Swingle All the Way!

Stritch, Caruso deliver hit holiday cabaret from Birdland

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to celebrate Christmas at Birdland, you can find out this week. Cabaret all-stars Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch, and Klea Blackhurst are bringing their seasonal special A Swingin’ Christmas to the Long Center direct from the classic NYC jazz club, where it's played for six seasons.

The holiday revue will begin its seventh run at Birdland on Dec. 23, just one day after the trio concludes its three-night stand – Tue.-Thu., Dec. 20-22, in the intimate Rollins Theatre here in Austin.

"Holy cow! What were we thinking?" wonders Caruso, who's been hosting the all-star open mic Jim Caruso's Cast Party every Monday night at Birdland since 2003. Serving as master accompanist on that gig is Stritch, who also shares a Sunday night residency with Caruso at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle. "Billy and I do Bemelmans on Sunday, Monday at Birdland, get on a plane at the crack of dawn [Tuesday] to come there, do a soundcheck, go right into the show, do three shows, get on a plane the next morning, go right into a soundcheck [at Birdland], and do three more shows."

"It’s gonna be a little crazy," allows Stritch, "but we’re gonna make it work." The funny thing is, he adds, "We booked Austin first."

That's because Austin has fallen hard for Caruso, Stritch, and Blackhurst, ever since they were introduced to the city through gigs with Austin Cabaret Theatre. Thanks to the ingenuity of ACT Artistic Director Stuart Moulton, Caruso and Stritch have been able to re-create the Manhattan Cast Party vibe deep in the heart of Texas using local talent, and Blackhurst has given Austin a taste of her exquisite Ethel Merman tribute, Everything the Traffic Will Allow. More recently, Stritch and Blackhurst have visited the city to perform Dreaming of a Song: The Music of Hoagy Carmichael, the show that won them the 2009 Best Major Artist Award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs, and Stritch and Caruso were here this past May saluting the Chairman of the Board with The Sinatra Century. As that show was so popular that an extra performance had to be added, the idea of returning to Austin with the trio's Christmas cabaret was a holiday sleigh ride that the threesome was happy to make.

And Stritch and Caruso were equally happy to talk about the show by phone, sharing details about the songs performed in it, how they were chosen, and the inspiration the three performers took from TV holiday specials in the Sixties and Seventies.

Austin Chronicle: What does it take to get you in the holiday spirit?

Billy Stritch: Well, it’s 23 degrees here now. That’s getting me going. Last Christmas, we were doing our Christmas show at Birdland, and the night we opened, the 21st of December, it was 70 degrees. It was really hard to get into the spirit of singing about snow and Christmas and all that stuff when it’s 70. But mainly it’s the weather, you know, and up here in New York, it’s seeing everything lit up so beautifully. And, of course, Christmas music.

Jim Caruso: I swear, this show. We start talking about material a month and a half, two months out, so it starts the thought process for Christmas earlier than it would normally. And, you know, listening to the music and singing the music and rehearsing – all of that stuff really gets me in the mood very early.

AC: Is there something that makes this show different from the other shows you do during the year?

JC: Well, a couple of years ago, I looked at my list of amazingly talented friends, and I thought, “Why aren’t we all working together?” I grew up watching … It always comes down to the Osmonds. It always comes down to the Osmonds. If you know me, you know this is true. I used to watch the Osmonds’ Christmas special and cry when I was growing up. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I was an only child – a lonely, pathetic only child. And I think it really stuck in my head that I wanted to sing with people. I didn’t just want to be alone on a stage with a band. I mean, that’s fun, but I wanted the community of it all, I guess. So it goes back to that and the joy of singing fabulous harmonies, wonderful arrangements, with good friends. And certainly being able to sing with Billy, which I do all year, but then add Klea Blackhurst to the mix – I mean, nobody’s more fun, nobody’s smarter, nobody’s funnier. We barely get any rehearsal in because we’re laughing and drinking Starbucks and talking about the Osmonds because she’s [beat] from Utah. [Laughs] We are very, very, very good friends, and I think the audience sees that and really relates to it.

BS: We are such good friends, and that’s what makes the show different. Because there’s this camaraderie that we have together, and I think that really comes through. It’s so much fun to be onstage with people that you really enjoy being with. Because there’s a spontaneity, and people enjoy the charm of that. It’s never quite the same. We share things that we think are funny, and the audience picks up on that. We try not to get serious. We try to just have a lot of fun.

