There are a few big screen Christmas musicals, like The Nightmare Before Christmas (brilliant!), White Christmas (old-fashiony, but still pretty great), Scrooge (not bad), A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas... oh wait, strike that last one.
And there are some great TV Christmas specials that aren't musicals, like the totally awesome Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, which includes a few traditional Christmas songs, but the songs don't help tell a story or anything. In a way, this show is a lot like the Bing Crosby and Perry Como Christmas specials from my childhood, just way more fucked-up. When I was a kid, back in the Dark Ages before VCRs and DVRs, I would grab the TV Guide every week in December and pore over the listings, making sure I wouldn't miss any of the Christmas specials – and there were a lot of them. And I loved them all.
In later years, they sort of lost their appeal for me. But after not seeing many of them for a long time, I discovered a few years ago that they're all wonderful again if I'm stoned when I watch them. In a weird way, being stoned recreates for me some of the wonder and fun and surprise of being a child, I start noticing cool little details as if I'm seeing it for the first time, the stop-motion becomes "real" again, and so these specials regain their lost magic for me.
As always, I can't resist sharing the joy I get from these wonderful shows. So here are, for your consideration, my personal Top Ten TV Christmas Musicals. I hope there are at least one or two here you haven't heard of before.
10. For years only seen on TV, the accidentally psychedelic 1966 Italian film The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (originally Il Natale che quasi non fu) is really wonderful. If you're stoned out of your mind. It's kind of like if David Lynch made a children's Christmas musical. If you're not stoned, you'll notice that it's spectacularly bad, a cavalcade of bad choices and mediocre talents. And that all the dialogue is dubbed; they filmed it without sound, so you're watching Italian actors and hearing American actors. So smoke a bowl or two before you watch. It can be intermittently mind-blowing and delightful. There are eleven songs by Ray Carter and Paul Tripp, veteran songwriters for children's records, but a few of the songs (like "Hustle Bustle") sound like they belong more in Hair than in this oddity. There's even a fansite for this weird flick.
9. Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics is a 1999 episode of South Park, a weird meta-episode, in which Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo is sitting comfortably in a wing-back chair next to a roaring fireplace, Bing Crosby and Perry Como style. As South Park often does, here it takes an old TV form, the Christmas variety special, and slathers it in 21st-century irony and self-awareness. Mr. Hankey introduces a series of ten incredibly inappropriate songs, each funnier than the last. The soundtrack includes even more songs than the episode does. My favorites are Eric Cartman's really awful rendition of "O Holy Night" (made me think of Roseanne singing the national anthem), and Mr. Garrison's "Merry Fucking Christmas!" I really love this show.
8. The 1970 animated special The Night the Animals Talked is a very odd but cool 25-minute musical, based on a children's recording, about a stable full of animals who are miraculously given the gift of speech for one night. But once they can talk like humans they start behaving like humans. And no one wants that! You may be surprised to hear that Broadway and Hollywood songwriters Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl, Some Like It Hot) and Sammy Cahn (High Button Shoes, Skyscraper) wrote three of the five songs. Sort of grafted onto this weirdly Deist Christmas special was the arrival of Joseph and Mary, who can't find a room at the inn. But really, change the pregnant woman into just any random women and the story doesn't change – it's about the individual's interests versus the community's, and obliquely about racism and other issues as well. There's virtually no explicit religion anywhere in the story. And from the perspective of 2014, it's a pointed commentary on our culture and politics today, selfish, exclusionary, without empathy, much like the zeitgeist in 1970. ABC broadcast the show only four times (maybe because of its implicit politics). Strangely, there's some issue about the copyright of this show, so it's never been released on video, but it has been uploaded to YouTube.
7. Chuck Jones' wonderfully weird, 1966 animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, is another really odd, 26-minute musical, with three songs and two reprises by Dr. Seuss and Broadway composer Albert Hague (Plain and Fancy). The story is narrated by Boris Karloff, who also does the voice of the Grinch, but the wacky title song was sung by the one and only Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger. Grinch is so weird in so many ways. The action of the plot is entirely psychological. There are a series of events, the Grinch's harrowing trips down and up the mountain, the multiple thefts in Whoville, etc. But the central narrative isn't about what the Grinch does to the Whos; it's about how the Grinch changes. And that whole narrative happens inside the Grinch's head, so much so that the story needs a narrator to tell us a lot of this.
The powerful message of the story is that mean people aren't inexorably mean. Once an asshole, not always an asshole. Grinch reveals a lot about the culture of 1966 America, starting to reject the materialism of the 1950s for a new (often non-religious) spiritual quest. The Grinch learns that the trappings of Christmas aren't what Christmas is about – and apparently, neither is Jesus – it's about community and connection. It's sort of the same story as A Christmas Carol, but it's more complicated because the protagonist is the antagonist; the hero is the villain. And in the world of 1966 the Grinch doesn't need the supernatural to have his empathy activated. He just has to see what community and connection looks like, and he's sold.
