BWW Interview: Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso And Billy Stritch of A SWINGING BIRDLAND CHRISTMAS at Birdland
A Swinging Birdland Christmas has become a New York City institution, a holiday tradition and a staple of the Birdland calendar. With three of the most popular talents of the cabaret community and, definitely, three of the hardest working people in the business, the annual Christmas concert gives fans a chance to spend a night with Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch, to sip on some eggnog or to skip the egg and go right to the nog, and to get into the holiday spirit without fighting the all-night crowds at Macy's. The trio of friends are each extremely popular in their own right, with Ms. Blackhurst spending the year going from show to show, Mr. Stritch playing in concerts and clubs around the world, and Mr. Caruso maintaining his place as Birdland's impresario and most fashionable host in town, so this event when the three of them join forces to spread cheer is something Birdland audiences look forward to for eleven months. 2019 saw a special happening to add to the season when the trio released the cd A SWINGING BIRDLAND CHRISTMAS. With the holiday music out on every platform, these chums jumped into rehearsals for their holiday show, which opens December 21st.
Before the Thanksgiving holiday was upon us, I reached out to Klea, Jim, and Billy for a little chat about Christmas, friendship, and the legacy they are creating with their holiday cheer.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Jim, this will be the Tenth Year for A Swinging Birdland Christmas, right?
Yes! It's hard to believe. We were mere children when we started! Extremely old children.
Billy, how did the first Swinging Birdland Christmas happen?
I might be fuzzy on the details but Jim and I had already been doing Cast Party for awhile and all of a sudden there was a spot to fill at Birdland during Christmas week. I think the show that had been running in that spot for a few years had ended and Gianni Valenti (the owner of Birdland) asked us to put together a show to take its place. We never really thought it would go beyond the first year but here we are TEN YEARS LATER. It's kind of hard to believe but we are thrilled that the show took off the way it did.
Klea, this year is extra special, because A Swinging Birdland Christmas now has a cd, right?
It's a Christmas Miracle! We trundled into the recording studio in July and now we have proof positive that the fun we had making the CD was real. It was dreamy and I am so proud of it and so proud of the collaboration I have with Jim and Billy. I was delighted when they asked me to join them for this all those years ago. And it just grows and has become a real cornerstone in my life.
Billy, how did the three of you decide, out of ten years of shows, which songs to put on the cd Christmas At Birdland?
We had released a live album seven years ago and in the years since then we have added so much fun new material so it really wasn't hard to decide on the song list. This is sort of like a Volume Two of our Christmas repertoire but what makes this special is that we were able to record this one in the studio and had a budget to do a first-rate production with special guests and augment some selections with horns and a string section. It's like we're actually in show business!
Klea, given the closeness of this longtime partnership, does A Swinging Birdland Christmas require a great deal of rehearsal, or do you three just get together and drink eggnog and laugh?
Well as you might imagine, it's a bit of both. In the very beginning we rehearsed much more because we didn't really have a shorthand yet. Now coming up with harmonies and new material just happens naturally...I would certainly not call our show over rehearsed. But by Christmas, I feel like we have done something very special. Before you know it it's time to start all over. The rehearsal is cumulative.
Jim do the audiences at A Swinging Birdland Christmas sing along during the show?
We've built in some sing-alongs during the show, which is always fun and definitely touching. And after ten years of doing a few of the same arrangements, some fans of the show know the material better than we do! Now that "Christmas at Birdland" cd is out, they can sing along at the top of their lungs!
Billy, after ten years, does anything happen during the run of Christmas shows that surprises any of you?
The only thing that surprises and delights me is the fact that the audience for the show has grown by leaps and bounds and many people come back year after year. The show has really become a tradition for a lot of folks. I love that the show plays at an early hour so that people can go from our show out to dinner or to parties and I really love that we perform on Christmas Eve and Christmas night. The show on Christmas night is a perfect capper to the whole holiday season for me.
Klea, were there any (loving) arguments over who would sing which songs on the cd Christmas At Birdland?