JC: It’s not like a bunch of people that have been cast in a show that are just having to work together. These are real relationships onstage, and that is great to see all year but especially at Christmas.

AC: Well, that was the conceit of a lot of those holiday specials. Clearly with the Osmonds you have family members together, but it’s like there’s a knock at the door, and it’s Ella Fitzgerald, like she lived next door. “C’mon in, Ella!”

JC: Exactly! The Judy Garland special: “Oh, it’s Liza! Liza’s home from school with her boyfriend, and they’re gonna do a number.” We really do that at Birdland. We’ve been doing A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas for seven years now, and we have a doorbell. Ding dong! “Who’s that? Oh, for gosh sakes, it’s Linda Lavin, who’s going to sing … It’s Cheyenne Jackson. It’s Liza Minnelli.” This is everything I’ve ever wanted in my whole life. It’s thrilling. Thrilling. We won’t be having the doorbell in Austin because we don’t know that many performers in Austin, unfortunately, but God, if they’re out there, bring your doorbell. Bring a door! We’re into it.

AC: But we knew that these celebrities we were watching on TV didn’t really know each other and weren’t close friends. But to see close friends onstage doing this material –

JC: There’s nothing better.

(l-r) Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch, and Klea Blackhurst

AC: So were there any of those old holiday specials that meant something special to you as kids?

BS: Oh, there were so many. I remember Andy Williams, you know. I must have been really, really small, but I have a real vivid image of him in front of trees filled with snow, and it just looked so magical to me. It’s so funny to watch some of these things now because it looks a little cheesy, but at the time, to a little 6-year-old, it’s just magical, you know? It absolutely is.

JC: The Williams Brothers – Andy and his brothers singing together, those tight harmonies. That was the chic-est as far as I was concerned. And his whole family was beautiful. His wife, [beat] the murderer. Do you remember that whole story?

AC: Oh yes. Ms. Longet.

JC: Yes! She was absolutely beautiful. She sang, “Dominique-nique-nique …” You could barely hear her. “Claudine, speak up, we can’t hear you.” But she was gorgeous and looked good in a sweater and ski pants and made the Christmas specials very attractive.

BS: And, gosh, all the usual suspects who had TV shows back at the time. I mean, Sonny & Cher would always have a Christmas special, you know, and I was mad about them when they were on television in like '71 or '72. I just thought they were the best.

JC: The best were Sonny & Cher. Because they’re family. With Chastity, now Chaz. And then weird CBS additions like William Conrad. Ruth Buzzi. Oh, dear. And William Conrad would read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” with Chastity, now Chaz, on his lap. Awkward. Strange.

AC: Wow. I seem to have repressed my memory of that one.

JC: I’m telling you, these DVDs are out, and they are hilarious.

BS: I just watched one – there’s a TV channel up here, and they play these old specials, and I watch them from time to time, and it’s so funny 'cause they’re certainly different from the way you remember them, you know. But it’s sweet! It is sweet. I don’t think we were very demanding. I certainly, as a kid, wasn’t very demanding. I was just so happy to be plopped in front of the TV and hear music and hear a big orchestra and hear singers. That’s what really turned me on at a young age. I remember Bing Crosby. I remember those records that used to be sold by Firestone or different companies, and you could go into a gas station or some place and buy this long-play album of Christmas stuff for like a dollar. Or sometimes they were just giveaways.

AC: And you’d get Nat King Cole and Ella …

BS: Bing Crosby. Julie Andrews. Ella. The Kingston Trio.

AC: Mitch Miller. It would be this real mix, and there would always be cuts that you would be like, “I have to skip over this. It’s just too cheesy.”

BS: That’s right, that’s right. The New Christy Minstrels – well, maybe not them, but yeah, Rosie Clooney, Patti Page, Jo Stafford. I mean, Jo Stafford singing “Winter Weather” – loved that song so much and loved that arrangement. But those records, I remember those so well. I can see the covers in my head. And putting them on the night when we would decorate the tree. I have a real vivid memory of that, of putting these records on and having to flip them over. I mean, records – what’s better than records? I'm glad they’re making a bit of a comeback.

JC: To me and to Billy and to Klea – we all have these very specific memories of those TV shows. And, of course, some of the material was ravishing. Some of it was just hideous – which we include in our show.

AC: Was that part of the concept when you started, to be this mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar?

