Broadway Leading Man David Elder Has a WHITE CHRISTMAS Homecoming in Nashville
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by Jeffrey Ellis
For David Elder, making the trip to Nashville to star in the national touring company of Irving Berlin's White Christmas-the stage musical based on the holiday film favorite-is a homecoming of sorts. For it was in Music City that the talented young man from Texas first set off on his circuitous route to stardom.
Like so many other musical theater stars just like him-Kristin Chenoweth, John Barrowman and Jason Daniely come to mind-Elder got his start in show business at Nashville's late and lamented Opryland USA, the nation's preeminent performing arts theme park, which provided a fertile training ground for performers during its laudable history of providing top-flight stage shows and thrilling rides for people from all over the world.
"Just before coming to Nashville, I did my first professional job after college in Texas," Elder recalls. "One of the boys in the show was from Tennessee and he suggested we audition for Opryland. When you're so young, you go toward anything that seems promising. Leaving home after three years of vocal performance training, I landed in Nashville, cast as a singing tumbler at Opryland USA."
The young, handsome and promising Elder came to Tennessee with scarcely any dance training, having taught himself to tumble "because it was just something I wanted to do…I thought if I lived through the first try, I figured I could do it."
Arriving at Opryland USA, it became clear, Elder remembers that theme park powers-that-be "had designs on teaching me how to dance."
Among his first friends at the theme park was Denice Childs McGrath, then an assistant choreographer for the park's stage shows. In short order, the two became "best buds": "She took me to my first ballet class and into the rehearsal halls, showing me the things I needed to know, telling me what they were called…my initial learning period was a case of me just copying what I saw the real dancers doing," he says.
"My parents didn't have the wherewithal to take me to dance class when I was growing up, so the folks at Opryland gave me a vocabulary and the skills came not super easily, but rather easily I guess, and I had a passion that allowed me to learn quickly."
As a result, Nashville might be considered one of David Elder's hometowns. Even after eight shows on Broadway and all the opportunities he's had in the intervening years since he left Opryland, he remembers his theme park years as among "the most fun I ever had…when you're a kid you're hungering for that type of stuff…all the singing, all the dancing in three to four shows a day."
And while the national touring company settles into its eight-show run at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Elder will be staying with his old friend Denise, just like old times.
"Opryland was the premiere show park in the country," he explains. "I was there in 1987, '88 and '89, performing in Way Out West and Music, Music, Music, starring Brenda Lee. She was fantastic, such a lovely woman, and by the third year I was a full-fledged dancer in the eyes of everyone at Opryland. They had taken me under their wings, we did all the Miss Tennessee Pageants, they had turned me into a dancer and had made me into that triple threat that I needed to be if I was going to make it on Broadway."
His first show on Broadway was the Tony Award-winning revival of Guys and Dolls (starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Peter Gallagher and Jozie de Guzman), but he credits his stint in Damn Yankees-opposite Jerry Lewis' Mr. Applegate, on tour in 1997 that brought him to the expansive Andrew Jackson Hall stage-as the first show that made him realize that, perhaps, he'd found a career in musical theatre.
"Playing Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees has a place in my heart," he confides. "Playing opposite Jerry Lewis as Mr. Applegate, I had a wonderful year."
So it was his affection for Lewis, as well as all his Nashville pals, that prompted Elder to come to town this past summer to see The Nutty Professor, the new musical directed by the so-called "king of comedy" that had its world premiere at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre in August. "I thought the show was great and mounting it here was a great opportunity for Nashville," he says. "I hope it gets the chance to play Broadway because that's where it belongs."
Insofar as White Christmas is concerned, Elder has been involved in the show since 2008 during its first season of performances and he's done some version of the musical, which features a sterling score by Irving Berlin and is based on the much-loved classic holiday film, on an annual basis ever since.
In Detroit a few years back, Elder co-starred with James Clow (with whom he co-stars in this year's national tour) and both men have been involved in various incarnations of the show over the years.
"But what does it mean to us now?" Elder asks, somewhat rhetorically. "It's challenging in a way, as little things get changed, we ask ourselves what does the show and its story mean to us now? I did the first national tour in 2009 and it was the same Walter Bobbie/Randy Skinner show. Then in 2010, I did it for Mark Robin at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It featured new choreography and new staging as he was trying to bring something new to the material."
Through the years-and through all the changes that occur naturally in the lifetime of a musical theater favorite-it's become apparent to Elder that "it's nice to know the story, the book, still holds even with new choreography."
And somehow the appeal of White Christmas and its tuneful score that features a bounty of Berlin's best-loved songs-in addition to the title tune, there's "Sisters," "Happy Holidays" and the iconic "Blue Skies"-remains constant, with audiences all over the country reveling in the show's charm and sense of familiarity.
"For me personally there is definitely familiarity," Elder says. "And for those people who love the movie, who want to relive that experience, the feeling that the movie gives them-they want to go back to a show that made them feel all warm and fuzzy."
"We have the power to make life feel like a Norman Rockwell painting," he suggests. "I live every day of my life like that. I still feel that basic sense of love and family, all of what you think life can be really can happen. White Christmas brings us back to that simplicity of two people loving each other and everyone jumping on board with that notion, and not a single negative thing happens. I want to believe in happy endings."