A friend recently asked me to name my 10 favorite female vocal recordings, which was a fun but challenging task, as there are dozens and dozens I have enjoyed over the past few decades. I finally came up with the dozen recordings listed here. These are the discs that I have listened to most often, ones that have provided as much comfort and joy as they have vocal thrills. I'm not suggesting these are the best recordings ever made (although I think they are all pretty wonderful); they are merely my favorites. Email me and let me know which recordings make your list. (I'll explore my favorite cast recordings in a future column.)
(Numerous theatre and vocal recordings are available at PlaybillStore.com.)
"Presenting Karen Akers"
I've been an admirer of Karen Akers' singing for years. It was during junior high school when my mother called me into the TV room to watch a repeat broadcast of "Presenting Karen Akers," the first of two Akers concerts filmed for television. Her voice was unlike any other I had heard — a rich, dark, velvety, vibrato-filled tone that cried with emotion. Since that time, I've had the pleasure of seeing Akers in numerous concerts and cabaret engagements, yet her first solo recording, "Presenting Karen Akers," remains my favorite of her numerous discs. The CD (Rizzoli Records), which introduced me to the songs of Craig Carnelia ("I Met a Man Today") and Jacques Brel ("Song for Old Lovers"), boasts an eclectic array of material and finds the Tony-nominated actress singing in English, German and French ("Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"). Akers also handles pop songs with equal ease ("Sometimes When We Touch" and "She's Always a Woman"), and other highlights include the little-heard "Cloud of Music" and "After the Show."
"Listen to My Heart"
The theatre and cabaret worlds lost one of its most talented performers in March 1998 when Laurie Beechman died from ovarian cancer. Beechman is probably best remembered for her work in two of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, where she performed the role of the Narrator and received a Tony nomination for her work; and Cats, where she succeeded Betty Buckley in the role of Grizabella, the faded Glamour Cat. Beechman possessed a voice that seemed to originate from deep in her soul, evoking both the joys and pains of life. She had one of the strongest belt voices around, but she could also create delicate, softer moments that moved listeners just as profoundly, and both of those sounds are preserved to terrific effect in her debut solo recording, "Listen to My Heart," which was originally released in 1990 and later rereleased by DRG Records. Beechman's Broadway belt is in full force in her wonderful renditions of "I Dreamed a Dream," "Memory," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Believe It or Not," Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's "Here Is the Heart" and David Friedman's title tune, and her quietly restrained versions of "Look to the Rainbow," "Since You've Asked" and "What I Was Dreaming Of" are equally as powerful. I'm especially fond of her versions of Alan Menken and Dean Pitchford's "Sailing On," and Noel Coward's "Sail Away," which melts into a gorgeous reading of Tom Waits' "Shiver Me Timbers."
Few have ever boasted a voice like the one the Cats and Sunset Boulevard star possesses. It is a singular voice that has wowed audiences and dazzled critics around the world. There are the rich, vibrato-filled chest tones — that powerful Broadway belt with its seemingly unending range for which she is most associated. And, then there is her upper register, an ethereal soprano that is as emotionally powerful as her biggest belt. That voice, in all its glory, can be heard on her debut solo recording, which is simply titled "Betty Buckley" and was initially released by Rizzoli Records in 1986. Buckley's singing on this disc, recorded live during a concert at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan, is so beautiful, whether she's singing her own compositions, the work of theatre composers or country/pop tunes. There is poetry and kindness in many of her lyrics, and I am especially fond of the sentiment "You and me alone together/and whether O whether or not that you know it/You and me alone./The glow in between is the love." Perhaps her greatest song, which she co-wrote with Lyle Mays, is "Dark Blue-Eyed Blues," which showcases her innumerable gifts as a singing actress. Other highlights include a spellbinding, soaring "Meadowlark," a superb "Wind Beneath My Wings" and the definitive "Ship in a Bottle." As I've written before, it is not just the voice that creates such magic, it is Buckley's consummate acting skills as well as her intelligent choice of material. Like a pointillist painting, all these elements somehow combine to form a masterwork, and one can't help but become mesmerized by the world of her artistry. This may be the solo recording I have listened to most often.
