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Audra McDonald: How Glory Goes

“Glorious Music-making”

By Fred Choi

Audra McDonald. Already her name has joined the pantheon of legendary singers and performers, not only of the timeless divas like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, but also of the crooning mistresses of song, like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. McDonald is justly associated with these legends because she sensitively and effortlessly combines drama, intelligence, emotion, and impressive skill (her background boasts an operatic training at Juilliard), with a strong drive and work ethic. Her unique and personal natural style and grace truly makes her a tour de force.

At 29 Audra McDonald has already proven to be one of the few contemporary musical theater actresses destined for greatness. She is the youngest three-time Tony award winner: she won for her first three roles on Broadway (as Carrie in Carousel, Sharon in Master Class, and Sarah in Ragtime). She has had Broadway’s newest and brightest names write for her, among them Michael John LaChiusa who fashioned his stunning, harrowing Marie Christine specifically for McDonald, and a fourth Tony nomination is expected. In addition she has already released two solo albums. Her debut Way Back to Paradise was not only a daring survey of modern musical theater composers, but a best seller.

In contrast, her second album, How Glory Goes, displays unique interpretations of such well-known songs as “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home” from Harold Arlen’s St. Louis Woman, and “The Man That Got Away” from Arlen’s A Star is Born. McDonald justly pays special attention to Arlen, a contemporary of Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter, and five of the fourteen tracks on the album feature music Arlen’s music and some of McDonald’s most joyous singing. Here her voice glides through such lines as, “Got the warm all overs/A-smoothin’ my worried brow” from “I Never Has Seen Snow” (lyrics by Arlen and Truman Capote). McDonald sings these often times sugary songs with a sweet simplicity and a natural ease that is utterly beguiling. Comfortable in the operatic and the musical theater realms, McDonald retains tight control of her emotions and avoids slipping into overly indulgent interpretations.

The album’s smooth tone is consistent with the Arlen songs as well as the three other classic songs: a pleasant but rather pat interpretation of Jerome Kern’s “Bill,” an understated performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” and a stellar rendition of Jerry Bock’s “When Did I Fall in Love?”.

Contemporary songs round out the rest of the album. The majority of them, such as “Come Down from That Tree,” from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 1990 musical Once on This Island and Adam Guettel’s Was That You? are pleasant but generally unremarkable. A few songs, like Steve Marzullo’s lovely “I Hid My Love” and Guettel’s “How Glory Goes,” are well on their way to being included in the canon of “new” standards.

These latter two songs present the elements which made McDonald’s debut album so powerful: a confident, skillful voice navigating a wide range of musically and lyrically unique and dramatic “musical events.” As enjoyable and impressive as How Glory Goes is, one can’t help but miss the excitement and the edge of Way Back to Paradise. After witnessing the immense dramatic and vocal abilities of McDonald, one hopes that she will continue to explore the works of classic and contemporary composers, both inside and outside of the musical theater realm. As indicated by her work thus far, Audra McDonald is sure to dazzle and impress whatever path she chooses to explore next.