Somewhere between Mariah Carey and Wham! on your holiday playlist are likely a few tunes that have their roots in Broadway.
Whether it’s shows devoted to celebrating the season, such as A Christmas Story, or others where Christmas is just part of the story as in Meet Me in St. Louis, we’ve got a rundown of some of the shows that featured favorite holiday songs and at least one that was the equivalent of a lump of coal.
FLAHOOLEY (1951) – This short-lived musical about a toy manufacturer getting ready to launch his new doll called Flahooley was chockfull of the tricks that should make a hit holiday show: puppets, a genie, a princess and singable songs including “Who Says There Ain’t No Santa Claus.” What contributed to its only 40-show run was the not-so-veiled satirical indictment of capitalism and, we’re not kidding, the Red Scare McCarthy witch hunts, especially prevalent in the show’s opening song “You Too Can Be a Puppet.” Composer E.Y. Harburg was a victim of blacklisting and it permeated the show. One adjustment before its Broadway opening was having the Flahooley doll laugh when turned upside down rather than the original utterance, “Dirty Red!”
HERE’S LOVE (1963) – Composer-lyricist Meredith Wilson had a thing about parades. First he brought us “76 Trombones” and more marching in Broadway’s The Music Man. In Here’s Love, he adapted the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street into a Broadway show showcasing Santa and the famed Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The show featured “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” a song Wilson penned in 1951, plus the then-newly composed “Pinecones and Holly Berries.”
MAME (1966) – The story of the madcap bohemian Auntie Mame, originally was a 1956 Broadway comedy and became a musical in 1966 starring Angela Lansbury – after Mary Martin turned down the role. A highlight of the Jerry Herman production is his song “We Need A Little Christmas,” performed after Mame loses her fortune in the 1929 Wall Street crash and she declares they need the holiday to lift their spirits. Sound familiar? The song has been covered by many artists, including Percy Faith, Johnny Mathis, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Pentatonix and The Muppets.
ANNIE (1977) – Sprung from the comics’ pages, this musical about a spunky and resilient orphan whose hopes for new life culminates at a Christmas party where she is adopted by billionaire businessman Daddy Warbucks. The show, set during The Depression, includes the rousing “A New Deal for Christmas,” where Warbucks declares “Santa’s got brand new assistants, there’s nothing to fear, they’re bringing a new deal for Christmas, this year.” Lucky girl.
THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1978) – It’s unexpected to be moved by a holiday song in show about a brothel but consider this a holiday miracle. When Miss Mona learns her bawdy business is closing, she and her displaced working girls sing “Hard Candy Christmas,” that is sad, yet hopeful, and about perseverance. A good message for these challenging times.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1989) – Spawned from the famed movie, the Broadway show follows the lives and loves of the Smith sisters from Missouri in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. The song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, is the emotional apex (read SAD) of the Broadway show, reminding all of the importance and the melancholy of the season. The song had commercial success as well, with Judy Garland (who sang it in the film) reaching No. 27 on the Billboard charts. It also was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, The Pretenders, Luther Vandross, Michael Buble, Josh Groban and more.
RENT (1996) – One of Broadway’s most beloved musicals opens on Christmas Eve with a group of Bohemian artists struggling to stay in their Alphabet City home under the shadow of HIV-AIDS. Despite having no money, they celebrate the holiday with hope and friendship. Act one’s “Christmas Bells” doesn’t fare well in Entertainment Weekly’s ranking of the show’s songs finishing 22 out of 23, whereas “Seasons of Love,” which ranks at No. 4 gives you 525,600 reasons to love it. The staying power of this show’s score which continues to resonate is the true gift.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (2004) The revival of this musical centering on racial and cultural issues was set to open on Broadway when COVID struck. Caroline, or Change, told through an African American maid employed by a Jewish family in the mid-1960s is now slated to open in Fall 2021. Family and national tragedies (a mother’s death and the assassination of President Kennedy) plus the reckoning of the Civil Rights Movement are just a few of the wrenching moments of evolution that occur in this show. A teaching moment comes during the song “The Chanukah Party,” where Noah, the son of the family she cares for, offers Caroline an understanding of the Jewish holiday.
BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (2008) – In this show about a young boy facing resistance when he says he wants to be a ballet dancer, a holiday show in the midst of a crippling coal miner’s strike provides the critical “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” about the not-so-popular British prime minister. On the day she died in 2013, a London audience was given the option to pull the song in reverence to the PM. The audience voted to move ahead with the song that includes the lyrics: “We celebrate today/’Cause it’s one day closer to your death.” Ho, ho, ho.
WHITE CHRISTMAS (2008) and HOLIDAY INN (2016) – The common thread between these two Broadway shows and the films they are based on is the song “White Christmas,” the world’s best-selling single, sung by Bing Crosby. The song first appeared in the movie Holiday Inn (1942), a movie about a song-and-dance man who opens an inn in Connecticut. The song also inspired the film White Christmas starring Crosby and Danny Kaye as GIs who come to the aid of their former commanding officer turned innkeeper during the holidays. In 2008, White Christmas became a Broadway musical to unimpressive reviews where it was called “as fresh and appealing as a roll of Necco Wafers found in a mothballed Christmas stocking” in The New York Times. It closed after 53 performances but was revived for the 2009 Christmas season. Holiday Inn became a Broadway show in 2016 and closed after 117 performances.
A CHRISTMAS STORY (2012) – Ralphie’s yearning for a Red Ryder BB Gun remains the main plot point for this longstanding Christmas movie favorite that was turned into a musical in 2009 having a holiday run on Broadway in 2012. The Tony®-nominated musical retained the movie’s charm and sentimentality with a score that strengthened the characters. Songs include odes to the son and father’s prized gets: “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun” and “A Major Award” plus “It All Comes Down Christmas” and “Up on Santa’s Lap.”
ELF (2012) – Another movie staple-turned-musical still has Santa sitting on a throne of lies as elf Buddy sets out from the North Pole to find his real father. Initial reviews of this “saccharine-sweet” musical read like a toothache but subsequent retooling made it “zippier and funnier.” Plus, it’s hard not to smile when one of the show’s tunes is “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.”