You know, you'd think that there would be a lot more Broadway Christmas songs than there are. People periodically ask me for recommendations, for cabaret performances and choral concerts and whatnot. But there really aren't that many.
Try thinking of ten off the top of your head. Unless you're my friend Kevin at Theater Aficionado at Large, you'll probably have difficulty getting beyond five.
So, below I've provided a decidedly biased sampling of Broadway (or Broadway-related) Christmas songs, along with some links for you to listen to the songs in question. Feel free to share your own personal favorites as well.
A very happy Christmas to all of my friends, old and new, out there in EIKILFM Land.
I'm not one of these people who automatically dismisses something just because it's part of a trend. Like, for instance, movie-to-musical adaptations. I like to think that I approach each new show with an open mind, regardless of how seemingly cynical or commercial the impetus behind the show might be.
Plus, when I heard that Elf - The Musical was in the works, it seemed like a pretty good idea to me. I genuinely enjoyed the 2003 Will Ferrell film "Elf," although it did get a bit too special-effects-dependent toward the denouement. So I was a bit crestfallen last week when the show opened to such divided reviews, especially since I wasn't scheduled to see the show until three days after it opened.
As so often happens when a show gets mixed reviews, I entered the show with a vague sense of apprehension, but was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself genuinely enjoying the show. Yes, it seemed like a bit of a rush job, and no, it's not exactly one for the ages. But Elf is a sweet and diverting show with a strong cast and a tuneful score, with plenty of fun holiday adventures along the way.
The score to Elf has music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, the writing pair responsible for the score to the underrated show The Wedding Singer. It's funny, but it wasn't until the second act of Elf that I realized how tuneful and effective the score for the show really is. Ironically, this came during "Nobody Cares About Santa," which actually doesn't really work as a song all that well. But it did serve to emphasize how pleasant and serviceable the rest of the score is. Even the lamest of numbers in The Wedding Singer is at least tuneful, and the same can be said for the songs for Elf. Perhaps the best of the lot is "The Story of Buddy the Elf," a terrific sequence in which the characters pitch Buddy's unlikely story as a children's book. It's a fun number, and more than adequately serves its purpose in its "11'o clock" position.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has emerged in recent seasons as someone to watch, with his terrific sense for dressing a stage, and appealing but not showy dance steps. But I get the feeling that Nicholaw didn't really have enough time for his particular brand of stage magic to reach full potency on Elf. His stage business for the annoyingly titled "Sparklejollytwinklejingly" was busy and uninspired. In this number, Buddy the elf (Sebastian Arcelus) leads a bunch of Macy's employees (product-placement alert!) in decorating the store for the holiday season. In another sequence, Buddy takes Jovie (Amy Spanger), his incipient girlfriend, skating at Rockefeller Center. Cue: ice rink! Great idea, but the rink itself is too small for the many people meant to occupy it, and the effect is more awkward than charming.
I get the sense that these things could have been worked out if the production timeline had been more accommodating. Again, the show feels like something that they rushed to finish for the holidays, particularly the amusing but spotty book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan. Having seen the movie, I could tell which parts of the show had been compressed significantly to accommodate the musical numbers, and the effect is often rushed and diluted.
Thankfully, there's a cast-full of Broadway pros in residence to fill in the storytelling potholes, particularly the disarming Sebastian Arcelus in the central role of Buddy. Also on-hand are stalwarts Beth Leavel and Mark Jacoby as Buddy's "human" parents, who imbue their somewhat two-dimensional roles with a great deal of humor and heart.
So, no, Elf isn't going to win any prizes, or change the direction of musical theater. But it's engaging and sweet, and certainly an appealing option for parents looking for something to entertain their vacationing brood over the holidays. It certainly had me grinning, particularly during the curtain call, during which the entire cast dons elf suits and tap shoes for a rousing finale. Cheesy? Perhaps. But I'm not ashamed to admit that the cast had me tapping right along with them.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received complimentary press tickets to this performance of Elf.
I recently rediscovered "The Homecoming," the television movie that gave rise to the hit TV series "The Waltons." I was surprised by how much of it I remembered, since I probably hadn't seen it in 20 years. But when I popped in the DVD, it all came flooding back to me, from the bootleg whiskey (AKA the "recipe"), to the little doll with the shattered face, to the black nativity, to the scary Christmas tree in the Baldwin sisters' living room that had actual burning candles on its limbs. Yikes.
It was a pleasure to rediscover, and a heartwarming reminder of the real meaning of Christmas. Here's a family in the midst of the Depression with barely enough money to buy sugar for their applesauce cake, and yet they find ways to be joyous and thankful. I think that's something we could all contemplate as we think about giving and receiving this holiday season.
The best gift I ever received for Christmas was an old set of opera glasses that my brother found in an antique store outside of Harvard Square. Truth be told, they never really worked. But it was clear that my brother had put a great deal of thought into that gift: he knew of my love for theater, and he also knew that I would appreciate the faded beauty of those what were essentially a pair of mini binoculars, complete with a distressed leather case.
I was reminded of those opera glasses as I watched "The Homecoming." John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas) receives a stack of writing tablets from his father for Christmas. Remember, this was the Depression, and writing paper was doubtless an extravagance in the Walton home, but the gift showed that John Sr. knew about his eldest son's passion for writing, and the tablets were his way of conveying his blessing. I think we would all get so much more out of Christmas if we could spend less but care more about what we give. Even by today's prices, those writing tablets would have set John Sr. back less than $10. And my brother, a student at the time, doubtless spent little more on those opera glasses. But the impact of each gift was exponentially greater than the actual price.
Enough with the proselytizing. I'll end the same way the movie ends, with the following voice-over narration from an older John-Boy Walton:
Christmas is the season where we give tokens of love. In that house we
received not tokens, but love itself. I became the writer I promised my
father I would be and my destiny led me far from Walton's Mountain.
My mother lives there still. Alone now, for we lost my father in 1969.
My brothers and sisters, grown with children of their own, live not far
away. We are still a close family and see each other when we can. And
like Miss Mamie Baldwin's fourth cousins, we're apt to sample the
recipe and then gather around the piano and hug each other while we
sing the old songs. For no matter the time or distance, we are united
in the memory of that Christmas eve. More than 30 years and 3,000 miles
away, I can still hear those sweet voices.