ON THE RECORD: Audra and Kate

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Audra and Kate
AUDRA McDONALD: How Glory Goes (Nonesuch 79580-2)
Audra McDonald's second solo album, How Glory Goes, is every bit as good as her first, Way Back to Paradise. If anything, it should be somewhat more accessible to some listeners; while the earlier album consisted exclusively of work by new composers, eight of the fourteen songs on How Glory Goes were written long before Ms. McDonald was born.

AUDRA McDONALD: How Glory Goes (Nonesuch 79580-2)
Audra McDonald's second solo album, How Glory Goes, is every bit as good as her first, Way Back to Paradise. If anything, it should be somewhat more accessible to some listeners; while the earlier album consisted exclusively of work by new composers, eight of the fourteen songs on How Glory Goes were written long before Ms. McDonald was born.

Which is not to say that McDonald's choices are not adventurous. Highlighted are five great Arlen songs. These are late period Arlen, including three of his art song-like beauties: "I Had Myself a True Love," "A Sleepin' Bee," and "I Never Has Seen Snow." We have heard these songs before, and sung exceptionally well; but McDonald seems born for them. There is also an unusual rendition of "The Man That Got Away," with the singer accompanied by a lone piano (played and arranged by Lee Musiker). Unusual in that it discards the chromatic two-bar descending figure upon which Arlen built the song, stripping it of its driving rhythm. The experiment works, though, resulting in a different yet emotionally effective performance.

McDonald gives us "Bill," making it seem remarkably fresh eighty-three years after Kern sat down in late 1917 and wrote the melody; she also does a glorious job on Bernstein and Sondheim's "Somewhere." This last segues into Adam Guettel's haunting "How Glory Goes" from Floyd Collins, which gives this collection its title. (Guettel, with two selections, is the only composer other than Arlen with multiple entries.) As in his finest songs, Guettel doesn't merely build to an emotional peak; he pauses on the peaks, then unexpectedly builds onward. "How Glory Goes" is given a sensitive and properly unsettling orchestration by Jonathan Tunick. Guettel and Tunick, now there's an intriguing combination.

Most impressive of the other "new" songs is a tender and unconventional lullaby, called "I Won't Mind," by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler and Libby Saines (from The Other Franklin, a presumably unproduced musical). Who knew that Blumenkrantz -- the comic character actor best known for playing Bud Frump in the revival of How to Succeed -- was a composer? Other contemporary writers are Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, with what I consider their loveliest song to date, "Come Down from the Tree" (cut from Once on This Island); Steve Marzullo; and Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley.

And let's say a word for the album producer, Tommy Krasker. It's one thing to produce a cast album; there, at least, you start with a complete score, full orchestrations, and a rehearsed cast. How Glory Goes began from scratch, just McDonald, conductor Eric Stern, and Krasker sitting around a piano trying to figure out what she should sing. Krasker, who has produced complicated cast albums like Titanic and Floyd Collins, also did McDonald's two solo discs, Dawn Upshaw's I Wish It So and Vernon Duke, and Guettel's Myths and Hymns. Which is to say that here is someone with an immense knowledge of, and nurturing feel for, adventurous musical theatre. These attributes are shared by Eric Stern, who conducted the McDonald and Upshaw albums; and Ted Sperling, who conducted the Guettel shows, played the onstage orchestra leader in Titanic, and conducts five tracks (mostly "new" songs) and orchestrated two on How Glory Goes. This album is especially well orchestrated, with nine charts coming from either Bruce Coughlin or Larry Hochman.

Ms. McDonald is an exceptional performer who would sound good, presumably, no matter what; but on her solo albums she has wisely surrounded herself with strong music people. It doesn't hurt to have Adam Guettel in your corner, either, contributing six songs to the two discs. But the credit goes, mostly, to Audra.

Not unlike other recent revivals, the 1999 version of Kiss Me, Kate includes substantial changes from the original. Unlike other recent revivals, though, the changes are very much in the style of the original. While I imagine that Irving Berlin and the Gershwins would be dyspeptic about some of the "improvements" to their work in the recent Annie Get Your Gun and Crazy for You, Cole Porter would probably be pleased as champagne-spiked punch with what's on stage at the Martin Beck and on this new CD.

There have been numerous recordings of this score. The 1948 original cast album has the best lead performances -- not unreasonably, as songs were written to suit the specific singers' talents -- but it suffers from the technological conditions of the time. (It was the first show album to be released on LP.) John McGlinn's admirable 1990 "full" recording suffers from an incapable Kate (whom, as I recall, was a substitution for a major opera singer who withdrew at the last minute). This new Kate is given an energetic and enjoyable rendition, with lyrics crystal clear -- which, given the layered riches of Porter's nimblest work, is a not insubstantial achievement.

I am not a great fan of revivals that automatically throw out the old orchestrations whether they need to be replaced or not (while, typically, retaining vast swaths of the original and crediting them solely to the new guy). Kate has been extensively changed, but in this case the changes are warranted. For example, the original Kate opened with a brief introductory pep talk by Fred Graham (the star-director-and-producer of the play within the play). The dresser, