Some artists hone their craft at college or conservatories. Denise McGowan Tracy ran away with the Ice Follies. Her time on the road booking venues, transport, and lodging for the megapopular 1970s skating show served her well. By 1981, she was booking national talent for Byfield's, the Pump Room's legendary nightclub (owned and operated by Lettuce Entertain You), providing the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Karen Mason with early exposure.
Following that, she was in charge of public entertainment at Navy Pier, bringing everyone from Santa to Sarah McLachlan to the tourist destination. For the past 12 seasons, she's been overseeing Monday Night Live!, the cabaret she created with Beckie Menzie for Petterino's, the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant next to the Goodman Theatre. There, you might stumble onto performances by touring casts (Hamilton, Wicked, Cats Out of Costume!), Lithuanian dignitaries, or local musical theater royalty, backed by pianist Menzie and performing in an intimate brass-and-wood dining room where the walls are covered with autographed caricatures of showbiz luminaries.
When a gaggle of singing elves took the MNL mike shortly before Thanksgiving, it was a harbinger of Tracy's next act: a new Christmas musical.
I know, I know. Swing a bag of plum pudding in any direction this time of year and you'll splat into a Crumpet or a Scrooge or a Sugar Plum Fairy. Still, Tracy's Equity launch of Eleanor's Very Merry Christmas Wish (scored by Kathleen Butler-Duplessis and running through December 29 at the Greenhouse Theater Center) comes with a singular pedigree: The author has spent the last 30 years producing remarkably enduring shows. It's also wholly lacking a feel-good origin story.
"No, it wasn't pretty," Tracy says of the show's genesis. "Back at Navy Pier, I once saw this little girl sitting in Santa's lap saying 'I don't want this,' 'Don't bring me that.' 'If you bring me this, it has to be this color.' I loved her spirit but I was like, 'wow, that's a little demanding. How'd you like to be the poor toy stuck with that kid?'"
"And then I decided to flip it. What if it was a toy, asking Santa for a friend?" she said.
Bibliotecha Brightside published Tracy's tale of a lonely North Pole rag doll in 2015, but she wasn't altogether satisfied with the endeavor. "I kept thinking the characters needed music," she said. Enter Butler-Duplessis, whose score ranges from a silly-smart rap about wrapping paper to an anthemic finale engineered to make you misty.
It's not been smooth sailing for the project. Over the summer, Tracy lost the theater she'd originally booked for the show. "It set us back. A lot of people told me it was a sign. Put it off for a year. But you know what? No. None of us knows how much time we have. I'm 63 years old. I'm 75 pounds overweight. Sometimes I feel like I went from debutante to dowager inside of a week. Anyway, I don't know what's going to happen. Nobody does. Why would I wait?" she says.
She is also accustomed to dealing with last-minute potential catastrophes.
There was the time, for example, that the sound went out right before Monday Night Live, taking the mike and pianist Beckie Menzie's keyboard with it. Tracy got on stage and started singing Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" a cappella. "I picked it because it was the longest song I knew. I did it while my husband and Beckie were working frantically trying to get the power back on. I had just finished the song and was about to start in on this long story when they got a work-around."
Menzie is MNL's not-so-secret weapon, and was crucial to shaping Eleanor's November teaser.
"I've never seen her stumped. Once night at Petterino's we had a group of dignitaries from Lithuania show up, and they wanted to sing their national song. Nobody had music for it. Beckie found it on her phone and played it without a hitch. She's magnificent."
Tracy says booking for Byfield's was also invaluable in setting the stage for Monday Night Live. "I think back—Rich Melman (Lettuce Entertain You founder) asked me to take on Byfield's when I was 24, and I'm sure people thought we were off our rockers. But we got Ellen DeGeneres her first cabaret gig in Chicago. Yakov Smirnov came through. Karen Mason. It was this extraordinary mishmosh incubator of local and national talent. It was an amazing experience."
It was also sometimes frustrating. Tracy was shocked—shocked!—to find that producing-while-female came with singular challenges. "Sometimes I'd wonder 'would they be talking to me like this if my name was Dennis?'" Tracy recalled. Nevertheless, she persisted.
After the Byfield's closed, Tracy pitched the cabaret idea to Petterino's. They offered her a six-week tryout. More than 500 shows later, the show goes on. In the early days, Tracy had to reach out to talent. Now the talent tends to come to her.
"We had Firebrand [Chicago's feminist musical theater company] doing some 9 to 5 numbers when this girl came up to me and was like, 'Hi, um, what is this? If I'm in a local show can we perform?' And I was all, 'Sure. We can help you sell some tickets, increase your visibility a little. What show are you in?' The next morning I have this e-mail from Hamilton. They want to perform."
Still, for all her experience Tracy is violating a cardinal rule of producing with Eleanor's: Funding came from backers who saw early readings of the show, and from Tracy herself. "I know. You're never supposed to use your own money. But I decided to put my money where my mouth is," she says.
That also means putting Santa in the lobby after every performance, allowing parents to avoid the chaos of mall Santas.
"For me, one of the greatest joys of the season is watching kids' reactions to the show. And hanging out with Santa after," Tracy said. "I hope the premiere here sparks other theaters looking for a new family-friendly holiday show. But no matter what, this whole project continually reminds me what Christmas is all about." v