Jewish actress Julie Benko is Broadway’s biggest rising star. As someone who got the chance to see her during her tenure as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” I can confirm that there’s good reason for that.
Benko, who currently stars in the Barry Manilow musical “Harmony,” is magnetically talented. Not only does she have a voice that could open up the heavens, but watching her on stage, you feel every moment so deeply with whatever character she plays — every smile, every tear. When the show ended, the crowd could not stop cheering for her.
Now, Benko is bringing that magic to a jazzy holiday album titled “Christmas With You,” joining the ranks of many Jews who have penned Christmas tunes throughout the years. And instead of including a token Hanukkah song, the singer decided to spice things up by including a recording of one of the most widely beloved Yiddish songs of all time, “Tumbalalaika,” whose incredible video we’re premiering on Kveller today.
In the video you can see Benko recording the song with her band. You can see her raw theatricality and the way she feels and enunciates every single lyric.
The singer mixes the tunes of the classic Russian balalaika with the jazzy beats of New Orleans, which is Benko’s and her husband and musical partner Jason Yeager’s favorite city. She shares the wistfulness, cheekiness and beauty of the lyrics about a young man posing riddles to a young girl, and her brazen reply as the balalaika plays, in both the traditional Yiddish and English. It’s the best of Jewish nostalgia reimagined and revived. It makes you want to dance and also maybe tear up — as the melody has stuck with our people for decades, sung in the Kaunas ghetto and by the great Barry Sisters.
Benko had never celebrated Christmas before meeting her husband, and the EP’s first track, “(I Never Had) A Christmas With You,” is all about her first experience of the holiday with his family. “I never truly felt inside the holiday until I was invited into Jason’s family. I think that’s a pretty universal feeling, the discovery of something magical about Christmas after finding love.”
Despite getting her start in “Fiddler on the Roof” (both at her local Connecticut JCC as a teen, and then, years later, on Broadway), Benko didn’t know the song ‘Tumbalalaika,” but when she performs it with Yeager, “it feels like a party, and it feels like us,” she shared in a press release.
Kveller talked to Benko about why she included “Tumbalalaika” in her Christmas album, and the importance of sharing Jewish music at this moment.
Why was it important for you to include a Jewish song in this holiday EP?
Practically all our favorite Christmas songs are written by Jews. And yet, there are only about three Hanukkah songs the average person can identify. By including “Tumbalalaika” (which is not technically a Hanukkah song, but feels holiday-related in the way that “Walking In A Winter Wonderland” does), I aim to both honor my heritage and expand the catalog of holiday music.
Do you have a favorite Yiddish song?
This is it! “Tumbalalaika” is so darn catchy that everyone can sing along to the chorus after hearing it once. Plus, the song reminds me of “People” from “Funny Girl” in the way that audiences share a deep connection to it that binds them to those in their past. I often hear people tell me, “You made my grandmother come alive again through that music, thank you,” or, “My father used to sing this song to me as a baby and I never knew what it meant.” “Tumbalalaika” does exactly what music is supposed to do: bring us together and make us feel joy.
What are your Hanukkah plans?
I’ll be helping to lead a menorah lighting after our Thursday matinee at “Harmony.” I’m so looking forward to sharing this holiday with my cast, since this show feels really important to the Jewish community right now. Last year, I lit the candles backstage at “Funny Girl” and (rightfully) got in a little bit of trouble for it: open flame is a big no-no at work. This year, a fan sent me a handmade menorah pillow that “lights up” without any actual fire. So I’ll be using that to mark the nights of Hanukkah from my dressing room and hopefully keeping everyone in the building safe in the process.
Do you feel that it’s important to release Jewish music during this fraught time?
I recently sang “Oseh Shalom” at a Jewish event and invited the audience to sing along with me. They joined me with such strength and urgency that I was honestly taken aback; audiences are usually much more reserved. But I could feel their deep need to express their great communal anguish over current events. My wish is that this music can give listeners a sense of belonging and of hope. This album embraces musical traditions that come from across the world. At a time of year when the world especially yearns for peace on Earth, I hope listeners will find some comfort and inspiration in the joy, peace and spirit of empathetic collaboration that we as musicians felt while recording this music.