[The following notes were commissioned but never used by Ana Gasteyer.]

Ana Gasteyer is a woman of a thousand faces. On Saturday Night Live, where Ana (pronounced AH-na) was a regular from 1996-2002, she played everything from a hilariously apoplectic, gorgon-like Celine Dion to a lobotomized, monotone NPR host. On Broadway she costarred in Wicked as the green-skinned, humiliated outcast who burgeons into the Wicked Witch of the West; in The Threepenny Opera she played mousy Polly Peachum, who sings of murder at her own wedding. As her record producer, Julian Fleisher, says: “She understands weirdos.”

Who would have guessed that this same woman melts like a toasted marshmallow whenever Christmas rolls around? Growing up in Washington, D.C., Ana belonged to a family that left out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. Today she’s a mother of two; but come Christmas Eve, she’s as excited as a little girl who got the bike and the dolly she’d begged for. “I love to cook, I love to have people over, I love an excuse for a party,” she says. “I love the sense of joy and sparkle that comes over the world. I love the idea that miracles are possible and hope is out there, even if you just find yourself feeling suddenly joyful in the middle of the office Christmas party.”

Sugar and Booze may seem a hardboiled title for a holiday album, but all is explained in the title song, written by Ana with one of her collaborators, Nicholas Williams. To Ana, Christmas is about stripping life to its happiest essentials and trashing the rest, at least until January. “I wanted to make a record you could put on and walk away from, have it on in the background, contributing joy as you wrap presents and make your punch and have your party.”

But this record may grab your ear more than she anticipates. For one thing, it presents a truly accomplished singer, one who studied classical voice at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois before she heeded the call of comedy and theater. For another, it finds her in the hands of Julian, a singer-songwriter, WNYC radio host, and variety-show impresario who is identified with the coolest of downtown New York. Julian assembled the eight-piece band of New York whippersnappers, notably Tedd Firth, a pianist covered by pop-jazz singers. Tedd wrote most of the arrangements; the rest are by two of his esteemed peers, Billy Stritch and Jeffrey Klitz.

Like Ana, Julian is a modern-day traditionalist who loves the swinging sounds of the pop-jazz past—hence the 1960s Vegas-lounge spirit that weaves in and out of this album. But Julian shares with Ana a smart, sardonic point of view that could only come from today. (For another example of how they combine then with now, check out their earlier album,
I’m Hip, the basis of a show with which Ana has toured for years.) “He’s incredibly knowledgeable,” says Ana. “He’s got great taste, and he’s not a snob. He’s fun and funny, yet he got me to lean in on a song like ‘Blue Black Friday,’ to not be so nervous about allowing myself to feel vulnerable.” That one, cowritten by her and Tedd, takes a look at how dark the impending holiday can seem if you’re facing them without the someone you love.

But Ana’s holiday table has limited space for gloom. While this album was in the talking stages, she asked Julian if he had ever written a Christmas song. “Well, I’m trying,” he said, “but the problem is, nothing rhymes with Christmas.” And a whimsical toe-tapper with that very title was born. On “Secret Santa,” by Ana and Tedd, she’s both Patti and Maxene Andrews as she self-harmonizes on a cautionary tale about the dangers of falling for a big banana from Havana. “That’s the closest thing to an SNL song that I did,” she says. “Tedd did this crazy, square Cuban beat on it.”

The vocal chameleon in her is let loose on her wittily acted version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” from the 1966 animated feature
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Anything maudlin in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” gets swept under the carpet by a Louis Prima-like shuffle rhythm. On “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” a traditional spiritual arranged for her by Jeffrey Klitz, finger-snaps, call-and-response, and jungle drums build to a high-flying finale.

Several songs here were rescued from the island of neglected pop-jazz curios. “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag” didn’t break the top 100 in 1950, when Kay Starr recorded it; the composer was her then-husband, Hal Stanley. “The Merriest” is the shiny star on top of This Time of Year, June Christy’s 1961 album of forlorn Christmas originals, penned for her by Arnold Miller and Connie Pearce, a songwriting couple who were friends of hers in Los Angeles. In 1966, right around the time of his success with the musical Sweet Charity, Cy Coleman teamed with lyricist Floyd Huddleston to write “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again,” a tune almost no one has sung. “My saxophone and reed player Greg Thymius is a connoisseur of Christmas novelty songs,” explains Ana. “He said, ‘You’ve got to hear this song.’ I fell in love with it. It’s cheeky and kind of weirdly sexy.”

“In the Market for a Miracle” is a milestone in her career. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (
Dear Evan Hansen) wrote it for Ana to perform in A Christmas Story Live!, the 2017 TV musical; as the Jew next door, she sang of the joys of Chanukah ("Raise it up for the Israelites/Give it up for eight crazy nights”). Said critic Andy Swift: “Can we talk about those notes Gasteyer hit toward the end?” The song got nominated for an Emmy. For this first published recording of it, Jeffrey Klitz, says Ana, scaled down the orchestra “to a hip, swinging, Nat King Cole Trio vibe.”

Sugar and Booze had a card attached, it would contain the following message from Ana: “Don’t worry about the music, I’ve got that handled for you. It’s not all gonna be weird songs you’ve never heard before. We’re given you some familiar songs, too, even if the packaging is slightly unexpected.”