Audra McDonald is a talented singer just on the verge of turning 30. She first attracted wide attention with her 1994 Tony Award-winning performance as Carrie in Nicholas Hytner's controversial New York production of Carousel. She won more Tonys in 1996 and 1998 for her roles in Master Class and Ragtime. Few singing actresses have won so many major awards in so short a time, and so it was inevitable that McDonald would release her first solo album. This is it, and it daringly avoids traditional repertoire in favor of songs by younger writers whose musical theater work will undoubtedly attain greater prominence in the upcoming decade.
Her voice is arresting because of its clarity and power – even when she is singing softly – and she uses it with impressive communicative savvy. As author Terrence McNally points out in his introduction to this disc, there are few singers who sing as naturally and spontaneously as they speak. Indeed, Audra McDonald is one of them, although I question McNally's assertion that only two other singers – Maria Callas and Judy Garland – immediately come to mind as sharing that gift. (What about Ella Fitzgerald? What about Marianne Faithfull?) Nevertheless, in a world of faceless singers, both classical and popular (and McDonald neatly straddles both worlds), her singing has such personality that one probably could place it as hers after just a few notes. It's poised, technically accomplished, and still human – no mean feat.
I'm also impressed by the songs, although I am hard-pressed to say that I love them viscerally, the way that I love songs by Gershwin, or by Rodgers and Hart. Most people agree that McDonald is a treasure. The controversy surrounding this CD, however, concerns the repertoire. This is songwriting in the tradition of Stephen Sondheim – it's cerebral as well as emotional, and it tackles difficult subjects (for example, "Come to Jesus," a duet with composer Adam Guettel, deals with abortion). For the most part, the composers' reach is longer than their grasp, and I don't feel that every experiment from their creative laboratory is an absolute success. While Sondheim's work might be a model, Sondheim's ideal of synergy between word, metaphor, and music is not consistently achieved. As a result, some traditional-minded listeners may be frustrated by the lack of tunes that they will want to sing in the shower. On the other hand, it is refreshing to hear a collection of songs that reflect the issues faced by real women… sort of: one amusing touch is a song called "The Mistress of the Senator" (from Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again) whose third verse begins, "Let me play the Lover of the President." Aha!
Nonesuch's dedication to the singer and the songs is reflected in the packaging, and the engineering, while somewhat "poppy," delights the ear. Way Back to Paradise is a viable artistic statement, not a piece of star exploitation. Its integrity is beyond question. I leave it up to the individual listeners to decide whether they like the message or not.
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle