It’s a festive time of year at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and their annual Holiday Pops weekend is fast approaching. This year’s performances will bring together Principal Pops Conductor John Morris Russell, the Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, percussionists from the African American Cultural Center, and a very special guest performer – vocalist Liz Callaway.
Callaway is a Broadway megastar, Tony nominee and Emmy Award winner. Many will recognize her singing voice from her role in the animated classic, ‘Anastasia,’ where she performed “Journey to the Past,” as well as several other animated films. Her Broadway performances have included ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ ‘Baby,’ ‘Cats,’ ‘Miss Saigon,’ ‘The Three Musketeers,’ and ‘The Look of Love.’ She has also released five solo recordings. Callaway last performed with the BPO to sold-out audiences in 2017 with The Carol King Songbook. The orchestra eagerly anticipates her return to share the stage for their four Holiday Pops performances.
This year’s shows will feature holiday classics such as “Sleigh Ride” and “Skaters Waltz,” along with some audience singalongs. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus will perform “Little Drummer Boy” and “Mele Kalikimaka” alongside the BPO and drummers from the African American Cultural Center.
“The musicians and I are thrilled to welcome Ms. Callaway to this year’s Holiday Pops program,” said Maestro Russell. “This is one of my absolute favorite concerts of the year, and with Liz’s pristine and heartfelt voice, will make this a truly exceptional event. Our collection of unique and splendid orchestral and choral arrangements, Liz’s velveteen vocals and joyous spirit, and the glorious sound of the BPO all come together for one incredible weekend of sheer delight for all of Buffalo and Western New York.”
We did a brief interview with Callaway to learn more about her career and her experiences performing with our local orchestra.
How did you get into this crazy world of singing for your supper?
I was born and raised in Chicago. I was very shy growing up and would only sing when my family left the house, using a hairbrush as a microphone. I would sing my favorite albums—Hair, Company, A Chorus Line… as well as anything by the 5th Dimension. I got into musical theatre in high school, and at 18, moved to New York with my sister, Ann [Hampton Callaway]. A year later, I landed my first Broadway show, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. I am so blessed to have been able to call Broadway my home for so many years. I am humbled to have received a Tony nomination for my portrayal of Lizzie Fields in Baby. I was fortunate to play Ellen in the original Broadway cast of Miss Saigon alongside the tremendous Lea Salonga. I went on to play Grizabella in Cats for 5 years, singing “Memory” too many times to count! My first animated film was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast where I played one of Gaston’s “silly girls.” This begat a number of singing and speaking roles in animated film and TV—including the theme song to TV’s The Nanny (which Ann wrote and sang with me!)—but of all the films I’ve done, Anastasia has to be my absolute favorite.
You’ve performed with the BPO quite a few times, including a sold-out run for The Carole King Songbook in 2017. Tell us what you enjoy most about Buffalo, Kleinhans Music Hall, the BPO, and Buffalo audiences? What keeps bringing you back for more?
I’m so looking forward to returning to Buffalo for Holiday Pops. Yes, the last time I performed at Kleinhans Music Hall was with The Carole King Songbook. It’s such a great hall to sing in and the Buffalo audiences are fantastic. There is nothing more exciting than getting to sing with a great orchestra like the BPO. It’s funny, every time I’ve performed in Buffalo, including when I did A Little Night Music at Studio Arena Theatre in 1986, it’s been in the winter! I plan on contributing to the local economy by doing some Christmas shopping, and scouting out the best coffee bar in Buffalo. (I welcome suggestions from local Buffalonians on my Facebook page!)
Throughout your singing career, what has been your most embarrassing moment on or off stage?
Shortly after I moved to New York City, I sang with a top 40 band at a small club in the Village. One night, I was singing Billy Joel’s song “Honesty.” It started out fine, but then went all wrong. Sounded horrible! But I was of the school of “the show must go on,” so I kept singing. When the song finally finished, I said to the pianist, now let’s do “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” He looked at me and said “we just played that.” So yes, I sang Honesty while they played “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” And that’s not easy to do!
If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be?
Do you even have to ask? Of course it’s Maestro John Morris Russell and your BPO! John and I have actually worked together before and he is the best. Someone else that I have worked with, but whom I’d LOVE to record a song with, is the great Johnny Mathis. That would be amazing!
Who is the most surprising artist we might find in your audio playlist?
I can think of two. One is my son Nicholas. He sings with me on his awesome a capella arrangement of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on my Christmas CD Merry and Bright. Also, in my extensive collection of Christmas albums, I have one called Christmas with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1970. I have no idea why I have this album, but it’s hilarious! (Speaking of football, I am a big football fan and am happy that on Saturday, December 21, the Bills vs. Patriots game doesn’t conflict with our evening concert!)
Last but not least—very important holiday question for our readers—what is Liz Callaway’s favorite holiday cookie recipe?
That’s EASY! My beloved late mother-in-law, Ruth Foster’s Sugar Cookies. By the way, she grew up in Buffalo and my beloved late father-in-law, Harry Foster grew up in Hamburg!
Ruth actually didn’t use a recipe-so any sugar cookie recipe will do. The secret was her frosting. Again, no recipe, but she’d start with 2 cups of confectioner’s sugar, add buttermilk until it was the right consistency, and a little vanilla extract. After frosting the cookies (all different shapes), she would sprinkle them with red or green sugar. Heaven!
This year’s Holiday Pops performances will take place on Thursday, December 19 and Friday, December 20 at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, December 21 at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, December 22 at 2:30 p.m. All shows will take place at Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets range from $29.00 to $94.00 are available on the BPO’s website.
This content is part of a sponsored series in partnership with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Video: Callaway performing “Once Upon a December/Journey to the Past” from Anastasia (which she will sing with the BPO)