You’ll Go Down in History…
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
A cheerful snowman named Sam glides onto a television screen, warbles out the lyrics from a beloved holiday tune, and a yuletide tradition is born. I can’t remember a Christmas without the animated Rudolph playing somewhere in the background. For me, the shiny-nosed reindeer and Santa have always gone hand in hand with Yukon Cornelius, the Abominable Snowman, and the Island of Misfit Toys. And every time I meet a dentist, I can’t help but wonder if they’re secretly an elf named Hermey.
Rudolph is a holiday icon, a nostalgic emblem. Like Cher or Madonna he needs only one name to be known (to be fair, he only has one name, but still). Let’s face it: Rudolph is…a legend. Legends are seldom born legends (unless you’re John Legend, and then you’ve got a leg up on the competition). They’re often created through necessity, evolving through time and circumstance and enduring through adversity.
This weekend, Rudolph the flies into Shea’s Buffalo Theatre with all the characters we know and love. It’s a musical made from an animated movie made from a song made from a book made from a poem. Like all good legends, Rudolph’s journey has intrigue, conflict, heartbreak, hope, and puppets. Okay, maybe they don’t all have puppets, but they should. As we prance into the weekend, let’s hit rewind for a brief history of the legend of Rudolph, as told in reverse:
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical premiered in 2014, adapted from the classic 1964 Christmas special, which featured a script by Romeo Muller and designs by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and his staff of artists.
Rudolph would be Rankin’s first foray into what would become his trademark animation style: “Animagic.” Rankin first created storyboards from Muller’s script and then hired experienced actors to voice the characters. (This included Billie May Richards, a 40-year-old woman, as the voice of Rudolph. Richards would be used several times to characterize young male characters.) From there, the designs were sent to Japan, where veteran animator Tadahito Mochinaga oversaw production of the puppets that would be used to create the stop motion film.
Muller’s script built on the 1949 holiday song written by Johnny Marks, incorporating many of the characters and storylines that we associate with Rudolph’s story. The Island of Misfit Toys is an understandable place: a home for those trying to find their place in the world surrounded by others who face similar challenges. Rudolph and Hermey and the rest endear and endure because they show us a way out (literally, in the case of Rudolph’s guiding nose) by making the choice to embrace their unique qualities and take action. For generations of misfit toys, it’s inspiring to see what can be accomplished despite the obstacles.
Marks’ song in turn was adapted from the 1939 book by his brother-in-law Robert L. May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. Although his version didn’t include Hermey or the Abominable Snowman or Yukon, May’s story of an outsider who succeeds not despite of his differences but because of them set the tone for the later version. May’s Rudolph was born through adversity, including the death of his wife in the summer of 1939. Writing the story became a lifeline for the widower and now single father who channeled some of his own childhood as an awkward and uncoordinated kid.
May’s original story of the red-nosed reindeer, however, harkened back to the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—more commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Known for establishing the version of Santa Claus that we know today (jolly and plump), the poem also first named the reindeer team that leads Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blixen. Although Rudolph wasn’t part of this original team, his dad was. Donder (or Donner, depending on where you fall in the great articulation debate) is the young Rudy’s patriarch in later versions, which means flying is in his genes. So, you could say that the poet who penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is the father (or grandfather…or great-grandfather) of Rudolph. Who, then, can we thank for our holiday cheer? That would be Clement Clark Moore, unless it’s Henry Livingston, Jr. First published anonymously, both men would claim credit for the narrative, and today the jury’s still out.
Mysterious origins? Check. Inspiring hero? Check. Entertaining sidekick? Check. Great costumes, flying, and a catchy theme song? Check, check, check. (no qualifiers necessary) has it all. And that’s how you create a legend.