As her year of artistic triumphs winds to a close, Broadway’s Julie Benko is embracing both the contemplative and celebratory spirit of the holiday season.
The New York actor and singer is currently delivering chilling performances eight times a week in the musical “Harmony,” which opened Nov. 13 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. And on Dec. 1, she’ll unveil “Christmas With You,” a new holiday EP on Club44 Records that features a selection of traditional and original songs.
HuffPost caught a sneak peek at the EP via the music video for Benko’s latest single: a rendition of the 1950 classic “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) the Man With the Bag.” In it, Benko and a musical ensemble led by her husband, Jason Yeager, are shown hitting the studio in festive attire alongside cartoon Christmas scenes, courtesy of animator Sara Soncini.
“Through some miracle, the holiday season is the one time of year where all of America suddenly loves jazz,” she told HuffPost in an interview. “I wanted to create a classic for a new generation that evokes the magic of waking up on Christmas morning — a magic which I never got to experience until I married into a family that celebrates Christmas.”
Watch “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) the Man With the Bag” below:
Benko also found creative ways to incorporate her Jewish heritage into the video by featuring both a menorah and a Star of David, the latter of which appears atop a Christmas tree.
Other highlights of “Christmas With You” include “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the Yiddish folk song “Tumbalalaika.” Also featured on the EP is an original track, “(I Never Had a) Christmas With You,” performed in duet with fellow actor and singer Mykal Kilgore. The common denominator among all of the songs on the EP is that each was written by Jewish composers.
A Connecticut native, Benko made her Broadway debut in 2014 when she appeared in the ensemble of “Les Misérables.” Her big break, however, came when she was cast as Beanie Feldstein’s standby in the first-ever Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” last year.
Then, of course, came the show’s infamous casting debacle. Benko took over the starring role of Fanny Brice for a full-time stint and earned rave reviews after Feldstein departed the production earlier than expected. Once Lea Michele stepped in as Fanny, Benko performed the role at least once a week as the “Glee” star’s alternate.
And Benko’s profile has continued to rise throughout 2023 thanks to a surprise mention on an episode of “The Simpsons,” as well as a trio of well-received concerts performed across the country. But “Harmony” marks a new professional milestone, as it’s the first time that she’s originated a principal role on Broadway. She plays Ruth, a Jewish political activist and the wife of one of the Comedian Harmonists, a popular musical group in 1930s Germany that was forcibly disbanded by the Nazis before the outbreak of World War II.
As real-life acts of antisemitism have surged, Benko has come to view her “Harmony” role as a source of personal inspiration, noting that Ruth is the musical’s only character “who is brave enough to stand up to the Nazis.”
“So many people in the Jewish community, and the world as a whole, feel afraid, vulnerable and helpless in this time,” she said. “I hope to shine a light for them and lend strength to my community, just as Ruth does for hers.”
And Benko sees “Christmas With You” as part of that artistic mission, explaining that the EP “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,” she said.