It was easy to come away from Audra McDonald’s first two records — ditto her Broadway cast productions, her spots on multiartist studio projects and her 2000 Meadow Brook Theatre show — with the notion that she could sing anything: It seemed she could turn on that high-drama approach and show off her incredible belting range and make numbers from the phone book sound just fine. Well … she’s called that bluff with her latest, and hearing the phone book only makes one long for something a little more engaging … say the Fibonacci numbers, or the Mersenne primes or the square root of two.
OK. OK. OK. It’s hyperbolic to compare a collection of melodies by the likes of Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers to a directory. But consider the context.
McDonald’s 1998 debut, Way Back to Paradise, was surprising not only for the singer — whose arrival has been likened to that of the young Barbra Streisand 40 years ago — but for the songs and songwriters introduced. There was Ricky Ian Gordon setting Langston Hughes to music. There was Michael John LaChiusa’s making to-hell-with-men feminism sound sassy in the title track and striking another stance in “Mistress of the Senator.” There was Adam Guettel’s come-to-Jesus dialogue set in an abortionist’s waiting room. There was plenty of unconventional fare.
Her follow-up, How Glory Goes, wove new Broadway-style composers with old masters — and that worked even better. It’s hard to outdo Glory’s closing triptych: McDonald makes palpable the longing of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” which dovetails with two recent tunes: a trapped miner’s meditations on heaven (the title track) and a finally a lover’s lullaby (“Lay Down Your Head”).
All of which makes this new collection seem modest in contrast. There is a clear concept at work: McDonald said she wanted an album that matched her happiness as a first-time mother. The cover shot inserts McDonald, Zelig-like, into a bus station scene that shouts 1940s, and most of the material is from then or earlier. McDonald makes better-known songs like “I Wish I Were in Love Again” sound fresh and makes lesser-known numbers like “I Double Dare You” sound familiar. She’s radiant on the wordless vocal of Duke Ellington’s “On a Turquoise Cloud.” Of the two fairly new (’80s-’90s) songs, LaChiusa’s “See What I Wanna See” is a decent retread of “Frankie and Johnny” territory, but Jay Leonhart’s “Beat My Dog” is a hoot. (And there’s a dollop of social commentary in Irving Berlin’s “Suppertime,” though no footnotes to cue unfamiliar listeners that this a subtle predecessor to the anti-lynching protest of “Strange Fruit.”)
Coupled with her upcoming TV role — on “Mister Sterling” a midseason entry on NBC — this may be the record that makes the McDonald-Streisand comparisons resonate with the masses. A pity if her new fans only hear her play it this happy and safe.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.
Email us at email@example.com.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.