee for 9 to 5, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Both these Holiday Guys' gals are also musical-theater performers: Erin Denman played Lola in Damn Yankees at the Ogunquit Playhouse last summer and has performed with her husband in White Christmas; Kudisch's wife, Shannon Lewis, is currently appearing on Broadway in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

picThe Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas was presented earlier this month at Monmouth University in New Jersey, Buffalo's MusicalFare Theatre and the Signature Theatre outside Washington, D.C., and is running at the York through December 31, including a special late performance on New Year's Eve. We chatted with Kudisch and Denman backstage the day after their first performance in New York.

How did you two become the Holiday Guys?
Well, 2008 Christmas was when you were having your ride up to Greenwood Lake...
MARC My wife and I have this little house in Greenwood Lake--Jeff's been up there, it's lovely. I was driving up on my own, and because I'm Jewish, I was listening to Christmas music. I love it, I really, really love it. I was in the car listening to, I don't know who it was, probably Barenaked Ladies, and I called our friend Scott Siegel. Jeff and I have done a lot of concert work for Broadway by the Year [a series of concerts produced by Siegel at the Town Hall]--that's how we started working together. And I said to Scott, "We've gotta do a Christmas show. This is too much fun: I'm in my car driving and having the best time. We can give that to an audience. I'm gonna call Jeff, Jeff will do it." I called Jeff: "Dude, let's put together a Christmas concert. It'll be awesome!" "Great." Scott: "Great." Goes to Town Hall; Town Hall: "Sounds great." We're gonna get all of our friends--all the people that have been in Broadway by the Year--it's going to be a gift back to the audience for all these years, make it feel real homey, talking to them and not just singing at them... Everyone was in, they loved the idea of it--the simple idea, of essentially giving back. And then we hit all the red tape. And all the "It has to be this, it has to be that, it needs to have this, blah blah blah..."
JEFFRY One of them was that it needed celebrities, it needed high-powered names to sell it. Which we didn't believe, because we saw the audiences that were coming to Broadway by the Year.
MARC We were like, "That's not the point. That's not the point of why we're doing this." It was kind of like those years on the Tony Awards when everyone they showed on television had nothing to do with the Tony Awards. That was the feel we were getting. It was like, "Why are you looking over here when it's right in front of your face?"
JEFFRY I don't think they understood what the kernel of the idea was. I think they thought it was just another Broadway by the Year, with a Christmas tag on it. So what ended up happening is that, based on Marc's first instinct, we started to create something that was wholly different, that was not a show. It was an experience, it was a variety entertainment, it was a conversation with the audience, it was putting as much importance on them as what was going on on stage. That was something we didn't see being produced anywhere. I think we spent about an hour and a half at John's Pizzeria on 44th Street; we had a tablet, and we said, "Okay, what are we going to do?" We came up with about 18 "events," as we called them. And that was the beginning.
MARC It was like a happy accident, I have to say. It's a well-structured evening of spontaneity.

picIs your show inspired by, or an homage to, those specials and variety shows on TV that don't exist anymore?
I don't think that we sat at home and watched them and researched them. I remember them from my childhood, so they're back there somewhere. And then when we started doing it, I think that those things just came out of us. Those specials are locking into something--or, actually, unlocking something that's very truthful: that people like to be social. And there are hosts, and there are guests. There are people who love being hosts; you saw that with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope...those guys loved being hosts. The Smothers Brothers too. We happen to be two guys who like to be hosts, and we love to have guests.
MARC Carol Burnett, as well as Jonathan Winters...I was influenced deeply by their comedy, their sense of humor. One of the funniest guys I've ever seen--no one can make me laugh as hard--is Burt Reynolds. People forget how funny that man is. Jonathan Winters' show was an improvisational show, and he would have Burt Reynolds on all the time, and those two would just go. It allowed you to see people's real creativity, but it also gave you the opportunity to get closer. Anytime you watched The Carol Burnett Show, you always felt like you knew 'em. Shows like Laugh In--people were having fun, and they were drinking on camera. It was a party! I don't know that we set out for that; I do think, however, that we were influenced by that. It was other people that saw it in us...I remember the first time someone compared us to a modern-day Smothers Brothers. We'd never thought about that! But, yeah, that makes sense, because we're doing something that hasn't been done that way for a while.

Jeffry did White Christmas for many years. Marc, do you have any experience in holiday shows?
The only holiday show I've ever done in my life was when I was in high school and my first year or two of college, I was the butler in the foyer for Campus Life Haunted House in south Florida. Let me tell you something, that was an awesome job. It was one of the coolest haunted houses you ever saw.
JEFFRY He approached me right after White Christmas hit Broadway, and I think my first reaction was "I've been doing White Christmas for five years. I don't want to be handcuffed into the 'holly jolly' kind of thing..." And he was like, "No, no, no! It's not going to be that. It's going to be all the fun things about the holidays and none of the commercial."
MARC White Christmas, Grinch, Christmas Story...perhaps they're bigger than they need to be. I think people see dollar signs, and so it goes bigger, bigger, bigger. We wanted to be the antithesis of that. Hence, two dudes in La-Z-Boy kind of chairs hanging around a fake fireplace. You're going to leave your living room to come to ours. There's nothing precious to what we're doing. And everyone's included.

picJeffry, what has Marc taught you about Hanukkah?
I never knew anything about the Maccabees. I knew there was a menorah and there were lights and there was oil that lasted. I didn't know there was, like, an action movie behind it--the Maccabees kicking ass.
MARC I'm pretty good with Christmas, too.

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Adrienne Onofri Adrienne Onofri has been writing for BroadwayWorld since it was launched in 2003. She is a member of the Drama Desk and has moderated panels with theater artists on such topics as women playwrights and directors, mission-oriented theater companies and backstage plays. Adrienne is also an editor as well as a travel writer and licensed NYC tour guide. She is the author of two books, "Walking Queens: 30 Tours for Discovering the Diverse Communities, Historic Places, and Natural Treasures of New York City's Largest Borough" and "Walking Brooklyn: 30 Tours Exploring Historical Legacies, Neighborhood Culture, Side Streets, and Waterways."