JC: Absolutely. Because we’re at Birdland, we wanted to be able to swing and do some cool, hip arrangements. But then again, it’s us. We are not John Pizzarelli. We are not Jane Monheit. You know, the hippest jazz singers in the world. Although certainly that’s my taste musically. But we can tend to be goofballs, and Billy does a beautiful medley of songs he found on Music Choice. There’s a jazz station, there’s a rock station, and there’s a Christmas station, and he was listening to it, and he started getting hysterical at the rotten songs, like “Santa, Make Me a Bride for Christmas.”

AC: That was a hit in Utah.

JC: Truly! “Give Me Some Brides for Christmas.” So he does a medley of songs that he heard there. Klea plays the trumpet and then goes into “Feliz Navidad.” It’s ear-splitting and hilarious. But then we follow that with a Kay Thompson arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” which is one of the greatest arrangements ever. So we try to temper it so we’re not sickening people with our bad taste. We get a little bit of all tastes.

AC: Jim, is there a song that you brought to the mix that Billy or Klea weren’t familiar with?

JC: I found a song last year by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy called “Christmas Is Starting Now.” It is so much fun and so cool. But it’s a really cool song that nobody had heard.

AC: Is there a song that you can’t get through the season without needing to hear once?

BS: I always loved Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.” I remember loving that from a very, very young age. And “White Christmas” I always loved because growing up in Texas, you never got a white Christmas. That seemed very exotic to me, to sing about a white Christmas. But it’s funny, because the verse of the song, which no one ever does, is actually all about being where there’s no snow. It’s about being in California, and it’s sunny, and, you know, it’s just another L.A. day, so I can certainly relate to that, certainly when I was growing up in Texas. I love the Karen Carpenter song “Merry Christmas, Darling.” And I love Christmas carols, I love the traditional hymns, you know, I really do, because I grew up in a church where we sang those. So to me, that really is Christmas, you know, the real meaning of Christmas.

JC: Well, there are a couple. I was thinking about buying a Christmas tree about a week ago, and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" came on, and I kinda had it on in the background and that “Christmas Time Is Here” song came on, and I was just drawn to the TV and literally had tears streaming down my face. It is so gorgeous and simple. And I immediately went out and bought a Christmas tree and decorated it. That kills me. But then there’s Cher and her [beat] incredible video from the Sonny & Cher holiday show of her performance of “O Holy Night,” which is at once brilliant and horrifying.

AC: Is it true that you re-create it onstage in your show?

JC: I have [been known to] … I don’t want to say “re-create” with the Dickensian costume and headdress, but I have been known to re-create the vocals. It’s this snowy scene and all the villagers are walking around in Dickensland, and then the camera finds a bedecked and bedazzled and bewildered Cher, with a muff – cause you gotta have a muff – and she looks in the camera and sings, “O holy night, aw-w-w-w-w.” It’s unbelievable. And she takes great liberties – as she should – and it’s as Cher-ish as you can get with the tongue, the licking the lips … it’s iconic, and it makes me laugh, and I truly love it, and her, and it always starts my holiday off with a bang. I’m so not kidding.

AC: A bang and a muff.

JC: A Bang and a Muff. Which was my third album.

AC: Billy, you mentioned Mr. Tormé, whose material you’ve covered extensively, especially on your sensational tribute album to him. What do you know about “The Christmas Song” that most people don’t?

BS: Well, I’m not sure this is something most people don’t know. I know it because I read it in Mel’s book. It was a song that was written in 1945 in the middle of one of the hottest heat waves that L.A. had had in years and years. [Tormé] was – 1945, he would have been 20 – and he was writing with a lyricist named Robert Wells, and Wells had a house in the San Fernando Valley, and he had a pool. So Mel walks into Bob Wells’ house and doesn’t see his friend in there but he goes to the piano, and he sees a piece of paper and it has just the first four lines: "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose/ Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks dressed up like Eskimos." Just four lines of the song. So he walks out back, he sees Bob Wells in the swimming pool, and he says, “Hey, buddy, I walked in and I saw this lyric. What is this?” Wells said, “I don’t know what it is, but I just thought it was so hot today that I would try this as an experiment, to write something cool to try to cool off. So I wrote this wintry lyric.” And Mel said, “This might be a song.” And Mel says that it took them 35 minutes to write the song. They wrote the song, they somehow got it to Capitol Records and Nat King Cole, who recorded it that winter, and, as they say, the rest is history. So that’s what I know about that song. I know that it garners Mel Tormé’s estate a lot of money every year, and God bless him. Gives people a lot of joy. I imagine it’s been recorded a thousand times, probably, at this point, wouldn’t you think?

