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BWW Interviews: DAVID ELDER Dances Up a Snowstorm in WHITE CHRISTMAS

Broadway is certainly full of them: those amazing performers dubbed as "triple threats"—those singer/dancer/actor-types that are just brimming with an abundance of extraordinary talent. David Elder rightly belongs in this revered group, and has proven the label quite a lot over the years, working steadily on the stage with an envious consistency.

His previous credits include the musicals Curtains, 42nd Street (receiving Outer Critics and Astaire Award nominations), Kiss Me Kate, Titanic, Once Upon A Mattress, Damn Yankees, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and Guys and Dolls starring Nathan Lane. He also played Joe Hardy opposite Jerry Lewis in the National Tour of Damn Yankees and starred as Timothy opposite Kristin Chenoweth in the Encores! production of Strike Up The Band.

For the holiday season, he's bringing his knack for entertaining audiences as one of the leads in the touring stage version of Irving Berlin's WHITE CHRISTMAS, which will close out 2011 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa with performances from December 13 through January 1, 2012. Before arriving with his merry cast in Orange County where they'll spend the remainder of the holidays, Elder chatted with BroadwayWorld's Michael Lawrence Quintos about his early interests, his path towards a fulfilling career in musical theater, and his tap-happy foray into Danny Kaye's shoes.

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Hi, David! You're starring as Phil Davis in the stage version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time. Is it much different from the movie?

David: Actually, our show is very similar to the movie. Though, there are a few omissions of songs that were in the movie that are not in the stage version, and vice-versa. They've put in some other Irving Berlin tunes in place of a few songs that were in the movie, just to give it some more pizazz. For instance, "I Love A Piano" opens Act 2—which is a number that was not in the movie. It's an eight-minute tap extravaganza, if you will. [Laughs] Yeah, it seems to be a real crowd-pleaser. They took out songs like this choreography number in the movie that Danny Kaye did. And there's this one called "Mandy" that Vera Ellen did. Neither of those two are in this new stage version. They're not really needed to tell the story.

Interesting. Now, you mentioned Danny Kaye, who famously played your very same role in the original movie. How difficult was it to make this well-known character your own?

Well... You know, it's just one of those age-old problems where you have all these great MGM movies with these big stars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby... and, you know, it's quite a challenge to try to live up to people's expectations of what we—all of us—carry around as almost iconic memories. So you kind of have to just let all of that go. I don't really resemble Danny Kaye at all... physically or, you know, in the looks department. So I sort of had to make it work for me.

The dialogue and the story that my character Phil Davis displays is more of like a ladies' man. You know, he flirts with all the girls and doesn't really want to settle down or think of himself as a "taken man." So, I don't know... I think that [personality] falls into something quite natural for me, to sort of just, you know, kind of be the ladies' man and play on that... as opposed to what Danny Kaye's brilliance was, certainly on camera, which was his ability to be goofy/comical and use lots of fun face-acting. He's a great second banana to someone who's more straight like Bing Crosby. I still try to capture all of that flavor, but yet, not in the same package.

So, to answer your original question... it was kind of daunting at first, and then you realize, "oh, okay, you just gotta do what you do well... and make that entertaining." And [this role] is really fun for me, because normally I get to play these sort of dashing, leading men, straight parts. Here in WHITE CHRISTMAS, I get a chance to dance my butt off and be this sort of comical second banana!

Speaking of which... together with your co-star Stephen Buntrock—who plays Bob Wallace—you make up the show's central comic duo. How's it been working with him ?

Absolutely unbelievable! This is his first go at the role this year. I've had the fortune of playing my role three times already—two in the version that we're doing right now and one more in a version I did in Philadelphia last year. Stephen was a little skeptical at first because he's never seen the movie and he knew that most of us in the cast have done the show at least once. And so on the first day of rehearsal, I said to him "Know what, buddy? Don't even think right now. For the next three days, just learn all the steps, have fun with the music, and, honestly, the role is just going to fall right into place for you. Don't even stress about all the acting in the scenes and the over-thinking of it all... 'cause right now, all that is just going to get in your way."

Did the advice work?

Yeah, I think once I told him that in the first hour of our rehearsal, he was, like, "this is going to be the most fun I've ever had in any show. Ever." [Laughs] I think it set the tone for both of us, and we've just gotten along like brothers. We've just had a blast from the minute we started.

Awesome! Now how long have you and this cast been in this go-round of the National Tour?

We started rehearsals in the middle of October. We had two weeks of rehearsals in the city, and then we've been on the road about five weeks now. We've played... I think we're now in our fifth city.

Great! You mentioned earlier that in this stage version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, you get to sing a lot more iconic Irving Berlin tunes. Is there a particular one in the show that you enjoy the most once you're in the middle of it?

