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Behind the scenes of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Written by
Tolly Wright

It's been a good week for Christmas in New York: The tree has arrived at Rockefeller Center, the first holiday window display was unveiled today and the 82nd annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular opens tomorrow! We caught up with director and choreographer Julie Branam about the show—and trust us, the staging takes a miracle on 50th Street.

There are 250 people working on the production—including prop, set and costume crews and two giant rotating casts of dancers, actors, live animals and, of course, Santa. The 80 Rockettes are separated into two different companies. Branam, who was a Rockette for 14 years before becoming a choreographer, prepared the cast with six-day-a-week rehearsals. The talented dancers have been working for months, sometimes six hours a day, to get ready for opening night. That’s a lot of high kicks.

Branam took over the show in 2014 and gave the 82-year-old production a bit of a makeover. She created a new plot and added some state-of-the-art gizmos: Snowflake bubbles with GPS trackers fly up from the orchestra pit and 3-D glasses let the audience see Santa’s sleigh soar into the sky. This year, a 43-foot circular rotating turntable is being installed for a show-stopping number. “There’s something for everybody,” says Branam. “There’s the new, the tech and the traditional.”

During the peak season (that's between Thanksgiving and Christmas), each dancer performs the 90-minute show a whopping 17 times per week. “A Broadway show is typically eight performances a week,” says Elizabeth Sousek, who has been a Rockette for 11 years. “We do about the run of a typical Broadway show in just six weeks!” The dancers are famous for the precision of their kick lines, but even their costume changes are choreographed down to the movements. “The audience will never see what goes on backstage, but if they could, it’s another show within itself,” says Sousek. Twenty-five wardrobe professionals are dedicated solely to helping the Rockettes make eight costume changes during the show, sometimes in as little as 90 seconds.

Dangling over all those crazy quick costume changes and intricate choreography? Oh, just 60,000 pounds of props. This includes the giant 7-ton double-decker bus used in the “New York at Christmas” number, which floats 23 feet in the air.

When asked why people should want to come to the show, Branam wasn’t one to toot her own horn. “My son has been coming here since he was 6 months old. It’s a family tradition.” It’s certainly not just her tradition, though; an estimated one million people will see this year’s performances before the show closes January 3.

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