Updated: Dec 5, 2022
For over twenty years one of my absolute favorite holiday traditions has been buying the newest Carols for a Cure album and discovering what songs would enter into my regular rotation. You see, Carols for a Cure is a wonderful thing. It is a yearly recording released by (and for the benefit of) the charitable organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Each volume contains a mixture of old and new songs for the holiday season performed by members of the casts of current Broadway shows (and occasionally stage performers from wider productions in the theater community.)
Recently, I was listening to one of those radio stations that plays holiday music 24/7 in the run up to Christmas and thinking about how sad it is that none of my favorite songs from Carols for a Cure ever end up here. So, my attempt to bring this music (especially from the older volumes, which I fear might be totally forgotten) to a wider audience is this post. I've curated a selection of the tracks from the last two-plus decades that I listen to the most (I have not yet heard the new volume for 2022, but I may update this when I do) to share them with you. Maybe they will become as beloved to you as they are to me.
The Carols for a Cure albums can be purchased here. I don't benefit from sharing this, but it is a charity I love and a product that makes me happy each year, so I am happy to put it out there.
'Do You Hear What I Hear?' by the cast of American Idiot, Vol. 12 Although I definitely put these songs in a random order instead of order of preference, I had to put my all-time favorite at the top. Here, 'Do You Hear What I Hear?' is underscored by music from Green Day's 'Wake Me Up When September Ends.' Add to that unexpectedly brilliant combination one of my favorite voices (Stark Sands) joining with his fabulous co-stars Declan Bennett, Tony Vincent, and Alysha Umphress and you have a winning combination in my book. I'd be lying if I pretended I didn't listen to this song all year round. Listen here.
'O Come, All Ye Faithful' by the cast of All Shook Up, Vol. 7 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' has always been a beloved Christmas hymn to me. Here it's given the up-tempo rock treatment by the cast of All Shook Up. If you're a Cheyenne Jackson fan, you'll definitely want to listen. This may be from his early fame days, but his voice is unmistakable on the track. Listen here.
'Pat-a-Pan' by the cast of Mary Poppins, Vol. 12 The historian in me loves old carols, and 'Pat-a-Pan' is a perfect one to me. Here the adults and children from Mary Poppins join together to bring this centuries-old carol about a joyous holiday to life. If you have ever visited Colonial Williamsburg during the winter season, you have probably heard a version of it there, but this one is the one that has my heart. It makes me want to drink warm cider and snuggle under blankets and be as cozy as possible. Listen here.
'Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel' by the cast of Hairspray, Vol. 5 When I first heard this, I thought "what a strange yet funny Hanukkah song that somehow manages to be about dreidels and...the cast of Friends?" I liked it, but I had no idea why. Many (and I do mean many) years later, I learned this was actually a tweaked-for-improvement version of Kyle's 'Dreidel Song' from South Park. Then the weirdness made sense. So, if you've ever wanted to hear Shoshana Bean, Harvey Fierstein, Jackie Hoffman, Dick Latessa, and other fabulous theater performers put their stamp on a South Park song, this is the song for you. It is almost surreal that it even exists, yet I find myself listening to it every year. Listen here.
'Joy to the World' by the cast of Bombay Dreams, Vol. 6 'Joy to the World' with a Bollywood twist. That's all you should need to know to convince you that this track is fabulous. Listen here.
'The Cherry Tree Carol' by the cast of Pippin, Vol. 15 For some reason, I'd never heard this carol before volume 15 of Carols for a Cure dropped. Here, it is a beautiful duet by Matthew James Thomas and Rachel Bay Jones. The carol follows a point of contention between a pregnant Mary and Joseph, with the latter showing a moment of resentment about not being the father of Mary's baby. It takes an intervention from the in-utero Baby Jesus to truly wake Joseph up to what is actually going on. The first time I heard it I thought, well this is a strange story, but their voices blend beautifully and it is strangely powerful, so it won me over. Listen here.
'Christmastime on Highway 13' by the cast of Urinetown, Vol. 5 If you love mellow, heartfelt Christmas songs, this one is for you. It follows the story of a woman who finds an abandoned baby while working her dead-end waitressing job on Christmas Eve. Kristie Dale Sanders' solo performance here is full of tenderness and although the beginning implies it could be a depressing song, it instead becomes a hopeful meditation on life improving and things not always being as they first appear. I'm a sucker for a story song, so it's no surprise I love this one. Listen here.
