In her current week-long stand at Manhattan's Joe's Pub, Audra McDonald is giving voice to the work of the young theatre composers she's always championed, while introducing songs by writers yet to make their mark on the New York theatre.
McDonald opened Joe's Pub in 1998 with a headline making concert featuring the music of Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and their contemporaries. Before the current May 20-26 engagement began, McDonald made clear her intention to revisit the work of the so-called "New Theatre Composers." "What we're doing this time will be very low key," said McDonald. "Ted and I thought it would be sort of nice to go back and take another look at these composers. That's basically what we're doing. I'll have the music there in front of me. We're just looking at some more young guns, some of the same ones, some new ones."
Among the writers now on the singer's radar are Jim Legg, John Bucchino and Lawrence O'Keefe.
McDonald opened with a Bucchino composition, "Unexpressed," at the May 21 show. O'Keefe was also represented with "Is It Me You Want to Kiss," a number from Sarah, Plain and Tall, a musical he's working on with Nell Benjamin. She also sang "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Sympathy)," a number the late Legg wrote, adapted the famous poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Indeed, poetry played a big part in the concert. In addition to the Legg-Dunbar piece, included songs drew their lyrics from the verses of Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes. McDonald did not neglect her favored "three-named composers," as she called them. She sang two songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, one by Jason Robert Brown and two new pieces from a new Michael John LaChiusa musical called R Shomon. The comic highlight of the evening was "Hosing the Furniture," a number the late Jonathan Larson wrote about the Home of the Future exhibition at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
McDonald's song list was as follows:
- "Unexpressed" by John Buccino
- "The Love a Life Can Show," poem by Emily Dickinson, music by Steve Marzullo
- "Is It Me You Want to Kiss," lyrics by Nell Benjamin, music by Laurence O'Keefe
- "Runaway" by Ricky Ian Gordon
- "Coffee" and "There Will Be a Miracle" by Michael John LaChiusa
- "Greenwich Time," lyrics by Randy Buck, music by Sam Davis
- "Departure," poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, music by Jeff Blumenkrantz
- "Build a Bridge" by Adam Guettel
- "The Thought of Him" by Richard Pearson Thomas
- "I Won't Mind," lyrics by Libby Saines and Annie Kessler, music by Jeff Blumenkrantz
- "Hosing the Furniture" by Jonathan Larson
- "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Sympathy)," poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, music by James Legg
- "Heaven," poem by Langston Hughes, music by Ricky Ian Gordon
- Encore: "Stars and the Moon" by Jason Robert Brown
McDonald's third and latest solo album, "Happy Songs," is due out in late summer.
"It's all big band music," she said. "It's all from the '20s, '30s and '40s. There are a few cheats past then, but for the most part [it's from that time]." Among the selections are "Ill Wind" by Harold Arlen, "I Must Have That Man" by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh and "On a Turquoise Cloud" by Duke Ellington. She is backed up on the album by anywhere from four to 30 musicians, depending on the song.
—By Robert Simonson