SOUND OFF: Seven Days of Christmas

By: Dec. 18, 2010

Since today is only a week away from Christmas Day, we are taking a special look at the absolute must-own Christmas-themed releases for the Broadway baby on your list. From Barbra Streisand to Sondheim, Raul Esparza to Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook to Straight No Chaser - there's certainly a little bit of holiday cheer to cast some winter starlight upon even the saddest of Charlie Brown Christmas trees. Here are seven ways to make your holiday a little more sparkling and bright - and some cool Yule selections for how to change-up your Christmas tune listening for the last seven days until Santa Claus & Co. arrive late next Friday night - whether or not you are a Broadway baby born and bred, there is something for all here!

A Broadway Holiday: From B to With A Z

Let's start at the very beginning - after all, isn't that what Christmas is supposed to celebrate, the very start? With this Saturday Special SOUND OFF column we are going to start off not only with one big bang, but two - and both ala Barbra.

Barbra Streisand - A CHRISTMAS ALBUM & Barbra Streisand - CHRISTMAS MEM'RIES

It seems as though nearly every recording artist worth their weight has put out a Christmas album or two at some point in their career, but only the voice of a generation - the true owner of the crown, and the implicit instrument implied, of the Voice of The Century (sorry Aretha) - can really make one count, and that person is Barbra Streisand. And, boy oh boy, does she - twice. With both the irreplaceable A CHRISTMAS ALBUM forty years ago to CHRISTMAS MEM'RIES in this century, Streisand shows two distinctly different sides of the holiday season - on the first, we marinate in the more ruminative, stoic and holy side of the holiday season, whereas on the latter release she gives the sentimentality, cheer and joy all around us its more-than-fair due. No one has ever sung "Silent Night" better than Barbra does in this elegant, evocative Peter Matz arrangement on A CHRISTMAS ALBUM. I recently spoke to Stephen Sondheim about writing a special Christmas version of his EVENING PRIMROSE gem "I Remember" for this album for Streisand to sing, yet he - somewhat ironically - recounted that while he enjoyed writing a Christmas song for Barbra, it posed a challenge no different than any other sort of song and he didn't really "remember" any more than that about it. Whatever the process, the result is merry magic. The chilly, bleak midwinter night giving way to the warm, soothing sun of Christmas morning at sunrise certainly comes through in the equal-parts calming and moving songs on these sumptuous recordings. Both are must-owns and exhibit many of the reasons why one of the things we will always be grateful for as Broadway babies is - and forever will be - Barbra.


For me, no holiday album comes close to covering nearly every facet of not only what I love about the holiday season, Christmas music and yuletide albums, but also the best of the best of Broadway, to boot than Carols For a Cure: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS. From the positively jubilant "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming all the way through to Audra McDonald's largely vocalized, wordless rendition of "White Christmas" with Jason Robert Brown sensitively accompanying her on piano, this album truly has everything you could possibly ask for from a holiday album - or, even, a best of Broadway release. Along the way, we have a particularly stunning duet of "O Holy Night" courtesy of the clarion-voiced Callaway sisters Liz and Ann Hampton, and I'd be hard-pressed to name many duets more moving or spine-tingling than this - except, perhaps, with a selection on the next album on our Christmas wish list - whether from Broadway or beyond. Adam Pascal also scores with an absolutely rapturous take on the Billy Joel rocker "New York State Of Mind" and makes the song work in this context almost through sheer force and will - and he succeeds! I will never hear the song the same way again and this is a textbook lesson on how to make a song your own. Special mention also goes out to Daphne Rubin Vega's caliente "Feliz Navidad" and Lea Delaria's jazzy, riff-tastic "Sleigh Ride". Purchasing this album is also a win-win for everyone involved, because proceeds of the album go to the BC/EFA, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Spread the love - and the joy - to the world!


Continuing on the sunny and snowy path of Broadway's best belting out Christmas carols, we have a definite game-changer in the form of Lynne Shankel's A NEW YORK CHRISTMAS, a compilation which is totally anomalous in the Christmas album category. The goal of the album was to present many of these songs as we have never heard them before, and, at that, right off the bat, it is a success. To see how daring many of these arrangements are and how well they work is a true credit to the craftsmanship employed by the musicians, the stalwart performers and, of course, the woman in charge: Ms. Shankel. While many of the songs may be familiar - everything from "I'll Be Home For Christmas" to "Silent Night" to "O Holy Night" and beyond - it is in these oh-so-idiosyncratic arrangements and powerfully persuasive performances by some of the cast doing them that makes this album a true shining star atop any CD or MP3 holiday tree. While all the performers are strong - among them, Broadway regulars Chestor Gregory and Tyler Maynard - it is in the songs by Raul Esparza, Constantine Maroulis, Orfeh, Andy Karl and Sierra Boggess that this album truly makes its permanent mark on the mind, leaves an indelible imprint on the heart and courses through our bloodstream, deep within, somehow seeping into our very souls. Hyperbole? Not so much - at least not, once you hear these next tracks discussed. Sierra Boggess's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is sweet, considerate and just plain lovely, done in a way the song is all-too rarely performed, and Boggess's operatic instrument only makes it that much more splendidly sonorous to enjoy. Andy Karl's "Christmas In New York" is a very worthwhile and winning alternative to the Rob Thomas version of the song and is just one example the many new school Christmas anthems Shankel so brilliantly weaves into this tapestry, with the traditional holiday anthems we know and love acting as the thread tying it all together. On that note, I was not expecting to be left breathless and overcome with emotion when presented with the prospect of hearing a mash-up of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by Constantine Maroulis and "Christmas In America" (by Melissa Etheridge) by Orfeh, but I'll be damned - guess I just earned my lump of coal! - if I was not. This is one of the most powerful and unexpectedly spectacular mash-up duets I have ever heard. I simply cannot compliment it - or them, or the arrangement, or the idea behind it - enough. The album even tops that with Raul Esparza's "O Holy Night", which is given a bilingual bossa nova do-over that makes it sound and feel almost like a whole new song. No small feat. Esparza's exemplary vocals - earth-shattering in the final section - only multiplies the joy exponentially (about a hundred more times) and, well, so electrically. You really feel the love and care and joy coming through the speakers, and Esparza's sensual take is not only surprising in its persuasiveness and suavity, but in its effectiveness at relaying the message of the song. As with the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS album above, proceeds from NEW YORK CITY CHRISTMAS also go to a very worthwhile organization - ASTEP - so I recommend you purchase as many copies as possible. You will not regret it. nother true holiday must-own and one of the most unique Christmas albums available.


