Audra McDonald

"That's How Glory Goes"
sung by Audra McDonald

A collection of mostly theatre songs including:

"Any place I hang my hat is home" (Arlen/Mercer)
"Bill" (Kern)
"I had myself a true love" (Arlen/Mercer)
"I hid my love" (Marzullo/Clare)
"Was that you?"(Guettel/Robbins)
"I won't mind" (Blumenkrantz/Kessler & Saines)
"A Sleepin' Bee" (Arlen/Capote & Arlen)
"Come down from the tree" (Flaherty/Ahrens)
"I never has seen snow" (Arlen/Capote & Arlen)
"When did I fall in love?" (Bock/Harnick)
"The man that got away" (Arlen/ Gershwin)
"Somewhere" (Bernstein/Sondheim)
"How glory goes" (Guettel)
"Lay down your head" (Tesori/Crawley)

With all the current controversy over classical artists crossing over to sing pop, I'm going to change from my usual interest of classical singing to classical pop singing. In my life, there have been three voices singing pop that have moved me more than anyone because, first and foremost, they all have voice, voice, and more voice. Barbara Streisand, Barbara Cook and Sarah Vaughan have unmistakably quality instruments that set them apart from other pop singers simply because the richness of their timbres were so immediately recognizable. Sadly Sarah Vaughan is no longer with us. Barbara Cook has carved out a long and honorable career as a first-rate cabaret performer after a long Broadway career where she starred in three classic musicals: Candide, The Music Man, and She Loves Me. At 75 or thereabouts, Barbara Cook's best singing days are behind her (though she still commands a remarkable instrument as anyone who heard her last Carnegie Hall concert a year and half ago will attest). Barbara Streisand long ago abandoned the gorgeous vocal quality that made her a huge star in the early 60s, for a Hollywood career. Today she sings mostly pop junk, light rock, and the occasional Broadway tune to wake up her old audiences. While she still is capable of making an attractive sound, it's far from the voice she began with.

When Audra McDonald first entered my orbit, I was instantly smitten. She sang Carrie Pipperidge in Nicholas Hytner's wonderful revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel at Lincoln Center. The rest of the cast wasn't up to the level of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. She, however, was a total revelation, and clearly sang everyone off stage. This tall, dark and lovely woman sang "When I Marry Mr. Snow," and just blew me away. Her voice was a gorgeous, soaring lyric mezzo with a strong middle and a radiant top. The program said she had studied singing at Juilliard. Did she ever. I've seldom heard a pop performer with a quasi-classical voice who clearly had learned how to fully integrate a Broadway-style "belt" voice with the head register of a classically trained female singer. Her diction was crystal clear and she could sell a song. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. This splendid performance won her her first Tony Award.

Then she appeared as one of Maria Callas' students in Terrance McNally's fascinating, if historically inaccurate play, Masterclass. Ms. McDonald strode on stage in a beautiful gown and a self-possessed air to sing "Vieni! t'affretta" from Verdi's Macbeth. Her sheer gall was exhilarating. I was still captivated-though this time more from her star quality than to her singing. Despite her training, this famous voice-breaking scena taxed her to her limits and beyond. It was an honorable stab. Still, she was totally memorable and won her second Tony Award.

Audra McDonald's Tony conquest continued with her heartbreaking performance as Sarah, in Ragtime. This musical, despite fine reviews, got lost in the glare of The Lion King, which is too bad. Julie Taymor's dazzling visual production hid a less than wonderful score and a weak book. Again Audra McDonald copped her third supporting Tony Award.

Her next Broadway project was Marie Christine-a musical retelling of the Medea legend by Michael John LaChiusa. A terrific star vehicle for McDonald, the show lacked a strong musical focus. Still McDonald's tremendous stage presence, deeply felt singing and acting thrilled audiences and critics. It will surely win her a best actress Tony nomination this Spring.

For somebody who had managed this extraordinary feat (not even Barbra Streisand owns a Tony), the record companies (beyond Broadway cast albums) were slow to acknowledge the arrival of a truly important new singing talent. Perhaps she wasn't a Whitney Houston or another pop/soul "diva" they could make a bundle from. Nonesuch Recordings has featured McDonald on a Rodgers & Hart recital by Dawn Upshaw and a New York group of songs by Leonard Bernstein. These were admirable tests for the launch of a solo recording career which McDonald made in spectacular fashion with her first solo CD, "Way Back to Paradise". Here was a risky, edgy collection of songs by the new heirs of Sondheim:  Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, and Jenny Giering. These are all fine composers who have yet to really nail a big Broadway success. But the CD contained some wonderful compositions and gave McDonald a lot of scope to "strut her stuff." And now we come to the follow-up to that spectacular debut-"THAT'S HOW GLORY GOES". Already there have been laudable reviews in The New York Times and USA Today, but the contents of this CD have not met with total raves. Well, I don't agree with the reviews. I think it's a stunning CD and urge you to go out and buy it now-get two and give it to a music-loving friend.