When sisters Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway blend their two different, but equally thrilling voices, some of the most beautiful sounds one will encounter in any concert hall or cabaret can be heard. Thankfully, their first duets outing, "Sibling Revelry," was captured live at Rainbow & Stars by DRG Records in 1995. Each of the sisters gets her moment to shine on the recording: Liz impresses with a skillfully built "Meadowlark" and the touching Frank Loesser ballad "My Heart Is so Full of You," while Ann's medley of "My Buddy" and "Old Friend" tugs at the heart. The sisters' harmonies are especially beautiful on "Our Time" from Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along and a wonderful pairing of "The Sweetest Sounds" and "I Can See It." The highlight of the live recording may be what is termed "The Huge Medley," which features snippets of most every female duet you could want these two talents to cover, including "Bosom Buddies," "I Know Him So Well," "I Still Believe," "Happy Days Are Here Again," among many others.
"In His Eyes"
On her 2004 debut solo recording "In His Eyes," stage and screen star Ellen Greene managed to do the near-impossible: She imbued her studio recording with the wide range of emotion that fills her live performances. Greene possesses a unique, easily identifiable voice, one with an innate warmth; she can also make you laugh one minute and break your heart the next. The 13-track disc begins with Sarah McLachlan's "I Love You," and from the moment Greene sings "I have a smile stretched from ear to ear to see you walking down the road," she completely hooks the listener and proceeds to take him or her on a 58-minute emotional journey. That roller-coaster-ride-of-a-journey follows with a haunting rendition of Kate Bush's "The Man with the Child in His Eyes" before venturing into tunes by Peter Allen, Alice Cooper, Paula Cole, Tori Amos, Queen, Tom Waits, Freddie Mercury as well as a new piece by musical director and pianist Christian Klikovits, "When Love Is Gone." Although the disc includes just one theatre song — a bonus track of Weill and Brecht's "Pirate Jenny" — Greene is such a terrific storyteller that each song becomes a theatre piece in itself. As I've written before, Greene's emotional nakedness and fragility comes across in everything she sings. Just listen to her delivery of Simpson and Miller's "Ready for Love": Like the greatest of theatre ballads, in Greene's hands (and voice) the longing she expresses is completely heartbreaking. Other highlights include fiery renditions of "Nothing Blues" and "Throwing Stones"; a reading of Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" that includes some humorous, off-the-cuff remarks by back-up vocalist Maiya Sykes; the best version of Peter Allen's "Pretty Pretty" I've heard; a touching take of "Too Much Love Will Kill You"; and the aforementioned Klikovits ballad, "When Love Is Gone." Two of my favorite tracks are Tori Amos' ravishing "Winter" and the wrenching "Love Is Everything" by Jane Siberry.
"Just in Time for Christmas"
The late Nancy LaMott was blessed with one of, if not the, most beautiful voices in the cabaret world, a rich, lush, honey-toned sound that could be soft, sweet and creamy one minute and big and belty the next. She also possessed a remarkable ability to find the emotional center of any song, bringing a lyric to life as honestly as possible. I really can't say enough about the genius of her singing: Listen to the way she embodies Stephen Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" (in a thrilling medley with "Good Thing Going") on her "My Foolish Heart" CD. As she reaches the climax of the song, fully belting "Not a blessed day," she quickly changes into a softer head tone on the word "day," and the effect is beguiling. In fact, LaMott always played her voice like an instrument; however, she didn't engage in vocal pyrotechnics — she simply delivered a song in the most heartfelt fashion. Choosing a favorite of her solo recordings was almost as difficult as choosing the 12 discs listed here, but since this list didn't have any holiday recordings, I ended up picking LaMott's "Just in Time for Christmas." The title track, which may be my favorite Christmas song, is reason enough to add this recording to your collection, but LaMott also delivers beautiful renditions of "Some Children See Him," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "A Child Is Born," "A Song for Christmas" and "The Christmas Song." One of my other favorites is an upbeat medley of "I Saw Three Ships" and "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella."
"Patti LuPone Live"
Patti LuPone and Evita were the reasons I initially fell in love with the theatre when I was in sixth grade. I had never seen a musical like that (through-sung with dancing soldiers, movable beds and a torch-filled Act One finale) or heard anyone sing like LuPone (belting Cs, Ds, Es and the occasional F with power and ease). Naturally, after getting the Broadway cast recording of Evita, I started searching for LuPone's solo recordings and couldn't believe that this multitalented young artist didn't have one. I patiently waited for a solo disc… and waited and waited… And 13 years later I was rewarded with the two-CD set "Patti LuPone Live," which I have to admit was worth the wait. Not only did the live concert feature a second act that allowed the gifted actress a chance to explore her Tony and Olivier-winning career (completely thrilling versions of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "Meadowlark," "As Long As He Needs Me," "I Dreamed a Dream" and more), but the first half was filled with many songs I had never heard LuPone wrap her textured, rangy voice around, including an exciting "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," a touching "It Never Was You," a rousing "I've Got the Sun in the Morning" and the sweetly moving "Dirty Hands! Dirty Face!" Perhaps my favorite track on the first disc is the inspired pairing of the haunting "Calling You" and the great pop hit "Get Here." Or maybe my favorite is the roof-raising "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking"? Or maybe it's LuPone's sensational "Being Alive"? Truthfully, I can't decide – it's one of those rare recordings that is a complete joy from beginning to end.
"Marcovicci Sings Movies"
I was a sophomore in college when the buzz about a new cabaret singer, actress Andrea Marcovicci, made its way from New York to Massachusetts, and one crisp winter day I headed to Boston from the Brandeis University campus to purchase her first (and still my favorite Marcovicci) recording, "Marcovicci Sings Movies." I rushed back to our radio station, where I had a weekly show about the music of Broadway and cabaret, to listen to the LP in one of the private listening booths. I have a very vivid memory of listening to her rendition of "As Time Goes By," which was followed by the "Tootsie" anthem "It Might Be You," smiling broadly and thinking, "Okay, now I get all the fuss!" And, as unbelievable as it may seem, Marcovicci has been spellbinding audiences for more than two decades; in fact, she will celebrate her 65th birthday with two concerts at Joe's Pub this November. On that first recording, however, listeners can hear why the gifted artist, who delivers lyrics simply and honestly with a voice that is a charming mix of folk and Broadway, has such loyal fans. Highlights of the disc, recorded live in June 1987, include a belty rendition of the little-heard "Here Lies Love," a lovely reading of "Two for the Road," the beautiful ballad "Someone to Love" (I'm surprised this song isn't covered more) and a terrific medley of "All I Need Is the Girl," "Funny Face," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and "Fanny."
As a high school/college student who was a fan of London's Elaine Paige, I never thought I would actually have the good fortune to see the Olivier-winning actress perform live. Years later, I'm thrilled to have been able to catch her work in several musicals, and whenever I see her perform, it makes me understand why she was able to originate the leading roles in Evita, Cats and Chess, triumph equally well with revivals of The King and I, Piaf and Anything Goes and even put her own stamp on Sweeney Todd's Nellie Lovett and Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond: pure talent mixed with a voice that soars like few others and a genuine joie de vivre that is completely contagious. Paige always possessed a strong, rangy belt, but as the years passed her voice grew even stronger and richer; in fact, when that singular voice opens in its upper register and out pours a rich, throbbing tone, one can only sit back and revel in the magnificent sound. On her "Encore" compilation disc, which was released in 1995, listeners are treated to many of the singing actress' greatest hits, including "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "Memory" and "I Know Him So Well." The recording is especially valuable because it preserves three songs from her stunning turn as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard: a beautiful "The Perfect Year," a roof-raising "With One Look" and one of the best-ever versions of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," where actress meets singer in superb fashion. Paige is equally at home bringing her golden vocals to the songs of Edith Piaf: terrific versions of "Mon Dieu," "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" and "If You Love Me."
"Sondheim, Etc. Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall" and "Sondheim, Etc., Etc. Live at Carnegie Hall: The Rest of It"
Okay, this may be a bit of a cheat since the two recordings were released as separate CDs, but since they represent one evening at Carnegie Hall, I'm including both discs as one of my dozen choices.… Bernadette Peters possesses one of the warmest voices ever, a combination of girlish and womanly tones that always sound like a friend is singing directly to you; she also brings a mix of humor, passion and emotional depth to all her work. Although she won her Tony Awards for her performances in musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Song & Dance) and Irving Berlin (the revival of Annie Get Your Gun) and also created leading roles in musicals by Jerry Herman (Mack & Mabel) and Marvin Hamlisch (The Goodbye Girl), Peters is, perhaps, most associated with the work of Stephen Sondheim, having offered beautifully shaded performances in five Broadway musicals that boast lyrics and/or music by Sondheim: model/mistress Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, a wise, but crooked-fingered Witch in Into the Woods, the indomitable stage mother Rose in Gypsy, the captivating actress Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music and, most recently, a former Follies girl in Follies. On the first of the two recordings, Peters explores the Sondheim canon fully, offering showstopper after showstopper, including simply ravishing versions of "Some People," "Johanna," "Happiness," "There Won't Be Trumpets," "Being Alive" and "Move On." Yet, if any song is a perfect example of Peters' craftsmanship as an artist, it is probably her intensely focused version of Merrily We Roll Along's "Not a Day Goes By," which she begins softly, gaining momentum until finally letting her rich, warm vibrato shatter the heart. The second disc also features a handful of delicious Sondheim offerings, including "With So Little to Be Sure Of" and "Children Will Listen"; however, my favorite tracks may be her full-voiced "Other Lady," which was a staple of her nightclub act for years, and a definitive "Unexpected Song."
