For vocalist Ashley Brown, Merry, Merry Chicago! ‘revolves around family’

Broadway star Ashley Brown returns to Merry, Merry Chicago!, after appearing in the CSO holiday revue in 2016 and 2017 (depicted here). "There's something extra-special about these concerts," she says.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

After a pandemic and a second child, life is starting to seem normal for vocalist Ashley Brown

The Broadway star will appear with members of the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Thomas Wilkins, for the annual holiday revue Merry, Merry Chicago! on Dec. 15-23. The first time she appeared with the CSO, in 2016, she had an infant daughter. Now that child is 7, and Brown and her husband have added a 1-year old to the family.

“I don’t want to say it out loud, because I might jinx it, but things seem normal,” Brown said recently from her home in the New York area.

Looking back, “it’s always going to be pre-pandemic and post-pandemic,” she said. “Never in my life had I not been working.”

But when COVID-19 hit in 2020, performing artists could not pivot to working from home and Zoom meetings, so Brown and her family spent a year at a rental house in Florida near her parents’ home. She posted a few songs online, “but it made me sad, reminding me how weird everything was.”

As theaters and concerts opened up again, she gradually went back to performing pops programs with orchestras and participating in limited runs of workshop shows. “We’ve all got to keep moving,” she said. “We take care of ourselves and pray we don’t get sick when it’s important. We keep making art and music.”

And when she practices at home, she now has a critical audience. “My 7-year old will say, ‘Mom, you always sing that song,’” she said with a laugh. “They keep us humble. But my 1-year-old is happy to hear anything.”

“There is something extra-special about these concerts. It revolves around family, and I like to see all the families together, the grandparents and the kids.” — Ashley Brown on Merry, Merry Chicago!

For Merry, Merry Chicago!, the program will include a mix of “songs that everybody expects and loves, but also some that don’t scream Christmas or Hanukkah or holidays,” she said. “There is something extra-special about these concerts. It revolves around family, and I like to see all the families together, the grandparents and the kids. And everyone loves Christmas songs.”

The Chicago concerts will be her first time onstage with conductor Thomas Wilkins. “I’m very excited to work with him,” she said. “After all the emails and communication between management, I’m eager to get in the same room and discuss tempos.”

The singer and conductor will have a brief rehearsal together before meeting the whole orchestra. Pops concerts get only one or two rehearsals, but Brown said, “I come prepared, and when it’s a good group like the Chicago Symphony, it all comes together quickly.” With a familiar conductor, “I know the way they breathe. We have to find each other’s rhythm.”

Brown’s previous Broadway credits include Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” and creating the part of Mary Poppins in the eponymous musical. Singing in a play and with a symphony are “two different beasts,” she said. “Broadway is very rehearsed. There’s maybe 13 musicians in the pit, and it’s more like they’re accompanying me. For a symphony concert, we’re all onstage together, and it’s an equal footing.”

When she’s not performing with the CSO, she plans to enjoy the city as a tourist. “I love Chicago so much,” she said. “I’ll go ice skating, I’ll go shopping, I’ll get some Garrett’s popcorn. Some friends of mine are appearing in [the musical] ‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas’ [at the Studebaker Theater], and I’ll get to see them perform, and I’m excited about that. I just hope it’s not too cold.”