Honestly, it has to be "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing." It's just such a great melody. I love singing it. It's the way the songs starts... it reminds me of all those MGM movies where you start out in a scene and then you start singing the verses of the song, and then you break into this huge MGM-type dance kind of situation a lá Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. So it kind of lives out that dream of mine of doing sort of all those three steps that I've watched them do forever in all those movies. That's really who I idolize. [Laughs] I feel like I fall right between a Fred Astaire and a Gene Kelly. They both speak to my sensibilities clearly. It's exactly what I want to do on stage: recreate what those movies made me feel.

That's great! You know, a lot of us that are about to see the show here in Orange County are really excited because we pretty much have this show in town for the rest of this month. I'm assuming Costa Mesa isn't exactly near your family... Is it hard being on the road during the holidays?

Well, generally, I think that can be hard. Because we have such a finite amount of time away from home, it's not nearly as bad. For instance, I did DAMN YANKEES for a year back in '97. By the time that nine months into the year was coming up, I was just kind of "cuckoo for cocoa puffs." [Laughs] I just really needed to go home, you know? I just really wanted to be back home, and that had nothing to say about how much fun I was having on the tour. I was having a blast! But for this—because we're away from home only a few months and it's a Christmas show—we're sort of just a big family, and we sort of get to celebrate it every day. It's kind of cool in that respect. My family is so used to me saying, "okay, so, Christmas in January again?" As a performer, we tend to always be performing around Christmas. So they'll all just plan a big weekend for me when I can come home in January. That way, it ends up working out a lot.

Well, good! At least you still get to celebrate the season with your family at home as well as your tour family.

Yeah! And, like I said, three-quarters of us in this cast have done this show together before, so we all love it. We all respect the piece a lot. We carry with us a lot of our characters and, therefore, it makes it feel authentic to our audiences somehow and with each other. It's the real deal. We don't take it lightly and we don't take it for granted. It's just a kind of rewarding piece to do.

...And quite nostalgic for that era, too.

I love that period—the 1950's. I think it's a very respectful period... the way men treated women and vice-versa... and the war aspect of it all... there's a lot of reverence in the show.

Looking over some of your past credits... Wow, you've amassed some really great shows! Any particular ones stand out for you as personal favorites?

Well, when I was growing up, my dream... I just wanted to stand in the front of that stage and belt my guts out. I just wanted to sing at the top of my lungs. And I finally got to do that with Jerry Lewis in DAMN YANKEES when we toured and I did it on Broadway as well. I played the role of Joe Hardy on the national tour. That was like a dream come true for those reasons.

But 42ND STREET on Broadway kind of culminated my career to a high point as Billy Lawlor, because I got to incorporate all of the different talents that I can do. I taught myself to tumble when I was young so I kind of kept that always in my back pocket.

Sounds like you're a born dancer, too!

I never really had formal dance training until I got to Opryland USA in Nashville, Tennessee. There they kind of said, "wow, you have all this facility... let us hone it and teach you." So when I finally did come to New York after Opryland, they really spotlighted my dancing abilities. The tumbling definitely helped in garnering some of those credits early on.

So it really helps if you're excellent at both in the world of musical theater.

It's just been kind of an interesting ride, because, you know, I would sing for them and they'd say "well, he should cover one of the leads!" and, of course, all I wanted to do was be one of the leads. [Laughs] But with the tumbling and the dancing together, it made me more valuable to them, you know, even in a dancer position. Well, at that point in my career, I was more like "get me in the door!" any way I can.

Is it fair then to deduce that even at a young age you knew that you were destined for this career?

Yeah, I guess I think there was a piece of me that thought that. But to be quite honest with you, I thought I was going to be Jimmy Connors. I was playing tennis every day of my life since my Freshman year in high school. I was on this huge traveling circuit that had me playing everywhere. Then when we moved from our house in Houston, Texas out to what I call "The Boondocks" towards Galveston, my new high school did not have a tennis team or anything. So it was kind of like I had to hang up the racket, literally, and simply focused on choir and school.

Then it became more and more true that I was going to go into singing somehow. Voice performance was my major in college. That was what I really wanted to do: be a singer! It just came so easily and naturally to me... it was just kind of weird that as a sidebar was that the tumbling and dancing that I would just sort of watch and copy and had absorbed like a sponge came in handy! That led me to be a dancer in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST—but I understudied the [role of the] Beast! It was, like, every show I got, was one step closer to what I ultimately really wanted to do, you know? I had that nice role in the musical TITANIC... the lookout, Frederick Fleet. That began some other opportunities like KISS ME KATE—but, then again, that was probably because of my tumbling!

It's just all kind of wild! For me, it has helped having all these talents in all these sort of different areas. It helps fill a job or a void in a show when available.

Well, it sounds like you've figured out your own recipe for creating a sustained career on the stage! You know, a lot of our readers on BroadwayWorld are young kids who dream of a successful career in the theater like yours. Any advice you'd like share with them about the business?

My advice for them, honestly, is... [Long Pause] You know, NYU would ask me to come talk to [their theater students] a lot. And... I kind of frustrate students because [my family] didn't have a lot of money. So the way I learned [musical theater] was to be a sponge and soak up every little thing that I saw and tried to make myself do it. They ask me early on, "can you learn this tap break?" or "can you learn how to clog?" And I'm, like, "I don't know... show me what it is..."

And literally, they would show it to me, would work on it, and, pretty quickly, I would have it! It's like making music to me. It's all about finding a way to make the music. Yet, deep down in my soul, it was what I really wanted to do. And, so, my advice to young people is to just love this business to the depths of your soul, and go for it! Literally do all you can to get better and better. Like, even when I'm singing, I would sing everywhere at the top of my lungs! Don't just hum to yourself. Know what you sound like singing in full voice wherever you go because you will learn how to manipulate your voice in true circumstances.

After WHITE CHRISTMAS ends its holiday run, what shows do you have coming up?

Well, I'm about to play Don Lockwood in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN in Wichita this coming summer! I did get to play that role at the Goodspeed Opera House up in Connecticut back in '08. I just loved that experience a lot and I can't wait to play the part again. I'm also doing [the Gershwin musical] MY ONE AND ONLY coming up this year as well... the Tommy Tune role. Oh, he's from Houston and I'm from Houston! It's a tap show so I think that's going to be a lot of fun!

I'm sure you get asked this a lot but, are there other dream roles from other musicals you'd like to perform someday?

I'm up for doing anything! I love it, but I tend to seem to get put in these period-type revival shows [that have] a Gene Kelly or a Fred Astaire part.

Any idea why that is?

Yeah, I think it's the triple-threat aspect. I think I look like a "normal" person—I can be a romantic lead and yet still do all of the necessary dance steps and sing the songs in, hopefully, the way you want to hear them, you know? [Laughs]

Awesome! Okay, so before I finish the interview, it's time for... THE LIGHTNING ROUND! I'll ask you some quick, short questions and all you have to do is give me the first thing that pops into your head. Is that okay?

Sure!

Cool. So, speaking of WHITE CHRISTMAS and the holidays, what can you say has been your best Christmas gift ever?

Uh, probably a black go-cart that I got when I was about seven. [Laughs]

Fun! What's the worst gift you've ever received?

A... [Long Pause] ten-year-old, used, Dean Koontz novel.

[Laughs] Yikes! What song do you like belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?

Ohmigod... um... probably "Goodbye, Old Girl" [from DAMN YANKEES].

Naturally! Okay, so what scares you the most?

Never working again.

Hmmm. It doesn't seem like you have that problem, which is good!

[Laughs]

What is your one guilty pleasure?

Probably my alone time.

Do you get much of that being on the road?

Not very much, really. Not with two-show days and the press we sort of have to do on the road playing this type of role. So we don't get as much as one thinks with just the one show at night. When you travel week to week, it doesn't feel like you have much time to yourself. Oh! And I have to say Chicken Fried Steak is another one of my guilty pleasures.

Cool. What do you like doing on your day off?

Again, like I said, I just like to sleep in and then have a whole pot of coffee. I have a house in Upstate New York and I just love mowing the grass... which is usually where I am on my day off. I love mowing the grass and being outside in the mountains... because everything else is just so... city, you know, with doing eight shows a week. I like to kind of get away from it all.

What or Who irritates you the most?

Ohmigod... spatial unawareness! Especially in the city when you're walking down the street and [people] are not paying attention, holding up the traffic from moving. That has to be my biggest pet peeve!

And the opposite of that... What instantly puts a smile on your face?

Um... smiles! People who smile back at me!

If you weren't an actor, what other career do you see yourself doing?

Well, I thought I was going to be a CPA, when I was growing up. Numbers came so easily for me and I was winning all kinds of math awards, but... oh, or an architect.

Nice. Alright, one last question... what has been your absolute favorite moment of this cycle of the WHITE CHRISTMAS tour so far?

Probably Opening Night in Fort Worth. I had lots of friends and family there, and so during the bows, it just... exploded at the end! It really resonated because it's how I feel about this show. I think this show brings everybody together and it's something to be celebrated!


Follow Michael Lawrence Quintos on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from the National Tour of WHITE CHRISTMAS: THE MUSICAL courtesy of Carder Photography. From top: Elder (left) and Stephen Buntrock; Shannon M. O’Bryan (left) and Elder. Photo of Elder from the closing night of 42ND STREET by Linda Lenzi.

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Performances of WHITE CHRISTMAS at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts continue through January 1, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, December 24 will be sign-language interpreted. **There is a performance on Monday, December 26 at 7:30 p.m. but NO PERFORMANCE on Sunday, December 25.**

Segerstrom Center for the Arts is offering a 25% military discount to performances of the popular holiday musical. Ticket prices start at $15 and can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am).

Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For more information, please visit SCFTA.org.

Regional Awards


From This Author - Michael L. Quintos

A So. Cal. Contributing Editor since 2009, Michael Lawrence Quintos is a talented, mild-mannered Designer by day. But as night falls, he regularly performs on various stages everywhere as a Counter... (read more about this author)


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