I'll never forget the first time I heard Alison Fraser's voice. From the moment I put the March Of The Falsettos cast album into my CD player, I rarely took it out, playing and replaying Fraser's tracks over and over and over again. Around the same time, I saw her giving a totally different performance on Broadway in The Secret Garden. Trina (in March Of The Falsettos) was a leading lady, while Martha (in The Secret Garden) was a cross between a kind of comic relief second banana like Ado Annie (in Oklahoma!) or Carrie Pipperidge (in Carousel) and an inspirational mother figure along the lines of the Mother Abbess (in The Sound Of Music), to put it in classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical theatre terms. And of course, Trina was a New York Jew, whereas Martha was an English chambermaid with, in Fraser's hands, an accent thick as Yorkshire pudding.
But, no matter the role, Fraser's vocals are unmistakable. Her voice is an expressive, high-placed contemporary belt/mix, set somewhat in the Streisand mold, although it opens up in her higher register kind of like Patti LuPone and has a pre-war crooner vibe reminiscent of Bernadette Peters. There's also a folky quality that infuses honey sweetness throughout Fraser's range and adds an extra layer of emotion and personality. This instantly recognizable and versatile singing has made Fraser indispensable in a wide range of roles in musicals (as well as straight plays) over the last 35 years. This week, Ghostlight Records releases her third solo album, "Tennessee Williams: Words And Music."
Click through to read my selections for the Essential Alison Fraser On Disc.
Tennessee Williams: Words And Music (solo album, 2014)
In 2012, Alison Fraser opened a new solo show, Only a Paper Moon: A Tennessee Williams Songbook, at The Tennessee Williams Festival in Williams' birthplace Columbus, MS, and has been performing the piece, a combination of songs and monologues from various Williams plays, around the country since. The new album finds Fraser in masterful voice, along with New Orleans jazz band, The Gentlemen Callers, making the most of such gems as the Harold Arlen standard "It's Only A Paper Moon," Nöel Coward's "The Party's Over Now," "St. Louis Blues," Sophisticated Lady," "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "New San Antonio Rose." Fraser's a natural fit for the Tennessee Williams vibe, and the disc whets your appetite not just to see her in this solo piece but in a number of Williams plays. This is also great music to play during cocktails or a dinner party. Fraser's musicality and affinity for the Great American Songbook can both stand alone or in support of her storytelling command.
"New York Romance" (solo album, 1996)
I've been marveling at Alison Fraser's musical storytelling artistry — even without a character — since her debut solo album, "New York Romance." No matter how exciting her singing becomes (and it gets pretty exciting!), she never sounds like a singer singing a song, but always like a person telling a story, a soul living a truth. And somehow, even on the most familiar of standards ("Til There Was You," "Who's Sorry Now?," "I Wish You Love," etc.) Fraser maintains an authenticity, like an original cast member, like the person the song was written for, the real version. Conversely, Fraser manages to give obscure and original material ("Coming Apart," "Pain," and especially the exquisite title track — all by her husband, the late, great Rusty Magee) the gravitas and musical authority to immediately feel accessible and somehow familiar. "New York Romance" has been the soundtrack to much of my adult life and is, without a question, on a very short list of desert island discs I would choose above all else.
"Men In My Life" (solo album, 2000)">
Alison Fraser's 2000 album, "Men In My Life," would be worth its retail cost alone for the sheer thrill of her cover of Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write The Book." This passionate performance is emblematic of Fraser's work on her sophomore solo recording. It's an eclectic collection of songs and Fraser offers sensitive and deeply satisfying renditions of all of them, most memorably the standards such as "The Look Of Love," "Show Me The Way To Go Home" and the best version of "Young At Heart" since Frank Sinatra. As on "New York Romance," musical director/arranger Christopher McGovern must be given credit for exemplary arrangements that feel both classic and original, supporting both singer and song in richly acoustic sound.
March Of The Falsettos (Original Cast Recording)
William Finn's groundbreaking 1981 March Of The Falsettos eventually got to Broadway as Act One of Falsettos in 1992, winning Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book Of Musical. Fraser's inimitable voice, as Trina, is the heart and emotional anchor of the sung-through (and completely unique) musical. Fraser offers unmatched warmth and feeling in the ballads "Trina's Song" and "I Never Wanted To Love You" and her vocal prowess positively shines with comedy and high belting throughout the multi-layered and fascinating cycle of ensemble numbers.
In Trousers (Original Cast Recording)
The quasi-prequel to March Of The Falsettos, William Finn's 1979 In Trousers also featured Alison Fraser as Trina and also took full advantage of the young actresses' prodigious vocal gifts. If the plot of In Trousers, at least on record, is somewhat hard to follow, the music and lyrics sparkle with psychoanalytic insight and mind-expanding imagery. On track after track, Fraser's voice comes searing through the melody with purity and conviction. She's especially thrilling in the bitterly wistful "Your Lips And Me" and the stunning heartbreaker, "Love Me For What I Am," one of musical theatre's best-kept secrets. We are so lucky to have Fraser's sublime recording of this gorgeous treasure. As an added bonus, the digital release of In Trousers includes Fraser's hilarious and exciting "I'm Breaking Down," added to later productions of In Trousers and a showstopper in Broadway's Falsettos.
Romance/Romance (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Alison Fraser received her first Tony nomination for 1988's Romance/Romance, edging out such high-profile potential Best Actress In a Musical competition as Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods and Sarah Brightman in The Phantom of the Opera for the nod. Listening to the cast recording of the intimate chamber musical, it's easy to see why Fraser's work was so lauded, and, as Fraser and co-star Scott Bakula sang the lion's share of abundant music, there is lots to enjoy. Particular highlights include the lighthearted "Yes, It's Love" (where you can just hear the smile on Fraser's face), the rueful "The Night It Had To End" (those low notes!) and the emotional centerpiece of the show, Fraser's powerful "How Did I End Up Here?"
The Secret Garden (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Fraser's second Tony nomination was for The Secret Garden, and more than deservedly so. She has two songs, and she knocks them both out of the park. The first, "If I Had A Fine, White Horse," is a delightful, throwaway, full of warmth an whimsy — and Fraser's hilarious Martha accent, just this side of impenetrable. The second is Lucy Simon's timeless ballad, "Hold On," upon which Fraser put her indelible stamp, a cherished moment of musical theatre history. Her rendition is thrilling and inspiring, without being overwrought or syrupy. It's a master class in Broadway song performance.
Beehive (Original Cast Recording)
The 1986 Off-Broadway hit, Beehive, offered audiences the chance to hear beloved oldies, including many girl group favorites, sung by a bunch of then rising dynamos, including Alison Fraser, Jasmine Guy, Adriane Lenox and the late, great Pattie Darcy. It's great fun to hear the versatile (and game) Fraser on this material. She's adorably camp on Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" and belts with the best of them on the Connie Francis staple, "Where The Boys Are."
Swingtime Canteen (Original Cast Recording)
Fraser had another long run singing oldies Off-Broadway with Charles Busch's 1995 hit Swingtime Canteen. Besides the chance to hear Fraser wrap her vocal lusciousness exquisitely around a heartfelt take on "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square," Swingtime Canteen is significant for marking Fraser's first collaboration with playwright (and frequent star) Charles Busch, a relationship that continues to this day, as in their recent triumph with The Divine Sister.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)