We’re used to hearing classic showtunes like “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” of Meet Me in St. Louis every holiday season, but did you know Broadway composers are also behind several holiday standards that don’t come from musicals? Here’s a look at seven holiday songs written by Broadway composers.
1. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Broadway fans know Frank Loesser best for his string of Broadway musical classics, including Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but before coming to Broadway, Loesser worked as a songwriter—primarily as a lyricist—in Hollywood, contributing songs to countless movie musicals in the ’30s and ’40s. He wrote both music and lyrics to the holiday classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 1944 to perform at parties with his then-wife Lynn Garland. It was such a hit with the Hollywood crowd that he started immediately getting offers to place the song in a movie. Loesser and Garland initially wanted to keep the number as their soirée specialty, but Loesser eventually relented in 1949, putting the song in a largely-forgotten film called Neptune’s Daughter. After the song was known to the greater public, it became a near instant classic. It’s been covered by dozens of artists, including Chris Colfer and Darren Criss on an episode of Glee, Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé on Menzel’s Holiday Wishes album, and Will Ferrell and Zoey Deschanel in the movie Elf.
2. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Sammy Cahn
Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn didn’t work together a lot on Broadway, though they did pen the score to 1947’s High Button Shoes. Styne had the better time on Broadway of the two, going on to write scores to musicals like Peter Pan, Gypsy, Funny Girl, and Sugar. Styne and Cahn wrote “Let It Snow!” as a standalone song in 1945, and it was premiered later that year by Vaughn Monroe. It doesn’t mention any holiday, but its winter setting has made it a frequent favorite for holiday albums. The song has been covered by a host of artists, including Dean Martin, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, and Carly Simon.
3. “White Christmas”
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin’s Broadway scores include classics like Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam, but he’s also responsible for many standalone melodies in the Great American Songbook. Theatre fans might associate “White Christmas” with the film and stage musical that share its name, but it actually originated in 1941 as a single performed by Bing Crosby, a recording that holds the Guinness World Record for best-selling single of all time. Just a few months later, the song was put into the film Holiday Inn (which has itself now received a stage adaptation), but strangely enough ended up becoming overshadowed by the success of “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” By the time December rolled around again in 1942, "White Christmas" became a big hit and has stayed that way ever since.
4. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”
Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Best known today for writing the book, music, and lyrics of the 1957 Broadway super-hit The Music Man, Meredith Willson wrote several well-known songs before he came to Broadway. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” was written in 1951 and was quickly covered by a number of artists, but Perry Como and Bing Crosby’s recordings were the most successful and enduring. Willson later incorporated the tune into the score for his 1963 Broadway musical Here’s Love (now known as Meredith Willson’s Miracle on 34th Street The Musical), but the song has continued to be recorded as a Christmas tune by artists like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Johnny Mathis, and Michael Bublé.
5. “Sleigh Ride”
Music by Leroy Anderson and Lyrics by Mitchell Parish
The names Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish may not immediately strike you as Broadway names, but the former wrote the music to the short-lived 1958 musical Goldilocks (which starred Elaine Stritch), while the latter’s song catalogue inspired a 1987 Broadway revue called Stardust. Their holiday standard “Sleigh Ride” began as an instrumental piece, first recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949. Parish—responsible for the lyrics of songs such as “Star Dust,” “Sweet Lorraine,” and “Deep Purple”—penned words to the Anderson’s tune a year later in 1950 for a recording by The Andrews Sisters. The song has continued to be a hit as both a song and instrumental piece, with the most popular version arguably being The Ronettes’ 1963 recording.
6. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”
Music by Albert Hague and Lyrics by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel
Albert Hague penned the music to a string of Broadway musicals in the ’50s and ’60s, including Plain and Fancy, Redhead, Café Crown, and The Fig Leaves Are Falling. Dr. Seuss is, of course, much better known as a children’s book writer and illustrator, but when preparing the 1966 television cartoon adaptation of Seuss’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the two collaborated on the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which was recorded by Thurl Ravenscroft. This song also found its way to Broadway eventually; the song was interpolated into the 2006 stage musical adaptation of the Seuss’ story.
7. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”
Music by J. Fred Coots and Lyrics by Haven Gillespie
J. Fred Coots is another name that hasn’t entered the pantheon of legendary Broadway composers, but he wrote the scores to no less than 13 Broadway musicals throughout the 1920s. Together with lyricist Haven Gillespie, Coots wrote “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934 and offered it to Eddie Cantor, who used it on his radio show and made it a huge success—the largest of either man’s career. It’s been recorded by a nearly endless list of artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Mariah Carey, Wilson Phillips, and even Justin Bieber.
Logan Culwell-Block is a musical theatre historian, staff writer, and education expert at Playbill.