I often resist trends. I never read gossip magazines. I don’t really follow clothing trends. I pointedly avoided getting on the Serial podcast bandwagon until all the episodes were complete. But Hamilton? Hamilton is a trend I can get behind. Like most popular things I had been warily watching the hubbub about Hamilton from a comfortable distance. I’d even tried to get tickets once before it got to Broadway and gave up when all the shows in the next ten days were sold out.
But then near the end of September 2015 NPR hosted the entire soundtrack for free streaming. The day it came out, my brother-in-law, whose opinion in such matters has never steered me wrong, privately messaged me to say that I had to check it out. I had just happened to find myself stuck for at least an hour and a half at the budget airport in Frankfurt with nothing much to do and free wifi. So I figured I would give it chance at least for a few songs. Needless to say, I was happily blown away. After listening to less than 25% of the album, I knew I would finish the whole thing and listen several more times.
If you’re not into Hamilton, I first recommend that you listen to the entire thing in order before writing it off and second tell you that, although it helps, it’s really not necessary to know the show to enjoy today’s post. “Hamildolph” is a fun mashup of a few Hamilton songs with white guys (Eclipse 6) telling the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (The white guys really is a notable difference from the show where the only role played by a Caucasian was King George III.) Rudolph’s nose vies with the star marking the Christchild’s birth for the most famous light of Christmas. So enjoy, and take away this lesson from Hamilton that every once in a while something gets popular for good reason.
Here’s a little trivia you can whip out at your next holiday party:
Q: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was part of a marketing strategy for what product?
A: A Christmas coloring book from Montgomery Ward.
Q: What animal was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer before he was a reindeer?
A: A moose. Maybe.
Q: What part of Rudolph did the boss complain about?
A: His red nose.
Q: What other names were considered for the character besides Rudolph?
A: Several including Rodney, Roddy, Roderick, Rudy, Rollo, Roland, Reggy, Reginald, and Romeo. BBC launched a series about Rudolph’s son, Robbie, and another Christmas special gives Rudolph a brother named Rusty.
Q: What other Christmas poem besides “Rudolph” is in anapestic tetrameter?
A: Why in the sam hill should I know about anapestic tetrameter? Fair point. (The other poem is “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” “Rudolph” was clearly modeled after the famous earlier poem because “Rudolph” starts “‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills…” and ends with “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” just as Clement C. Moore’s does.)
Rudolph was originally both a goodwill gift and an attempt to save money on an in-house promotion. For years the retail giant Montgomery Ward had bought and given away coloring books at Christmas. For the 1939 season they figured that creating their own coloring book would be more cost-effective and a nice gesture, and so Robert L. May, a 35 year-old advertising copywriter, was commissioned to come up with a storybook to that end. Incidentally, May was Jewish, and so was his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, who wrote the music. Thus “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is another in the long line of Christmas songs that have come from Jewish songwriters, something I wrote about for Day 5 in 2013. One account says that May initially wrote of a moose but changed it, because, purportedly, reindeer are “more friendly.” But another version says that May decided to make the character a deer because it was his four year-old daughter Barbara’s favorite animal at the zoo. Barbara was also, apparently, May’s first test audience for different revisions as he tried to make sure the story appealed to children.
The story of Rudolph was even more personal to May, however. Like the outcast reindeer in the story, May often felt out of place and seems to have struggled to find social acceptance while growing up. What’s more, after battling cancer for about two years, May’s wife Evelyn passed away leaving him as a single father with several medical bills and on a copywriter’s salary. His boss offered to take him off the project, but May refused and later said, “I needed Rudolph now more than ever.” And at first, May’s boss wasn’t too pleased with the concept for the children’s book. At the time red noses were associated with chronic drunkenness, and May’s boss asked, “Can’t you come up with anything better?” Eventually, however, May’s superiors were won over by the character, story, and drawings, and Rudolph and his bright nose found their way into millions of hearts: 2.4 million copies were distributed in 1939. If you’d like to see the original poem and illustrations, you can find them along with a terrific NPR spot on the whole story here.
The version posted here is from the 1964 animated special aired on NBC featuring Burl Ives. If you’ve been following the blog, this might sound familiar: yesterday I mentioned that in the following year, 1965, CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas. Both films and their soundtracks have remained Christmas staples, and I’m glad: for Christmas I like the story of social underdogs finding they have something needed and lovely to offer.