Next up, we have one of the most respected and beloved leading ladies of the Broadway stage and cabaret creating a wintry wonderland of sheer vocal beauty on her sweet and understated Christmas album COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS - the simply divine Barbara Cook. Equal parts up-beat fun and sensitive storytelling, Cook's Christmas album has a little bit of everything. I interviewed Ms. Cook for BroadwayWorld yesterday and we spoke quite extensively about this album and the process of its creation. As we discussed, Amy Grant's "Breath Of Heaven" may be one of the most beautiful and soulful newly-composed Christmas anthems of the new century and Cook's recording of it is, indeed, beyond compare. Also, this may be my very favorite version of "Away In A Manger" and, just try not to crack a smile - or seven! - with her rollicking frolic of a "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!". I also particularly enjoyed the inclusion of "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands", which makes this album just unique enough to make it wonderful for repeated listening, but never too obscure as to scare any hardcore Christmas music buffs off for fear of unfamiliarity. Cook and Christmas go hand in hand like black cashmere gloves and freshly-fallen snow. An elegant delight.


Checking off the next-to-last item on our list is a special box set that contains not only a double-disc set encompassing nearly every aspect of Christmas and the holiday season imaginable - and done in as many conceivable styles - but also a sensational DVD of the twelve-man group at the center of it all performing the hit songs before a rapt audience. There is a very definite reason that Straight No Chaser have become one of the biggest YouTube sensations of all time (36 million views and counting for "12 Days" alone!) and have gone on to become one of the biggest a capella singing and recording groups in the world, and it's much more than their "The 12 Days of Christmas", as near-definitive as that may be. Handsomely packaged in an eye-catching metallic wrap-around box, the two discs and DVD provide well over three hours worth of solid holiday entertainment. Bereft of any instrumentation whatsoever, you'd think these guys would wear out their welcome at some point over the course of this boxset's three discs - but, the truth is, they leave you wanting even more! With over thirty Christmas songs covered - everything from "Carol of the Bells" to "Who Spiked The Eggnog?" - this album has a healthy dose of fun to go along with the more serious nature of countless Christmas albums, and strikes quite the perfect balance between sentiment and sass. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" done in a multi-faceted arrangement merged with "Angels We Have Heard on High" may be my favorite track besides "The 12 Days of Christmas" - but, I must admit that I was more taken with the more esoteric selections of the second disc than the more traditionally-themed first disc. Yet, the flawless harmonies of Straight No Chaser has made an international name for themselves on is amply evident everywhere here, on every single track. Surely, this gets twelve ho-ho-hos out of ten!


Now, as a super-special bonus, be sure to check out the absolutely phenomenal Christmas Special episode of THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW not only starring the titular stage and screen icon herself at her very best (or near it), but also her children - among them a dew-eyed, teenage Liza Minnelli, along with Lorna Luft and Joey Luft - as well as a surprise appearance by the Velvet Fog himself, Mel Torme. A recording of this episode was recently made available, but why just listen to the soundtrack when you can watch the real thing and experience it yourself? Judy may have performed "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" like no other in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, but here we have a chance to see and hear her take on any number of Christmas gems - some, such as a tune from OLIVER!, not always assumed to be, traditionally, holiday tunes. For many years this was thought to be lost, yet, thanks to YouTube, here it is (in six parts, part one at the link below) - and its presence in this countdown is absolutely essential. This is the very best Christmas special ever, bar none, and the perfect way to end our Christmas countdown. So, enjoy - and, of course, have yourself a merry little holiday!

Here's "The Christmas Song" from the show:

And, enjoy the entire special, starting with PART 1 (of 6), here:

Be sure to stay tuned to BroadwayWorld all this holiday season because next week we will have another SOUND OFF SATURDAY SPECIAL, this one being the big year-end round-up with the top ten albums of the year! Don't miss it!



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