Not at all! I don't think we've ever argued about material. There is a natural division of expertise.
Jim, do the three of you get together to coordinate your Christmas outfits for A Swinging Birdland Christmas?
As silly as it sounds, the conversation does take place! It's show business! As you'll see this year, we aren't afraid to mix patterns! There might be some plaid tidings!
Klea, at the Cabaret Convention you said that Billy was like a brother to you. What's the most brotherly bit of advice he's ever given you?
Well, he has influenced the range in my voice. Really encouraged me to sing ballads with confidence. So lots of wisdom related to that. But his best advice to me was to get out of a pet store. I found a puppy and was momentarily convinced that it's little eyes were telling me to take him home. I called Billy and told him about this little creature, sure that Billy would understand. "Get out of there!" "But he's so cute." Billy said, "have you ever been to the Ugly Puppy Store? Get out of there. And don't look him in the eyes on your way out." Between us, I believe we've rescued six dogs! Big fan of the rescues.
Jim, what was your favorite Christmas record growing up?
I was obsessed with the Osmond Family Christmas Album. Those vocal arrangements! Those harmonies! It was all magical to me. I was an only child, and this album led me to my still-unrealized goal of being an Osmond Brother. You can imagine how thrilled I am, and how happy we all are, that Donny agreed to be a guest on our cd! It's the best Christmas gift ever!
Billy, aside from this annual run of shows at Birdland, what's a personal holiday tradition that you enjoy every year?
I love taking my annual walk to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and there are a couple of parties that happen every year that I look forward to as well. And I always try and take in a Broadway show or two during the week between Christmas and New Years.
Klea you said that Christmas At Birdland was recorded earlier in the year - what was it like singing Christmas music out of season?
It was wonderful! Felt completely natural. Remember lots of the songs are about being cold. Which was welcome in July.
Jim, when you guys started A Swinging Birdland Christmas did you intend for it to be an annual show or was that a surprise bonus to creating the show?
(Laughing) We were just happy to have the gig! I should have known, though. When we first started, I had been hosting Cast Party and presenting the Broadway at Birdland concert series every week for eight years...so we had clearly found ourselves a home! Over the years, our little Christmas show has become a traditional event for quite a few lovely audience members. Think of us as a less-glitzy, less-leggy version of The Rockettes!
Billy, aside from Christmas at Birdland, what Christmas cd gets played every year at your house?
The Carpenters Christmas Album is a personal favorite, and I always have the Music Choice Holiday Station playing at home.
Jim, what's the best Christmas cookie?
Oh Lord, you had to mention cookies? How DARE you?! My favorite cookie happens to be the Oatmeal Raisin from my local Levain Bakery. It's not particularly Christmassy, but it's stupidly good.
Klea, do you have a favorite Christmas film?
"It's a Wonderful Life." But also "A Christmas Story"... I just love the Bumpus hounds.
Billy, what's it like getting to make music with these two characters for your entire adult life?
Well, I haven't known Klea my entire adult life but I've certainly known Jim for quite a number of years. We met back in the early 80's and who could know then that our professional and personal lives would become so intertwined? Klea and I have performed together for a while too and have recorded a CD together. I guess I'm lucky because I get to work with people who are fun and talented and have similar musical tastes and sensibilities...and Jim and Klea definitely head that list. We really love Christmas and the holidays and always have so much fun together.
Klea, there are so many Christmas CDs released every year, and I only allow myself to buy two. What is it about Christmas At Birdland that makes it the essential album to add to my collection this year?
It starts with a bang and then hits all the stops along the way. It's got strings and horns. It's got fast songs and slow songs. It's got Dave Koz and Donny Osmond. It's got a darling Cy Coleman song that's never been recorded. I think it has a good chance of becoming one of my favorites.
Jim, what do you want for Christmas?
Peace on Earth. And for those Osmond adoption papers to come through.
A Swinging Birdland Christmas plays Birdland 12/21 through 12/25. For information and tickets visit the Birdland Website
Christmas At Birdland is available for purchase on all platforms.