NEW YORK - The Christmas season usually means a visit to see Santa.
On Broadway this year, that means a trip to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre
to see George Wendt.
The former “Cheers” dude-at-the-bar Norm
Peterson is playing Mr. Claus in the musical “Elf,” a role in which
he's become somewhat of a specialist, having played jolly old St. Nick
four times in the past few years.
“I think it just proves that
if you stay fat enough and get old enough, the offers start rolling
in,” says the 62-year-old actor in his dressing room after a recent
performance. His Santa suit was hung with care - in a closet.
has donned that red outfit in the TV movies “Santa Baby” with Jenny
McCarthy in 2006, and last year's doggie Disney video “Santa Buddies.”
He's also played Father Christmas for TV specials by Larry the Cable
Guy and Stephen Colbert.
This time, Wendt combines the
characters played in the movie “Elf” by Bob Newhart and Ed Asner. As
Santa, he appears in only a few scenes and sets an easy tone right at
the opening of Act 1, sitting in an easy chair with a pitcher of eggnog
and a bowl of Doritos, watching college football on TV.
Santa was kind of perfect,” he says. “Much of my life is trying to
create a little space in front of the television to watch a football
game and eat a cheeseburger. It seems that's all Santa really wants to
Later, Wendt keeps the comedy rolling. At one point, he helps Buddy the elf, played by Sebastian Arcelus, leave Christmastown:
“Just keep heading due south until you find yourself in a big, smelly, industrial wasteland,” Wendt says
“And that's New York?” asks Buddy.
“No, that's New Jersey,” deadpans Santa.
is no stranger to the stage: He slipped on Edna Turnblad's housecoat in
Broadway's “Hairspray” beginning in 2007, and was in the Tony
Award-winning play “Art” in New York and London; he starred in the
national tour of “12 Angry Men”; and appeared in a production of David
Mamet's “Lakeboat.” But this time, he gets to originate a role for the
first time on Broadway, a regular-guy Santa.
“People can just
associate with him going through the trials and tribulations of life
and making them comedic. He brings the same qualities as Santa, and
makes Santa a human being,” says Warner Brothers Theater Ventures
executive vice-president Gregg Maday. “Plus he has the girth.”
who spent six years in Chicago's renowned Second City improv troupe,
joins a long list of former “Cheers” alums on Broadway, including
Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth and Rhea Perlman.
“I think comedy
is my long suit, for sure. My approach to comedy is usually not
full-bore clownish,” he says. “If you're trying to showboat or step
outside, it doesn't always work. There are certain performers who
almost specialize in doing that and they do it really well. But that's
not my approach.”
He says he's open to the idea of reprising his
Santa role if “Elf” ever returns to New York or tours the nation next
Christmas. He admits it's a pretty good gig for a guy not known for his
high kicking or vocal ability.
“It's like all of a sudden
musical theatre is my life. But I don't sing and I don't dance,” he
says. “I do, however, do what I'm told. So if they ask me to sing it
reasonably, I do so and if they ask me to move in a way that somehow
approximates dance, I do so.”
And with that, Wendt is off. To a
bar, of all places - an Irish pub downtown to see nieces. And for the
record, Santa didn't take a sleigh. He got into a limo.