I think I understand the hesitation in the two reviews I've read. Half of the songs on this generous CD (14 songs!) are identified with true singing legends: Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. "Any place I hang my hat is home," "I had myself a true love," and "A sleepin' bee" were recorded memorably by Streisand in her early career. She later had a hit with "Somewhere," and sang Garland's "The man that got away," on her 1996 concert tour. Garland's rendition of this song made it a classic. So right away, the folks that remembered these early legends must be sniffing-"the nerve." Well Audra McDonald sings these great songs in her own fashion. I didn't feel for one moment that she was imitating her predecessors. And after two or three hearings, I found that she had made the songs her own. "Somewhere" is a total revelation. This is a prayer, but if you listen to Streisand's typical pop diva take, it's an act of desperation. She's constantly wrestling this song into the ground, milking it for all the bathos she can find in it. McDonald sings it softly--there's never a suggestion of shouting to heaven or hell. And the song is newly minted. And how delightful her soft singing is. "Bill" from Kern and Hammerstein's Showboat is another act of subtlety. And the song is all that much better because of McDonald's refusal to sound like a victimized loser at love. "When did I fall in love," is from a Kander and Ebb musical, Fiorello. I wasn't familiar with this show. But I loved this song. And I'd love to hear more of this score. "I never has seen snow," is from the same musical as "A sleepin' bee,"-Truman Capote's lovely House Of Flowers. I think Harold Arlen's music is amazing, but I seldom have the patience for these big "scenes." His songs are so full of regret and longing, and are freighted with sadness and loss. They are also remarkable vehicles for a resourceful and expressive singing actress. Again, McDonald forsakes the obvious hand-wringing that can turn these scenes of lonely soul-searching into overblown star vehicles. She finds the right emotional balance in them and you would swear they could become fine elements of a recital devoted entirely to American art songs.

Among the contemporary songs, Adam Guettel's work stands out for its memorable qualities of good tunes, strong lyrics and a memorable musical point of view. "How Glory Goes," from Floyd Collins knocks my socks off. A thoroughly modern song, it's poetry is compelling and is beautifully set. McDonald's impassioned performance is rightly the center of this CD. "Was that you?" is another fine setting of Guettel's, offering McDonald plenty of scope for her storytelling abilities. The CD concludes with another song new to me-"Lay down your head." It's from a show called Violet (1997) and Jeannie Tesori is its composer, with lyrics by Brian Crawley. It's a sweetly elegiac lullaby that McDonald intones with all the softness of eiderdown. I've played it dozens of times. I can't figure out if it's because I love the tune or McDonald's gorgeous singing of it. And if you need a masterclass in how to integrate a pop voice with a classical voice, you can start here. No vocal fireworks, no ostentatious display-Audra McDonald sings simply, elegantly, in soft decibels that carry more weight than any self-absorbed "diva" of our contemporary age could. And when it's time to shout, McDonald's more than able, and you pay attention because you haven't been clobbered into submission.

I think this is one of the finest collections of the new millennium and I hope you'll dip into it often. At age 30, Audra McDonald has managed in about six years to establish herself in the same league as her great Broadway predecessors: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Ethel Waters, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Barbara Cook, and Bernadette Peters. There's none of the aggressive strutting and "please love me" angst that so disfigures the work of Liza Minnelli, Patti Lupone, and Betty Buckley, and I'm looking forward to years of watching this enchanting young performer to keep dazzling us with her bewitching musical presence.

Finally, with all the complaints about opera singers performing pop crossover material these days, I would like to remind everyone that there are plenty of hugely talented pop singers out there who are not only making new music, but are keeping alive the great American songs of the past. This is not to say that all opera singers don't know how to sing pop (just listen to Dorothy Kirsten, Eileen Farrell, and yes, Kiri Te Kanawa when she's in the mood), but too many of them sing this music in a clumsy, stilted fashion.

To listen to other good pop performers, I would direct your attention to the work of Harry Connick, Jr., Marc Anthony, Linda Ronstadt, the late, lamented Nancy LaMott, Bernard Fowler (a splendid British singer who has made two fine CDs of standards with the Rolling Stones drummer, Charlie Watts), Anne Hampton Callaway, K.D. Lang, Michael Feinstein, bassist Jim Ferguson, Diane Schuur, and many others.

-- BryceNYC

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