'Christmas Vacation' by the cast of Beautiful, Vol. 17 I never thought I would like a version of the song 'Christmas Vacation' that wasn't the one from the film of the same name. Then the cast of Beautiful went so hard on this version that it might actually be my favorite now. Listen here.
'Sing Out' by the cast of Gypsy, Vol. 5 If you've ever wanted to hear the Christmas story told with a humorous twist, this is for you. It has a catchy, lovely, chorus about singing the 'greatest story ever told' that balances the witty one-liners like, 'I seriously doubt herald angels would lie' expertly. If nothing else, you should listen for all the fun Gypsy references. It's a bit of off-kilter fun and a treasured classic in my family. Listen here.
'Angels We Have Heard on High' by the cast of Rent, Vol. 8 Everyone I know, knows I am not a huge Rent fan, but it turns out that when you add Rent's 'Santa Fe' music to 'Angels We Have Heard on High' I get obsessed with it. Much like with the American Idiot song at the top of this list, I have listened to this song in many not-Christmas times of the year. I have no regrets. Listen here.
'Little Drummer Boy' by the cast of If/Then, Vol. 16 Jason Tam leads this moving version of 'Little Drummer Boy' with a beautifully clear and evocative sound that somehow manages to make this song feel both modern and like the classic almost everyone knows. Listen here.
'Angelo Rosenbaum' by the cast of The Lion King, Vol. 5 What do you when you're single, half Italian Catholic and half Jewish, and want to stop being single, but also don't want to give up either Christmas or Hanukkah? This song (which has caused me to say "then one night at Pathmark!" randomly, for years, to the befuddlement of whoever is with me) is performed by Thom Christopher Warren and offers an amusing take on this specific predicament that everyone can appreciate. Listen here.
'Broadway Holiday' by the cast of A Chorus Line, Vol. 9 Musical lovers will have a great time listening to this song that name drops more shows than you could probably anticipate. It covers the idea that Broadway doesn't stop just because the holidays are happening and creates an imaginary celebration attended by the casts and characters of the shows running around the time it was recorded. Listen here.
'The Hanukkah Song' by the cast of The Wedding Singer, Vol. 10 and 'The Chanukah Song' by the cast of Soul Doctor, Vol. 15 I couldn't decide which version of the Adam Sandler song to include, because I like them both so much. The Wedding Singer's version sticks largely to the Sandler lyrics while Soul Doctor's is great fun because it has been rewritten to be about Broadway people. You really can't go wrong with either of them, and it is super fun to listen to them back-to-back to hear the differences. Being a Broadway lover, the Soul Doctor lyrics changes probably make it my preferred version, so that's the video I've embedded. Listen to The Wedding Singer version here. Listen to the Soul Doctor version here.
'Drey Dreydele' by the cast of Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish), Vol. 21 I don't understand a word of Yiddish, so I can't dive into the lyrics for you (though Google tells me they include 'Bring me bread and bring me wine/We will rejoice and be merry'), but I can tell you that it hasn't stopped me from putting this on my holiday playlists. I love the bouncy, catchy, upbeat nature of this song. I really wanted to share it all with you here but for reasons unknown, it was the only song I couldn't find in full anywhere online. I guess this just means you'll have to buy volume 21 to dance along with it, because I promise you will want to dance with it. It's hard not to be happy when you hear it.
'Deck the Halls, It’s Christmas/Come on Home' by the cast of Motown the Musical, Vol. 15 Charl Brown and Marva Hicks do a great job leading this two-prong song. Charl starts you off with some bouncy music perfect for a party, then Marva brings the hearty emotion. They compliment each other well and the result will make your emotions run the gamut, in the best possible way. Listen here.
'O Tannenbaum' by the cast of Cabaret, Vol. 5 My mother loves Raúl Esparza, so this song (which is basically a solo by him) is always in rotation around Christmas for my family. I admit that when I first heard it, the opening 39 seconds where it is a group opening, I thought it was jarring and wasn't a fan. But, once Raúl comes in and takes over the melody, I love it. Plus, despite the song having a German name, he sings it mostly in English with a bit of Spanish added for wonderful embellishment. Listen here.
