ON THE RECORD: Songs from Audra McDonald and Harry J. Connick

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Songs from Audra McDonald and Harry J. Connick Reviewed this week: "Audra McDonald: Happy Songs" and Thou Shalt Not

Reviewed this week: "Audra McDonald: Happy Songs" and Thou Shalt Not

AUDRA McDONALD: "Happy Songs" [Nonesuch 79645]
Happy Songs, Audra McDonald's third studio recording for Nonesuch, is every bit as wonderful as Way Back to Paradise andHow Glory Goes. Wonderful, satisfying, enjoyable, take your pick. Here is a singer who knows what she wants to do and knows how to do it. What she wants to do is, happily, what we want to hear; so this CD is very happy indeed. The lady sings, and how!

Ted Sperling, ofHow Glory Goes, conducted. Tommy Krasker, who did McDonald's first two albums, produced. Sperling and Krasker, both, are eminent musicologists; one can imagine them sitting around the piano with McDonald trying out rare songs, and oh if we could have a live tape of those sessions. Nonesuch's Robert Hurwitz was the executive producer. We can be glad that his label continues to favor us with high-quality albums of musical theatre material.

As on the other Audra CDs, the orchestrations come from several hands and are uniformly well-suited to the material and well-played by 30 top musicians. Bruce Coughlin, Don Sebesky and Larry Hochman, all of whom were represented on Audra's prior albums, are joined here by Michael Gibson. The latter does a wild job on Sperling's arrangement of "I Double Dare You" (Jimmy Eaton-Terry Shand), which when things get hot cleverly incorporates that old pianistic standard "Nola." McDonald, Sperling and Krasker made the interesting choice of presenting four tracks with only one or two players; in each case, the results pay off. "I Wish I Were in Love Again" uses a two piano arrangement, restored from an old recording by duo-pianists Rack and Eadie. It truly sparkles, in the (four) hands of Lee Musiker and Sperling. "I Must Have That Man!" — with guitar (Kevin Kuhn) and bass (Peter Donovan) — really takes off. Coming in the midst of an album full of large arrangements, these tracks are surprising and immensely satisfying.

Once again, McDonald includes new work from Michael John LaChiusa. "See What I Wanna See," from LaChiusa's still-in-progress musicalization of Rashomon, is a keg of dynamite, positively stunning (with an orchestration to match, by Coughlin). This is as exciting a musical theatre song as I've heard in a long time, and it fits right in with the other Happy Songs. No need to name them all; this is a collection of good (and interesting) songs, well sung. Audra includes four Harold Arlen songs, which can be added to the five on How Glory Goes. This is a perfect match of singer and songwriter; when McDonald sings "Ill Wind," you can almost feel coursing through you that wind that's blowin' her no good. (This performance reinstates the song's stormy interlude, which is not included in the published version.) Poor Harold, who created such an incredible cache of songs, spent his final 20 years sitting alone in his room, in the gloom. A pity that he isn't around to hear Audra inhabit his work. But how exciting, for us, that she has the good sense to sing Arlen. And other fine songs, too, "happy" or non.

The only open question is why they would call this collection Happy Songs. The 14 selections include at least two songs of unrequited love, one song of lost love and one song about a lynching. Happy?? Pondering this after several hearings, the reason finally became clear. Happy Songs leaves me, the listener, happy. I expect it will do the same for you.

THOU SHALT NOT [Papa's-June Music]
Thou Shalt Not opened last October and closed in January, leading a brief and troubled existence. The show's reception discouraged a major-label recording deal, but composer-lyricist Harry Connick Jr. saw fit to bring the original cast into the recording studio. The resulting cast album has been released, in a limited manner, apparently by Connick himself; distribution has been restricted to the Internet and a few specialty stores. Readers who are accustomed to tracking down obscure theatre CDs should have no trouble finding it.

This is not the time and place to discuss the trials and tribulations ofThou Shalt Not. The thing didn't work, and let's leave it at that. Listening to the CD without knowledge of what appeared on the stage of the Plymouth, you might well think: Say, this is pretty good. That's right, folks. What we hear on the Thou Shalt Not CD is a fairly intriguing chamber musical, with refreshing tunes, an attractive "swing" beat, and exceptionally good playing from the band. Most of which, mind you, were not apparent in the theatre.

Connick's score is quirky but whimsical, and totally respectable; I have heard far less interesting scores in far more successful shows. (The 17 pit players have been augmented by two dozen players, which might explain why the score sounds much better on disc than in the theatre. Connick, who did his own orchestrations, conducted the recording as well as filling in on piano solos.) "Tug Boat," the only especially memorable song in the theatre, remains the song you're likely to whistle as you walk down the street; but the rest of Thou Shalt Not is arresting and merits repeated listening. This musical is musical, that's for sure; Connick's voice — his musical voice, that is — weaves an aura that was pretty much obscured by the production.

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman contributed some stunning staging, working in close collaboration with her designers. One still recalls various images, such as those hard-working dancers parading across the stage in a broken string against a fiery backdrop, to the drummer's treacherous beat. But Stroman's concentration seems to have been on movement and visuals. Connick, the CD makes clear, came up with an intelligent and potentially workable score, with his concentration on music and arrangements. It was as if the two were working in different rehearsal halls, with no one to pull together what we saw and what we heard.

The piece went awry in conception, it seems to me; the further they strayed from Emile Zola, the more impossible matters became. Zola wrote about a pair of plain, commonplace people, as if to tell his plain and commonplace readers that passion could overtake anyone — even them. Broadway's Therese and Laurent were the hottest bodies on 45th Street, with passion inevitable. Handsome ne'er-do-well breezes into steamy mid-American town, hooks up with an old pal, does chores around the yard in an undershirt, and steals his friend's young-and-sexy gal. This is not Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, this is Bill Inge's Picnic.

Given the fate of the show, the CD is a pleasant surprise. It appears that Harry Connick can write an effective musical theatre score. Unfortunately, Thou Shalt Not — as scripted by David Thompson and staged by Susan Stroman — was not the same show that Connick was writing. Let's hope that he comes back with another, with all the collaborators spending more time together in the same room. — Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.