A New “Twelve Days of Christmas”
By Peter Filichia —
It may be the song that many people most dread during the holiday season: “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” For one thing, the song is certainly is longer than “Rumson Creek” in Paint Your Wagon — and perhaps even longer than “Soliloquy” from Carousel.
How about twelve different musical theater Christmas songs for the twelve days leading up to Christmas? You can ration them one a day, if you like, or play them all in one fell swoop.
Four musical theater Christmas songs are now available free of charge. All you need to do is sign up for MasterworksBroadway’s newsletter, and you’ll receive a Christmas digital sampler with these four titles:
1) “Be A Santa” from Subways Are for Sleeping, as recorded by Percy Faith and His Orchestra. In his long career, Faith recorded albums dedicated to the scores of many musicals: Camelot, Do I Hear a Waltz? House of Flowers, Kismet, L’il Abner, The Most Happy Fella, My Fair Lady, Porgy and Bess, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and (believe it or not) even Jesus Christ Superstar. Here he takes Subways’ second-act show-stopper in which a bevy of Santas sang and danced. Among those costumed in red and white were Michael Bennett and Valerie Harper, whose dreams of success would turn out better than any gift that Santa Claus could have ever brought them.
2) “Christmas Child” from Irma la Douce is a veritable hymn. One wouldn’t necessarily expect such a song from a musical about a poule, which is a euphemism for “tart,” which is a euphemism in itself. But then again, this British-and-French concoction was a musical full of surprises.
3) “Christmas at Hampton Court” from Rex. In The Lion in Winter, Eleanor of Aquitaine said of the royal brood she had with Henry II, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” That was in 1183, and in Rex, we find that 360 years later the quip could easily apply to the then-current royal family that is headed by the notorious Henry VIII. His daughters Elizabeth and Mary and son Edward all tell us their problems. The spritely music is by Richard Rodgers, and the brass-tacks lyrics are by Sheldon (Fiddler on the Roof) Harnick. Playing Mary is no less than a just-starting-out Glenn Close.
4) “A New Deal for Christmas” from Annie. This must be the only Christmas song that’s an inadvertent history lesson. Where else can you hear the names of members of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet? The only thing missing from this cut is the sound of Sandy, that adorable pooch, barking as he emerges from the big wrapped box. (Hey – how did Daddy Warbucks know that Annie ever met the dog? She never mentioned Sandy to him — not while we were around, anyway. But who cares? By that point in the story, we’re delighted to see him.)
Eight to go! Days Five and Six can be reserved for two songs from Promises, Promises. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Christmas Day” should have become a holiday standard; do your part by playing it. And while the title of “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing” may not sound particularly apt for December, the B-section mentions Christmas twice. Besides, it’s a terrific song.
Jason Robert Brown is one of the best of our current crop of composer-lyricists, so take out his Songs for a New World for Days Eight and Nine. “Surabaya Santa” has Jessica Molaskey dynamically doing a Kurt Weill parody in which Mrs. Claus laments about her husband who’s too busy for her. Immediately following on the disc is a lovely and sincere song, “Christmas Lullaby,” which Andrea Burns does gloriously – especially on those many “Glorias” Brown gave her.
Days Ten and Eleven are reserved for the ultimate Christmas musical. Here’s Love was Meredith Willson’s 1963 musicalization of Miracle on 34th Street. You undoubtedly recall the story in which a bearded, heavy-set but jolly man claims he’s Kris Kringle – and must go to court to prove it. How nice to hear everyone come to the musical conclusion that “That Man over There (is Santa Claus).”
The next day, play “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” a song that Willson purposely wrote as a counter-melody to his 1951 pop hit “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Today, a songwriter would just put in his old pop hit without apology; back then, it was only done if a composer-lyricist could do something new with it. Willson did, and came up with a delightful quodlibet.
Save for Day Twelve what is arguably the best for last. When Jerry Herman was making a musical of Auntie Mame, he probably never thought that he was writing a Christmas-standard-to-be. All he was doing was musicalizing one of the play’s most touching scenes: Mame has been fired from Macy’s right before the holidays, but finds when she comes home that her nephew Patrick has given her a lovely little gift. “If we’re going to have Christmas,” Mame says, “let’s have it all around.” She calls in her maid Nora and her houseboy Ito and proclaims, “Merry Christmas, everyone!” And when Nora reminds her “It isn’t till Tuesday,” she says, “Well, we need it now.” Hence came Herman’s “We Need a Little Christmas,” which we now hear each December as much as – well, maybe even “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Finally, in a month or so, when the holidays are said and done and long-gone, take out Maltby and Shire’s Starting Here, Starting Now and listen to the most unsentimental “I Don’t Remember Christmas.” It’s not a song for this “season to be jolly,” but it’s a terrific piece of material that will impress you the other eleven months of the year.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com