Many people make an annual tradition of attending live performances, and while the stories may be important, the music can touch audiences far more deeply. This story lends an ear to the singers and musicians behind some of Atlanta’s popular holiday shows, from high art to heavy metal, to find the common melodies weaving through them all.
This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Living Intown magazine.
Laurie Williamson, “A Christmas Carol”
You could say that every year, Laurie Williamson opens the Christmas season in Atlanta. In the Alliance Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” the singer begins the show with a dramatic solo of “Silent Night.”
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“It’s not like the traditional ‘Silent Night’ all the way through,” says Williamson of David H. Bell’s Dickens adaptation, which features David de Vries as Scrooge. “It starts out with someone singing the verse ‘Dona Nobis Pacem,’ and then a musical interlude. Then the [stage’s] barn doors part, and I sing. It’s like a call to order. The music prepares you for what’s about to come.”
An Atlanta-based actress/singer with extensive Broadway experience, Williamson grew up in Queens and recalls learning some of her first Christmas songs while watching “The Yule Log” video on WPIX. Some of her first public performances were with her school’s glee club Christmas program. “When we did ‘The Carol of the Bells,’ everyone in the glee club had penlight flashlights and shone them at the same time,” Williamson says. “I was glad to go from watching it in the audience to doing it.”
After her first performance with the Alliance’s “Christmas Carol” in 2003, Williamson has sung in the seven productions since 2008. In addition to her commanding “Silent Night,” she sings such songs as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as part of a four-piece caroler group that recurs in the show. Between evening productions, weekend matinees and school performances, “Christmas Carol” keeps her booked up this time of year. “From the end of October to the end of December, I pretty much live at the Alliance,” she says.
Williamson finds performing holiday standards to be not very different from singing other forms of musical theater. “No matter what show, I always prepare the same way,” she says. “I always warm up. In that sense, it’s no different. The challenge is to keeping it fresh, to make it like something they’ve never heard before — even though it’s something everyone and their grandmother has heard.”
“A Christmas Carol.” Nov. 19-Dec. 24. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4650. alliancetheatre.org
Elisabeth Remy Johnson, “Christmas with the ASO”
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has been a refrain in the life of Elisabeth Remy Johnson, and not just before she became its principal harpist, but even before she was a musician. Growing up on Cape Cod, some of her earliest experience with holiday music were hearing recordings of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra founder and longtime conductor Robert Shaw. “We always listened to the Robert Shaw Christmas CDs, although they were on cassette back then,” Johnson says.
When Johnson joined the ASO in 1995 as principal harpist, she received an unexpected honor. “When I came here, Mr. Shaw was still conducting the choral concert and the Christmas program,” she says. “Not only did I get to play on something I’d listened to when I was younger, I was asked to record ‘Ceremony of Carols’ [with him and his chamber singers]. It was an absolute thrill.”
Shaw passed away in 1999, but Johnson’s performance of ‘Ceremony of the Carols’ remains a mainstay of “Christmas with the ASO,” an annual program of traditional compositions arranged by Shaw that includes literally hundreds of musicians.
“We still used the format that he set up, which makes a seamless, 90-minute program,” says Johnson, who says she finds that “Christmas with the ASO” has a universal appeal. “Some of the pieces are 100 years old or more, and are so incredibly beautiful,” she says. “I’ve sung some as lullabies to my daughter no matter the time of year. And the music and text is about the birth of a child, so I think that no matter your belief system, you have a way to connect to that. It’s a precious time with a great depth of feeling.”
She points out that in several parts of the program, the harp serves as an accompaniment to the chorus. “In one of the pieces we always open up with, the welcome song ‘Wolcum Yole,’ the harp has these majestic chords,” she says. “It’s almost this call and response with the chorus, with the harp as backup.”
Johnson enjoys being part of the audience’s annual tradition with the ASO, even though when she plays the harp, she can’t pay attention to the spectators. “A bassist friend once told me, ‘I love seeing the audience’s faces when they hear the harp!’” she says. “I can’t see them when I’m playing, but I love to be part of that.”
“Christmas with the ASO.” Dec. 12-13. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4900. atlantasymphony.org.
Jeffrey Bützer, “Charlie Brown Christmas”
Perhaps no single piece of Christmas music has as much cross-generational appeal as the soundtrack for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” For the beloved animated special, jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi composed alternately swinging and serene interpretations of already famous Christmas tunes.
So perhaps musician/composer Jeffrey Bützer should have expected an enthusiastic response when he brought together some colleagues to perform the entirety of “Charlie Brown Christmas” at The Earl in 2008. “That was the big surprise,” Bützer says. “When we started the first song, people started screaming like it was a rock show. Everyone knows the music. Even if they haven’t heard the record, they’ve seen the show.”
Bützer says the show’s inspiration came from the success he and pianist T.T. Mahony’s had with a tribute evening to Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits. “I wanted to play a whole album, and I hit on this,” he says. “We didn’t really plan on it being a tradition, but people really liked it.”
Bützer will bring “Charlie Brown Christmas” back to The Earl for the eighth time with Mahony, upright bassist Robby Handly and singers Andi Rogers, Cassi Costoulas and Carrie Hodge. The group will also do an all-ages version of the show at The Strand Theatre this year.