'Carol of the Bells' by the cast of Blast, Vol. 3 It's instrumental and it's vibrant and beautiful. Listen here.
'Yule of Rock' by the cast of School of Rock, Vol. 19 This is a speedy romp through the holiday season. It isn't even two minutes long but it packs a punch that makes you want to leap around the room to embrace the fun of it all with childlike glee. Listen here.
'I Saw Three Ships' by the cast of Wicked, Vol. 5 I grew up listening to Sting's rollicking version of this song, but then I heard this slower, more deliberately lyrical interpretation by Idina Menzel and really began to appreciate its beauty. Listen here.
'Siyabonga' by the casts of The Lion King, Vol. 2 'Siyabonga' is led by Isaac Mthethwar and includes not only the titular music, but also a bit of 'Amazing Grace.' It is reverent and moving. The first time I heard it I was struck by the way Mthethwar's voice sounded angelic and soared over the choir so perfectly that it felt like the choir was helping to raise him up. Every time I hear it, no matter what I am doing, I pause to listen to it in its entirety. Listen here.
'Christmas Wrapping' by the cast of Wicked, Vol. 6 My friend Jill is a huge fan of the song 'Christmas Wrapping' but I had never heard the famous (to everyone but me) version by The Waitresses. As a result, when someone mentions this quickly talk-sung song about not really being in the Christmas spirit, my brain conjures this version by a trio of Broadway ladies: Jennifer Laura Thompson, Michelle Federer, and Carole Shelley. Listen here.
'O Chanukah' by the (Off-Broadway) cast of Altar Boyz, Vol. 11 Altar Boyz is an amusing musical about a band whose members are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham. In this song, they embrace Abraham's culture and step into the Hanukkah mood by performing this classic song as only a fictional boy band can: with great harmonies and a rhythm you can bop to. Listen here.
'Bring a Little Joy into the World' by the cast of Matilda, Vol. 15 I know a lot of people who don't love winter the way I do. This song is for them. It is all about acknowledging the winter doldrums and doing your best to shine a light into the darkness for yourself and those around you who might be suffering. Listen here.
'Rod's Christmas' by the cast of Avenue Q, Vol. 5 The forever fabulous John Tartaglia (who was Tony nominated for his turn in Avenue Q) performed this entire original number as his musical-loving Q character Rod. It's a joyous sprint through holiday classic lyrics sung over familiar musical theater melodies. I mean, who doesn't love 'The Holly and the Ivy' with a Gypsy twist, for example? Listen here.
'Dominick the Donkey' by the cast of Jersey Boys, Vol. 9 Growing up, despite my Italian heritage, I always thought of 'Dominick the Donkey' as a baseball song and not a Christmas song. It is a staple at Mets games, so that is the connection in my head. I remember thinking, why is Jersey Boys doing a random Italian song? Then I listened -- and I mean, really listened -- to the lyrics for the first time and realized Dominick was the Italian Christmas donkey. So, this version of the song has always been special to me, for the realization and newfound appreciation it sparked. Listen here.
'Jingle Bells' by the cast of Tootsie, Vol. 21 Playing with tempo and style is the name of the game in this short jaunt showing off the voices of Tootsie's Lilli Cooper and Sarah Stiles. The two don't so much battle for supremacy as they do compliment each other with an embracing of fun speed experiments. Listen here.
'Rejoice' by the cast of Mamma Mia, Vol. 15 This song always makes me feel like I'm at a beautiful choral performance, maybe at a Christmas Eve mass. It is uplifting and includes the soaring harmonies you'd expect from a Broadway cast. I have always liked how much it embodies the most positive aspects of the season like a true heralding of the Good News. Listen here.
'Run Rudolph Run' by the cast of Million Dollar Quartet, Vol. 12 A classic bop of a song written by Chuck Berry is given the Million Dollar Quartet treatment by Levi Kreis who brings all the high-octane energy that won him a Tony for playing Jerry Lee Lewis to this recording. If I remember correctly, this used to be an encore at the show during the holiday season, but I could be off on that. No matter how much you love the many other covers of this song that exist, you must give this one a try. The piano playing alone is worth the listen! Listen here.