Music Reviews

Audra McDonald: Go Back Home

We’re all grateful that Audra McDonald is back home in New York, recording delightful albums like this.

Album artwork for <I>Go Back Home</I>.
Album artwork for Go Back Home.

Hearing Audra McDonald’s glorious voice singing a very legit version of Alicia Keys’ part in “Empire State of Mind” as Neil Patrick Harris rapped an on-the-fly recap was the perfect way to end this year’s Tonys. Of course, you can enjoy McDonald’s voice year-round with her new album, Go Back Home
. Her first solo recording since 2006’s Build a Bridge, Go Back Home is a thoughtfully curated, well-orchestrated, and brilliantly sung homecoming for the five-time Tony Award-winning actress.

Television audiences best know McDonald from the four seasons she spent playing Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC’s Private Practice. She returned to the Broadway stage in 2011 for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, earning her a fifth Tony Award.

Appropriately, she opens this album with “Go Back Home” from Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys. It is a song of longing, sung from a jail cell as the protagonists await execution for a wrongful murder conviction. McDonald revealed in an interview for TM Magazine that the song became her anthem as she was commuting between Los Angeles and New York during the years she was on Private Practice. While the stakes are certainly lower for the jet-setting McDonald, nothing lacks in this heartfelt rendition.

Staying on that theme, track two is “The Glamorous Life” from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Dedicating this rendition to her daughter Zoe, McDonald captures the ambivalence at the song’s heart. Sung in the show by 13-year-old Fredricka Armfeldt, “The Glamorous Life” is equal parts awe and disappointment at the always-on-the-road life of her actress mother, Desiree. This is an incredibly personal song to include on the album and certainly one that will resonate with many working mothers.

The highlight of the album is Adam Gwon’s “I’ll Be Here” from Ordinary Days. What starts as a driving love anthem decorated with conversational and disarmingly honest lyrics transforms into something very different. It will completely blindside you if you are unfamiliar with the original musical. McDonald navigates this transformation with simultaneous precision and raw emotion. It is a powerful song about the fragility and temporal nature of life. I can’t stop listening to it.

McDonald alloys this heavy subject matter with a healthy dose of humor: Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler’s “Baltimore” is a riot, featuring the composing team’s trademark irreverent lyrics set against a schmaltzy melody. Like a wise fairy godmother, McDonald warns, “Avoid narcissistic, alcoholic, think-they’re-French-but-they’re-not waiters originally from Baltimore / Who deflower you, carry a copy of Fountainhead in their pocket and lie about their age.” Sage advice, ladies.

Ask Audra continues with “Married Love” from Michael John LaChuisa’s musical Marlene Dietrich’s ABC. The show is based on Dietrich’s book ABC. “Married Love” is an ever-changing song that offers a little practical marriage advice from Lola-Lola herself. She ought to know a thing or two: She was married for over 50 years, all while maintaining countless lovers on the side.

Accompanied on the acoustic guitar by her husband, Will Swenson, McDonald offers as the penultimate track a distinctly American version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. Rather than the Austrian Alps, this blossom of snow must surely be in the Great Smoky Mountains.

McDonald brings the show home with a smile-inducing version of “Make Someone Happy” from Julie Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green’s Do Re Mi. At this point, if she’s not made you happy with this pitch-perfect album, I doubt anything else could. Buy it.