He says that the group tries to stay faithful to the original 1965 recording while giving themselves creative freedom for the live show. “We definitely improvise on our solos,” he says. “We don’t use sheet music — we signal each other when we want to go longer on our parts.”
Bützer describes “Charlie Brown Christmas” as a concert with the vibe of a Christmas party. “The soundtrack is 39 minutes, so we try to add some weird, grab-bag songs, like the Run-DMC Christmas song or some John Denver Songs,” he says. “We’ll get some horn players on stage and do songs from Phil Spector’s Christmas Album.”
Guaraldi’s treatment of tunes like “Christmastime is Here” can cause listeners to flash back to the past. “I think it’s just another form of nostalgia, growing up watching ‘Charlie Brown,’” Bützer says. “It captures a certain mood. And listening to the music in a room with 100 people is a form of shared nostalgia.”
“Charlie Brown Christmas.” Dec. 18-19. The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com
Leah Calvert, “Celtic Christmas”
Singer/violinist Leah Calvert breaks into the opening line of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” to illustrate a point about melodies vs. lyrics in Christmas songs. “Christmas music lends itself to vocals,” says Calvert, a mainstay of “Celtic Christmas” at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts. “You want to hear the crooning, and the lyrics are often essential to the song. It’s the same with ‘The Christmas Song.’ It’s a great song, but you have to know the lyrics to love it.”
Calvert’s “Celtic Christmas” performance of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” available to view on YouTube, bears this out: You can imagine her slow, haunting phrasing carried down a mountain wind, and her chorus of “Rejoice!” sounds like a hard-earned exaltation.
The flagship event of Atlanta’s Celtic Company, under the direction of John Maschinot, “Celtic Christmas” doesn’t restrict itself to familiar holiday fare. “We don’t always do Christmas songs,” says Calvert, who recalls her mother to taking her to see the show when she was a little girl. “We do seasonal songs like ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.’ They’re all traditional tunes that mostly come from a Celtic tradition. Appalachian music is rooted in Celtic traditions. We just modify them for fiddle, bass, guitar.”
“Celtic Christmas” has been performed in Atlanta since 1991, and its lineup extends beyond song to include storytelling and dance from Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Appalachian influences. This year’s performers include Scottish fiddler Jamie Laval, Celtic theater troupe Aris Theatre, Appalachian soul trio the Rosin Sisters, Irish dancers, and Scottish Highland pipers and drummers.
Singer and fiddler with local bluegrass group the Dappled Grays, Calvert finds that ballads can be particularly effective at touching people’s warm, wistful feelings. “Ultimately, any performance, be it at Christmas or a summer barbecue, is an opportunity for an artist to evoke emotion in the audience,” she says. “[At Christmas], the audience is prone to feel those kind of things. A ballad is a pure form — it gets people feeling the way they want to feel.”
“Celtic Christmas: Music, Dance and the Soul of the Season.” Dec. 19-20. Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, 80 Forsyth St. 404-413-9849. www.rialtocenter.org
Jed Drummond, “Krampus Xmas”
Even the most twinkle-eyed fan of the holidays can grow weary of incessant Christmas cheer. That might be why the figure of Krampus has made a pop culture comeback. A bogeyman figure of bygone Alpine folklore, Krampus would viciously punish naughty children, as opposed to the nice ones rewarded by Santa Claus.
A Krampus horror-comedy is even coming to cinemas on Dec. 4, but for seven years 7 Stages has presented “Krampus Xmas,” a rock musical anchored by the Little Five Points Rockstar Orchestra and featuring heavy metal tunes, original compositions and a framing story involving the demonic yuletide visitor. How irreverent is “Krampus Xmas”? The show’s traditional encore is “Christmas with the Devil” by heavy metal parody band Spinal Tap, with an extended jam of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
“Working with the Rockstar Orchestra is a way to bring in rock musicians who’ve never performed in theater before,” says Jed Drummond, a drummer, ukulele player and keyboardist who composes many of the show’s original songs.
“Every year the script changes, and there’s a different person doing Krampus; this year, I’m playing Krampus,” says Drummond, who wants to sing at least one authentic German Christmas carol in the 2015 show. “Our Krampus delights in chaos. He believes in the punishment of bad children, but we like to portray him as fun-loving and jokey.”
Drummond grew up steeped in Christmas pageantry as a young pianist and singer in a madrigal chorus. “I’m from Florida, and every year Disney would invite school choruses to participate in the Candlelit Christmas Extravaganza, and do grandiose arrangements of songs like ‘We Three Kings,’” he recalls.
Perhaps such experience is why Drummond revels in the spectacle of “Krampus Xmas,” which includes songs from the likes of Iron Maiden and Slayer, burlesque dancers, stilt-walkers and cartoonish violence. “It’s more of a horror movie this year,” Drummond says. “We want spectacular blood effects. We’re working with people from Adult Swim on them.”
While “Krampus Xmas” is definitely not for the young or squeamish, playwright Andrew McGill points out that it always ends on a positive note. “Every year it boils down to friendship and being nice to each other, like the message at the end of ‘Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life’ — we just get there in a backwards-ass way,” McGill says. “Christmas shows tend to end in really specific affirmation to drink the Kool-Aid.”
Drummond adds: “In our case, the Kool-Aid is PBR.”
Krampus Xmas. Dec. 17-19. 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave. 404-523-7647. www.7stages.org