Fresh from a classy British drama school, Karen David jumped into her first professional job.
It seemed like an odd one at the time – a musical that simply patched together pop hits.
“I remember all my classmates just saying, ‘You’re going to ruin your whole career before it even starts …. This is going to be the biggest flop and you’ve just done Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare at the Globe,’” David recalled in a press conference for her new movie (shown here), “When Christmas Was Young.”
The show, “Mamma Mia,” didn’t flop. It’s still in London, 23 years later; it did 14 years on Broadway, has been seen by 65 million people worldwide and been spurred two movies. And David’s career didn’t flop, either; she stars in “When Christmas Was Young,” at 8:30 p.m. Sunday (but 8 p.m. on the West Coast) on CBS.
That’s one of the final arrivals in a flooded Christmas landscape.
“I know you’ve heard there are 150 new movies coming out,” screenwriter Robert Tate Miller said, exaggerating only a tad. So he “wanted to do a project (that) was a little different.”
Well, Christmas films can’t be too terribly different; there are some expectations.
“You’ve gvot to find a way to bring them together and split them up,” Miller said. “You need snow and you need a nice small town, usually …. You need to have them solve everything in the final act.”
His film does does all of that; the difference is that it centers on an original song. It was written by Sheryl Crow and then sent to David, who had already been cast.
“I was in London and I was on a busy commuter train,” she said. “Everyone was all like 6 o’clock rush hour and they’re all like grouchy and grumpy. And there I was, just beaming, thinking, ‘I’m hearing Sheryl Crow singing this demo on a packed commuter train in London.’”
David and her husband (Swedish-born record producer Carl Ryden) released the song as a single, five weeks before the movie’s debut. It’s the latest step in a career that has spanned continents and genres.
She was born in India (with roots that are Chinese, Parsi and Jewish) and grew up in Toronto, with the musical influences of her older sister (“whatever she listened to, I had to listen to”) and her parents. “I’d go to Ontario Place on the weekends, because they’d have these free concerts. And I saw everyone from Neil Sedaka to Kool & The Gang and The Temptations.”
At 17, she went to London for drama school. Then came that non-flop; David understudied for Ali and Lisa (the bridesmaids who sing “Honey Honey”). A songwriter saw the show, was impressed, and asked her to help develop the musical “Bombay Dreams,” touring with it in the U.S. and Canada.
She had a record deal and released two singles; then her label merged with another and everything crumbled. “That was a real soul-destroying point in my life.”
David spent more time on acting, occasionally getting to sing. She starred in ABC’s quirky musical mini-series “Galavant”; she even sang in “Fear the Walking Dead.” Then came the CBS movie.
The story starts with a record dealer, played by Tyler Hilton. In real life, Hilton is a singer-songwriter who has released seven albums; here, he does no singing. “I kind of felt like I was getting away with something,” he said. Musically, “I don’t have to do anything else except kind of watch.”
His character’s crumbling career depends on a song from an obscure writer (David), a single mom who has left show-business. Yes, that means traveling to a small town, finding warmth, snow, and music. We kind of thought it would.