6. The 1985 Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas special The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is incredibly weird but cool, a kind of pagan origin story for Santa Claus, based on a 1902 book by L. Frank Baum. It has a framing story about this council of Immortals who are deciding whether or not to grant Santa (who looks weirdly like Corey Feldman, BTW) immortality because he's about to die, though this is something they've never done before for a mortal. So the Great Ak (voiced by Broadway veteran Alfred Drake) narrates Santa's life story to convince the council, and we go along on a really bizarre ride. As you might expect from Baum – and Rankin and Bass – we meet all kinds of creatures, the terrible awgwas, the knocks, wood nymphs, sleep fays, light elves, sound imps, wind demons, and other assorted fairies, etc. The 50-minute musical has four songs, all of which are really interesting. It's such a different story from what we're used to, thanks to Rankin and Bass' own classic 1970 Santa origin story (listed below at No. 4). I just saw this one for the first time this year, but I really love it. It's so different from the others.
But wait, I hear you cry, you double-standarding bastard! If Colbert and Mr. Hankey are musicals, why isn't Pee-Wee? That's a good question. The real answer is that the songs in the Colbert special actually advance character, that is, Colbert's conservative TV host character Stephen Colbert. I told you it was meta. Which is why Colbert called in Javerbaum and Schlesinger, who specialize in meta. Likewise, the songs in the South Park episode comment on these characters, and on South Park itself, on our culture, on the holidays, on religion, on religious music and ritual, you name it. The subversion of Eric Cartman intentionally singing "O Holy Night" badly (okay, maybe you can argue it's only Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "intention," but still) is in its brash rejection of the usual respect that "polite society" affords to all things religious. In Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics, Parker and Stone declare definitively that Christianity will be mocked along with everything else. Nothing here is scared. Including Christmas and Jesus.
The songs in the Pee-Wee special are just nice diversions, subversive only in their affectionately ironic echo of our childhood innocence.
4. The 1970 Rankin/Bass stop-motion special Santa Claus is Coming to Town, inspired by the famous 1934 song, starred Fred Astaire as the narrator and Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus, with seven songs by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. The show created a whole new, comprehensive, secular origin story for Santa Claus, also explaining every other American Christmas tradition along the way, stockings, Christmas trees, all of it. This is another trippy show in a lot of ways, with a genuinely psychedelic animated sequence about three-fourths of the way through. It's also another Deist Christmas special. In one scene, Kris Kringle and Jessica (!) are getting married, and the animals have decorated the trees for the occasion; and the narrator says, "No church ever looked nicer." Jesus who?
3. The 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Noised Reindeer, was based on the famous 1949 song, which was based on a 1939 poem. The show has nine songs by Johnny Marks, who wrote the original song. This was the first of the mega-hit TV Christmas specials and it set the model for many of the others. At its heart, it's just a Hero Myth story, with Rudolph's nose as his magic amulet. It's also a Christ story (a subgenre of the Hero Myth), with the young Rudolph going off into the wilderness and coming back to "save the world." It's interesting to see the story's celebration of misfits and nonconformists as the 1960s were dawning. Rudolph and Hermey learn what the Youth in Passing Strange learns: each of us has his own Real, and it's up to each of us to figure out what it is. This was a new American myth. Interestingly, after the first broadcast they replaced the duet "We're a Couple of Misfits" with a new song with a very different vibe, "Fame and Fortune."
Famously, in 1995 animator Corky Quakenbush made a stop-motion parody called Raging Rudolph, for broadcast on MadTV, transplanting the story and its animation style into the world of Martin Scorsese, to hilarious, ultra-violent results.
Fun Fact: Spencer Green (co-author and co-lyricist of Bukowsical) wrote Raging Rudolph with Mary Elizabeth Villano. Spencer also did the voice of Hermey in the parody.)
The show's bizarre premise is that Santa doesn't think anybody cares about Christmas anymore, so he decides to take a year off. Then two elves and a reindeer (who make a series of terrible choices throughout the show) go off on a wild misadventure to prove to Santa that people still care, and they end up in the American South. I would love to know what Phyllis McGinley was smoking when she wrote this book...
So there you have it. If you don't know some of these, I hope you'll give 'em a try. Until I started working on this blog post, I never thought of TV Christmas musicals as a genre, but they are. And it's been fun watching all these (and some others that didn't make my list) and seeing both how they're similar and also how the form changed over time.
Yet another storytelling form that is intensely, uniquely American. God bless Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. We owe them so much.
Long Live the (Christmas) Musical!