Susan Powell is “Coming Home for Christmas” with plenty of fond Oklahoma memories, abundant anticipation for reuniting with a dear friend and a jazzy version of “Jingle Bells.”
“It’s fun and fast. … Barbra Streisand recorded it, and I’ve done it with the (Oklahoma City) Philharmonic in ‘The Christmas Show’ there a couple times,” Powell said of the latter. “I love the philharmonic. It’s my home orchestra … so I’m excited to be back there.”
An Elk City native, coloratura soprano and television personality who was crowned Miss America in 1981, Powell will return to her home state to perform alongside Grammy- and Emmy-nominated entertainer Michael Feinstein —known as “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook” — as the special guests for the OKC Philharmonic’s new holiday Pops program “Coming Home for Christmas.”
Performances are 8 p.m. Dec. 2 and 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at Civic Center Music Hall.
The new yuletide program will replace “The Christmas Show,” which Joel Levine, the orchestra’s retired founder and music director emeritus, and Lyn Cramer, University of Oklahoma professor of musical theater dance, teamed to create for the past 16 years.
“It was more like Radio City Music Hall, like a revue or a Broadway musical almost, which is wonderful. … But we wanted to go a little bit more intimate, heartfelt and classical — and see how this goes with something a little bit different,” said OKC Philharmonic Music Director Alexander Mickelthwate, who will conduct the holiday shows.
“But Joel did call me up, and he said, ‘Hey, I have to talk to you about the Christmas concert. … It’s about “Jingle Bells.”‘ What we’re doing is this really unique arrangement that is extremely fun, but quite difficult, so he had the impetus or the urge to call me and tell me about it. So, we went through that arrangement. Everybody knows ‘Jingle Bells,’ of course, but Susan Powell picked that particular arrangement. It’s a little longer, has lots of meter changes, but it’s very theatrical. … And I must say that I’m very excited for that one.”
Along with “Jingle Bells,” Powell chatted with The Oklahoman in a recent phone interview about her favorite Christmas songs, her childhood musical memories and her upcoming OKC reunion with Feinstein:
Q: What songs are you planning to do with the OKC Philharmonic?
A: “I’m singing some of my favorites: One’s an original song by a friend of mine named David Friedman, who has this beautiful Christmas song called ‘Just in Time for Christmas,’ and the original orchestration is being done by a friend of mine right now. And (there’s the) really nice, fun, up ‘Jingle Bells’ and also an original orchestration combining ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?'”
Q: What was your first musical love growing up in Oklahoma?
A: “I was singing starting as a kid in the church choir, like most Oklahoma kids. … Then, a choir director when I was probably 6 at (Elk City United Methodist Church) pulled me out and said, ‘This little girl can really sing. Let’s have her do the solo.’ And I think I didn’t even tell my parents. I think I just stood up and did it. I think even then I had a vibrato. So, I was always a singer.
“I think sixth grade is when you take your kid out to see what instrument they want to play, and I don’t know why, but I just love brass. I always loved the sound of brass instruments. My father tried to talk me into the flute because he thought it might be a little easier to hear that in a small three-bedroom house in Elk City when I was practicing. But I chose the trumpet. There was a learning curve on it, but I loved my time in band. Actually, when I went to (Oklahoma City University) I actually auditioned with my trumpet and received a partial scholarship. It was for my singing primarily, because I was a voice major, but I also played in the orchestra and the band my freshman year.”
Q: What are your favorite musical Christmas memories?
A: “I grew up, first of all, with Christmas hymns and really traditional Christmas music, and then Elk City did a wonderful — and they still do a wonderful — Christmas downtown, where they had a Santa’s house.
“My dad had an appliance store that had a record — and I say ‘record’ because that’s what they were, records — section in the front of the store. He filled that niche because, at that time, there was nowhere to buy recordings for the teenagers who were looking to play music in their cars when cassette tapes came along. And certainly, people were building their album collections, so he put a section at the front of his store with albums. So, I grew up listening to Perry Como, all the great Irving Berlin songs from Christmases, and also Elvis Presley did a Christmas album at one point. And my parents loved Elvis Presley. … But Christmas music was really all about church.
“They still do a wonderful midnight service in Elk City at that church.”
Q: I understand you and Michael Feinstein played a concert together at Carnegie Hall back in 2016?
A: “Yes. Michael does a series called ‘Standard Time’ at Carnegie Hall, and he’s been doing it for years. … For each concert, he brings in one or two special guests to sing standards. He chooses the focus, and then you choose the song. And one year, he asked me to do that. I was very excited because that was one place on my list that I had never sung. It was a very heady experience.”
Q: Is it nice to have him coming now to your neck of the woods to perform?
A: “It’s so great. It’s like a dream … because we have been friends for years. We actually met in, I want to say, 1996 maybe. We were brought together on a wonderful panel of judges for the Miss America pageant final night. … Then the two of us were on the panel again for Miss America 10 years later.
“That’s when we really started talking, and I had been in New York much longer by then. He and his husband were together for that, my husband was with me, and the four of us became fast friends. … It’s really exciting to have him come to Oklahoma City … and I was excited to get the call to join him.”
Q: The Miss America pageant celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Do you still feel a connection with Miss America?
A: “Yeah, I love it. I go every year that I can — I can’t go this year, but I go every year that I can — and it’s a very big part of what I believe in. I still really keep up with it. … I did four state pageants this year: I emceed Oklahoma and Maryland, and I judged Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.”
Q: What does Miss America stand for that remains so important to you?
A: “Scholarship, opportunity, learning to speak on your feet. I was so absolutely paralyzed with fear to speak on my feet when I started that journey. And it’s inexplicable — it’s like trying to tell you what the color blue is, if you’ve never been through it. (laughs). … There’s nothing that’s not good about being in that system, about that journey of Miss America.
“Even if you just do a local (pageant) and you don’t win your local, you still get seed money for college. That’s the bottom line, and now there’s so many more scholarships available for young women who are specializing in medicine, music or whatever their field.”
Q: Your husband, Richard White, is an actor, so give me an update on how you guys did during the pandemic and what you’re doing now.
A: “My husband is the original Gaston in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ the animated classic, and he is actually as we speak in Los Angeles doing a 30th anniversary taping … for a tribute to ‘Beauty and the Beast’ that’s airing on Dec. 15 on ABC. … Of course, our business was just shut down basically for almost two years.
“It’s really picking up now, and we’re busy again. … I think, coming out of it, both of us are really picking and choosing what we say yes to — and not being feeling so bad about the times we say no.”
OKC Philharmonic’s ‘Coming Home for Christmas’
Special guests: Michael Feinstein and Susan Powell.
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 2 and 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 3.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall.