Santa Claus is working overtime this year by delivering all those toys and performing eight shows a week! Well, not quite, but Broadway audiences can catch TV icon George Wendt take on the bearded toymaker in the new holiday musical, Elf. The festive show marks a return to the Great White Way for Wendt, who starred on Broadway in Art and Hairspray and toured in 12 Angry Men, after an 11-year run as barfly Norm on the hit TV series Cheers. Broadway.com chatted with Wendt about playing the beloved Christmas figure, dressing up in Edna Turnblad's glitzy gowns and "shooting the shit" with Michael Jackson.
What’s the key to playing Santa Claus in a way that’s different from your average mall Santa?
Honestly, I’m a shallow performer. I just go with the text and feel my way around it. There’s not a whole lot of shaping. The writers informed me every day with new bits, new lines, but it’s pretty straightforward. It’s Santa as a real guy. He brings bliss and delivers the toys the elves make, but at the end of the day he would love to just sit in front of the TV, have a cheeseburger and watch some football.
This isn’t your first time playing Santa, right?
There was the Larry the Cable Guy Christmas special, The Colbert Report special, the TV movie Santa Baby with Jenny McCarthy and the Disney movie Santa Paws. They’re all different. The Colbert Santa was completely off the wall. In the Larry the Cable Guy show, Santa was getting roasted by Jeff Ross and Lisa Lampanelli. They were just tearing me a new one [laughs]. The movies were pretty straightforward, though.
What made you want to play Santa yet again?
I got the offer to do the first reading of Elf about two years ago and I’d never really been aboard a project from the get-go, so I was flattered. It’s been a real treat to be part of an original Broadway musical from the inception. It was a privilege to just be in the room and see [director Casey Nicholaw] work with the cast. It’s like being a fly on the wall of something that’s probably a mystery to the rest of the world.
Had you seen the movie?
I had not, but I’d seen bits of it channel-surfing. Will Ferrell is amazing and [director] Jon Favreau is one of the fanciest directors out there now. I knew him back in Chicago when he was scuffling trying to get on to Second City. I should try to get in touch with him about this [musical], but he wasn’t really involved.
Do you have any favorite movie Santas?
Edmund Gwenn [from Miracle on 34th Street]. I also love the image of the Coca-Cola Santa. Most of the holiday movies I enjoy, like It’s a Wonderful Life, don’t really involve Santa.
I see you’re clean-shaven today. You wear a stage beard in the show?
Yeah, Josh Marquette designed the wigs and beard, and they’re amazing and look great. It’s ridiculously easy to put on compared to the movie process where they lay the beard on hair by hair, which takes a couple of hours. I found that profoundly annoying, so this is incredibly easy in comparison.
Is the Santa suit comfortable?
There’s two. The one I spend most the show in is really comfortable, but then there’s a scene where I’m doing my rounds and [the suit] is very heavy and quite warm. It has standard white trim, but the costume is [costume designer] Gregg Barnes unchained; it's over-the-top Santaness. He’s brilliantly inventive, so it’s a very fabulous Santa Claus.
You donned a dress as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Is it easier to hop into Santa’s suit or Edna’s colorful outfits?
The Santa suit is a little easier. Getting all done up and painted up is not my cup of tea. I prefer shows like 12 Angry Men where we just walked out on stage with no makeup at all and no crazy outfits. Hairspray was easy in its own way; you just stand there and all these people work on you. The piece brought such joy to audiences, so I really enjoyed that part of it.
Have you enjoyed working with Sebastian Arcelus as Buddy the Elf?
It’s great fun. Sebastian is very smart and funny and has made good choices for the character up and down the map. It’s a brutal role so thank god he’s a big, strong, fit guy, because I can’t imagine having to take all that on. It’s a big-ass role.
Cheers vets Bebe Neuwirth and Kelsey Grammer are on Broadway in The Addams Family and La Cage aux Folles. Have you guys had any bar reunions?
Not yet. We’re all crazy busy so I’ve been lying low, but I’ll be haunting some places shortly.
Do Cheers fans still shout "Norm!" when they see you?
I don’t get shouted at much, but yeah, there’s always people giving me good wishes and remembering the show. Very early on, I decided if I was going to let that make me crazy I’d be certifiable in a short time, so I sort of roll with it. If you embrace it for the very short minute it takes, it’s fine. If I were to try to hide and tell someone to shut up, that takes more effort than to just tell whoever I’m with to hang on a second while I say howdy-do. People get bored with me quickly and we all move on.
I love the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” in which you played Macaulay Culkin’s father. What are you memories of filming that?
It was fun. It was like any other movie shoot, in a way, with beastly hours. Michael Jackson was onboard and he was a very energetic and fun guy. He was totally cool and surprisingly very approachable and seemed like a regular guy. Have you ever seen Fred Armisen’s parody of Prince on Saturday Night Live where he always whispers to Beyonce? I kind of thought he’d be like that, but he would say "Hey, how are you," give big hugs and stand with his arm around with you, shooting the shit.
Speaking of Saturday Night Live, your nephew Jason Sudeikis is a current standout cast member.
Yeah he’s my sister’s son. I’ve watched him since he was a little boy. I watched him do his improv stuff in Kansas City then he went to Chicago and got onboard with Second City. He’s always been great. I really love when he and Will Forte would do [the parody band] Jon Bovi and the ESPN announcers where Forte is just dense as wood and Jason has to keep covering for him.
What’s next for you after Elf ends its holiday run?
I’ll be doing a workshop of a new musical in Los Angeles based on the cult movie Re-Animator. It’s written and directed by Stuart Gordon, who directed the movie. We’ve done a couple readings already and it’s a cool project. I really hope it moves forward.
See George Wendt in Elf at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.