AC: I'm sure. So with songs that have been recorded so frequently and are so familiar, there is a tendency among some artists to feel like they have to put their own stamp on them. They have to make it their song. You have songs in the show that you’ve had to make that decision: "Am I going to be relatively straightforward in my take on this or am I going to put my spin on it?" With these famous Christmas songs, how do you decide which way to go?

JC: That is the best question ever and something that I think about all the time. I’m not a big fan of people who futz with melody – the written melody of standards, certainly – at all. I understand why people want to make things their own, but there’s a reason that certain songs have stood the test of time, and it’s usually because of the excellence of the lyric and the music. So to start playing around with that stuff tends to bug me. As a performer, I am very happy to stick with the melody and lyric that were written. Now, the arrangement and what’s going on around the melody and the lyric, that’s fair game. And to have Billy and our band swinging like crazy on some of these songs, that’s where the artistry comes in to me to make each song unique.

BS: Well, I’m pretty discerning. As a composer myself and as an arranger and someone with enormous respect for what the composer has written, I don’t think that there’s a lot of room for messing with that. People don’t really need us to reinvent the wheel on a lot of this stuff. Now, it’s one thing if it’s your own Christmas song; of course, you can do it, you’re the composer. And if it’s a lush, great melody like “The Christmas Song” or something that has a lot of great harmony or stuff in it, well, you can certainly beef that up and make that sound really lush and wonderful, but I’m very aware of trying to stay within the bounds of good taste. When it comes to replicating these great songs that people love, I don’t need to do anything different to make people love the song even more.

AC: It’s always gonna be in your voice, and your voice is gonna be unique no matter what.

BS: Well, yeah. That’s what I think. You don’t need to try so hard to reinvent something. Especially with these beloved songs that people have loved their whole lives.

AC: You’ve been doing the show for several years, and you put out a CD of it. Has the show changed at all?

BS: We always add new things every year. We’ve added a version of "Jingle Bells" by Kay Thompson, who I got to know and Jim got to know quite late in her life.

JC: Kay was a friend. Do you know Kay? She was Liza’s godmother and she wrote Eloise and was the vocal arranger at MGM in the Forties and wrote some great, great stuff. She knew everyone. She was Sinatra’s vocal coach. Garland’s vocal coach.

BS: She wrote a fantastic arrangement of “Jingle Bells,”

JC: – and it’s literally called “Kay Thompson’s ‘Jingle Bells’” –

BS: – and she sang it, and then the Williams brothers sang it.

JC: And it’s been recorded by everyone from the Osmonds to the Manhattan Transfer.

BS: We’ve always threatened to do it, and last year we finally learned it, so we put that in. And we do a medley of “Snow” from White Christmas and “It Happened in Sun Valley” from Sun Valley Serenade – two great songs about snow. We put that in the show last year. And I found this great Cy Coleman song that’s not ever been published. I was doing research last year for a show of undiscovered, unpublished Cy Coleman, and I found this great song called “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again.” We premiered it last year at Birdland.

AC: Is there a number that’s especially fun because of the arrangement or because of the way you get to perform it –

JC: – other than Cher, clearly. Because after that, what is there? I would say our “Jingle Bells” mashup is really fun and unique. Everybody has their favorite “Jingle Bells” arrangement. Should we do the Streisand version? Should we do the Kay Thompson one? Should we do the Ella Fitzgerald? Sinatra had a great one. And we were kind of desperate to come up with a plan for “Jingle Bells” and we decided to do them all. So we put this mashup together, Aaron Weinstein and Billy created this fabulous medley of all of the “Jingle Bells”-es that are out there, and it’s our grand finale, and it just keeps getting bigger and better and more fun. And it truly feels like show business when we’re doing that. The arrangement is thrilling. It’s really, really fun. And it’s so much fun to watch the audience getting into that.

BS: I think there’s something really special about performing at Christmastime for audiences that are maybe people who don’t go out a lot during the year, but they have planned a special night during the holidays to come out to be with their friends and their family. You know, when people have really planned to be there, and they’ve extended an honor to us, it’s just a real privilege to be able to make them feel good in the holidays. That’s what’s nice about it.

A Swingin' Christmas runs Dec. 20-22, Tue.-Thu., 7:30pm, at the Rollins Theatre, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit the Long Center website.

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Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch, Klea Blackhurst, Austin Cabaret Theatre, Stuart Moulton, Long Center

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