An impressive career for anyone--and especially for someone at the tender age of 29.
In 1998, McDonald recorded a solo CD, on the Nonesuch Records label, entitled Way Back To Paradise (the title track taken from Marie Christine), featuring the work of the new generation of composers including LaChiusa, Adam Guettel (the Off-Broadway musical Floyd Collins), and Jason Robert Brown (Parade). The album garnered praise for McDonald, but drew sharp criticism for her choice of material: where were the audience-pleasing standards that could highlight McDonald's vocal gifts?
As if to answer her critics, McDonald's second solo release, How Glory Goes (also on Nonesuch), mixes Broadway classics by Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Leonard Bernstein with new work from the likes of Adam Guettel, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime), and Jeanine Tesori. The older and newer material blend seamlessly, thanks to McDonald's expert delivery, although the album is not without its flaws.
Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" from St. Louis Woman opens the collection, with McDonald providing a cool and easy vocal navigation of the jazzy landscape. Her classical training, however, occasionally betrays her with over-enunciation and meticulous rhythmic interpretations. Overall, she finds an emotional intensity that builds nicely, ending with McDonald in full voice and full command.
Her second St. Louis Woman entry, "I Had Myself A True Love," mines even greater depths, employing both McDonald's power and her sensitivity in a masterful balance. However, she fares less well with "Bill" from Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat, as her singing seems to exceed the limitations of the song. Here, and on Arlen's "I Never Has Seen Snow," McDonald's intelligence and skill seem so removed from the antiquated feeling of both pieces; she seems too smart to sell lines like "I done lost my ugly spell" and "What I really wants to say is this."
Arlen's "A Sleepin' Bee" suffers similarly, not only lyrically but with its creepy string arrangements and McDonald's somewhat unnatural vocal swoops. It is refreshing, then, as she wraps her voice around "I Hid My Love," composed by Steve Marzullo to a poem by John Clare, and "Was That You?" the first of two Adam Guettel entries. McDonald sells these contemporary tracks more convincingly--proving that her advocacy of them is well founded--and uses her operatic background to reveal wonderful intricacies.
The album regains its footing with "When Did I Fall In Love" from the Bock-Harnick musical Fiorello! and "The Man That Got Away" by Arlen, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, from A Star Is Born. The two songs create a mini-play of love found and lost, giving McDonald ample opportunity to shine.
Her straight-ahead approach to "When Did I..." works perfectly (even with a few sounds-like-a-wrong-note-but-isn't moments in the finale) and segues into a heartfelt and most relaxed "Man," evading any unwanted echoes of Judy Garland, with whom the song is often associated. It is a well-earned and well-executed climax to the CD.
The denouement begins with a graceful take on the West Side Story anthem "Somewhere," despite a lackluster orchestration, and leads immediately into Guettel's "How Glory Goes," the reflective ultimate moment from Floyd Collins. The instrumental introduction tacked onto "Somewhere," intended to give it and "Glory" a sense of continuity, is the album's only deliberate connection--and it is unsettling, a thematic idea that falters in performance.
Yet McDonald's embracing of "How Glory Goes" is far-reaching and resonant--easily delivering on its promise as the title track, exonerating its awkward "Somewhere" tether, and even overshadowing some of the standard tunes with its musical intensity. A simple lullaby, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's "Lay Down Your Head," gently completes the album.
Upon repeated listening, one realizes that the songs tend to bleed into one another, setting a tone and not straying far from it. Yet McDonald finds more than ample room within that tone to dazzle. Audra McDonald possesses such talent that her transgressions merely dip a performance from perfect to near perfect--and usually for a mere flicker of a phrase. McDonald has produced a warm, accessible, and polished sophomore effort.