"God Bless the Child": A Track-by-Track Breakdown of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Starring Audra McDonald

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
16 Jul 2014

Audra McDonald
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
"Foolin' Myself/Somebody's on My Mind"

Prior to "Foolin' Myself," Holiday explains, "Nobody but me ever liked Sonny," her first love. "Foolin' Myself" starts out simply, with a few notes on the piano, and Holiday loses herself in the music, singing only one verse: "And ev'ry time I pass/And see my face in a looking glass/I tip my hat and say, 'How do you do, you fool? You're throwing your life away.' I'm acting gay, I'm acting proud/And every time I see you in a crowd, I just want to shout out loud, 'I'm just foolin' my…'" It's moving that McDonald's Holiday is unable to get through to the last word of the lyric before saying, "Jimmy, let's sing 'Somebody's On My Mind.'" She tries to pick herself out of the musical and metaphorical slump she's just entered.

"Easy Living"

"I'm not doing so good, Jimmy," Holiday begins before "Easy Living," a song suggested by Jimmy to try and bring her out of the depression she's fallen into. Shelton Becton as Jimmy Powers sings through most of the song, attempting to get McDonald to join in before she slurs the lyrics.

"Strange Fruit"

"Strange Fruit" is another of Holiday's most famous tunes, recorded in 1939, and McDonald's Holiday pulls herself together for a moving performance of the poem written by Abel Meeropol. She ends this song perfectly at 2:28, with, "Here is a strange and bitter crop." Obviously another crowd pleaser at Broadway's Circle in the Square, we can hear the audience applaud heavily for McDonald.

"Blues Break"

When Holiday tells Jimmy, "It's bad again, Jimmy," she takes a break off stage, and we hear the band in "Blues Break." Shelton Becton sounds flawless on piano, and the band thrives here. (Steve Canyon Kennedy won the 2014 Tony Award for his sound design of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.)

"'Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do"

McDonald returns to the stage with Roxie as her dog Pepi (cue the laughter and "aws" from the audience a few seconds into the song). It's obvious that she's done more drugs — she's slurring the words to this vaudeville blues standard, and in the show, she's returned with her white sleeve down to her wrist. Her voice is becoming a bit coarser in its lower register (listen at the two-minute mark), and she speaks through portions of the song.

"Don't Explain/What a Little Moonlight Can Do (Reprise)"

She begins "Don't Explain" a cappella and sings until she begins recklessly scatting at 1:30. When the song becomes incomprehensible, she stops and explains, "I want a beautiful home and some kids, and I want to cook… And, I want something else, too. I want a club. My own club. It's very small. It's very cozy, just some place where I can sing to all my friends. What else is there?"

"Deep Song"

She begins the somber "Deep Song," singing, "Lonely grief is hounding me/Like the lonely shadow hounding me/It's always there, just out of sight/Like a frightening dream on a lightening night." Her simple, broken-down performance is breathtaking — even via a live album — and the audience's applause is preserved on disc throughout McDonald's curtain call.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

Previous 1 | 2 | 3