One of the newest recording on this list, released in 1999, is a duets album from former Side Show co-stars Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, who can also be heard on an earlier recording simply titled "Duets." I chose their second joint offering, "Unexpected Hearts," because the recording allows the listener to hear the differences in their equally thrilling voices more clearly and also lets each artist shine on solo numbers. Carrie fans will rejoice in the duo's rendition of "Unsuspecting Hearts"; Ripley and Skinner build the song slowly, and when they unleash the power of their belts during the song's final stanzas, it's enthralling. Some of the other highlights include an upbeat, bouncy medley of "Friendship" and "Friends to the End," where the gals get to have a bit of fun while singing about their obvious mutual admiration society; a gorgeous reading of Stephen Sondheim's "Pretty Women"; a forceful combination of "The Last Duet" and "Enough Is Enough"; and heartfelt versions of both Martin Guerre's "Live with Somebody You Love" and one of my all-time favorites, "Old Friend," from I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road. I'm particularly fond of "She's Gone," Ripley's second act solo that was cut prior to the Broadway opening of Side Show. Although it's not as rich a melody as some of Henry Krieger's other work from that musical, it does have a driving force, and Ripley delivers it with a frightening intensity. It also allows the actress a chance to demonstrate the range of her piercing belt, and the final few lines are thrilling. Her version of "Losing Track of Time," from Summer of '42, is also filled with much passion and yearning. Skinner, too, impresses on her own: She gets to show off her penchant for comedy in "The Alto's Lament," and her take on Stephen Sondheim's "The Miller's Son" is as honest as it is emotionally rich.
Readers of this column will probably be surprised my Barbra Streisand choice is not one of her Broadway recordings. My Streisand pick is one of her earlier recordings, "Stoney End," which I simply love. Even though the disc only features one standard (Harry Nilsson's "Maybe"), the singing is so rich and sublime that once I start listening to the first track (a beautiful version of Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand"), I inevitably listen to each and every song. It's a feel-good disc that includes such upbeat tunes as "Hands off the Man," "If You Could Read My Mind" and "Just a Little Lovin'" as well as two additional gems by Laura Nyro, the popular hit "Stoney End" and the equally exciting "Time and Love."
One More (Baker's) Dozen Favorites!
Barbara Cook: "It's Better with a Band" — You can hear the love in that hall, and the soprano is in glorious form.
Alix Korey: "Gifts of Love" — Fierce belter Korey impresses with her interpretive skills.
Helen Schneider: "Let It Be Now" — Thrilling, thrilling singing!
Cleo Laine: "Born On a Friday" — The colors of her voice are extraordinary, the texture also so rich.
Alison Fraser: "New York Romance" — The title track, by the late Rusty Magee, is one of the great contemporary ballads, and Fraser brings it to full life.
Audra McDonald: "How Glory Goes" — The singer and the actress blend to perfection.
Randy Graff: "Doing Something Right: Randy Graff Sings Cy Coleman" — One of the great interpreters of a lyric; she also possesses a terrific, textured belt.
Judy Kuhn: "Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro" — Simply one of the best voices in the musical theatre; her rendition of "Stoney End" is at the top of my iPod most-played list.
Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli: "Live at the London Palladium" — Superlative mother and daughter belters!
Melissa Errico: "Legrand Affair" — Oh, the purity of that soprano.
Karen Mason: "Not so Simply Broadway" — Simply terrific!
Maureen McGovern: "Another Woman in Love" — A gorgeous instrument... and the definitive "Could've Been a Sailor."
Judy Kaye: "Diva by Diva" — How could I possibly resist?
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.