Spiritual Mashup For The Holidays

Spiritual Mashup For The Holidays

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, people have celebrated changes of seasons with performances of festive music. In our own multi-faith culture, concerts that mark the beginning of winter typically feature a lot of Christmas carols, a few Chanukah songs, and a batch of tunes about snow. Now come Broadway stars Marc Kudisch and Jeffrey Denman in “Happy Merry Hanu-Mas,” which features a novel approach in which Jewish songs and blessings are interwoven with Christian music.

First performed in 2009 at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York anda the Geffen Playhouse in L.A., “Happy Merry Hanu-Mas” just concluded a run at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. Jeffrey Walker of the website DC Theatre Scene wrote that “two abundantly talented performers charm the stockings right off the mantelpiece and help the Hanukkah bush bloom early this year,” adding, “Only the Scroogiest Scrooge would not be captivated” by their good cheer.

The two performers, who call themselves The Holiday Guys, tell jokes and stories, “re-gift” items from under the Hanu-mas tree to members of the audience, and sing a wide variety of holiday songs, some of which give Judaism and Christianity equal treatment. The songs can be relatively innocuous, as in the case of a spirited mash-up of “O Hanukkah” and “O Christmas.” But they can also be theologically tricky, as in a recitation of the Shehecheyanu that leads into “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” — the latter singing about the birth of the Christian savior.

In working on the show, Kudisch, who is Jewish (and who has been nominated for three Tony Awards — for “9 to 5,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), said that he realized that davening was itself a kind of folk music. “All folk music,” he noted, “comes from a place of prayer or celebration.” He thus responded enthusiastically when Denman, surfing the Web for Jewish music, came up with the Shehecheyanu.

“I told him that the Shehecheyanu is used for holidays, special occasions, and the birth of a child. That was the prayer that was recited when Jesus was born!” Kudisch follows up the Shehecheyanu by singing in Hebrew about the baby Jesus in the manger, while Denman sings the traditional English lyrics.

Kudisch insists, however, that the show is not about religion. “It’s about being together with friends and family during the holidays. When you sing, you are physically resonating your energy, touching people a hundred feet away from you.” Next up for the Holiday Guys: shows about Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day. “The hardest will be combining Passover and Easter,” Kudisch said. “But we are irreverent; we treat nothing preciously. We are out to reclaim the holidays for everyone.”

“Happy Merry Hanu-Mas” runs through Dec. 31 at the York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Ave. For tickets, $59.50, call the box office at (212) 935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.

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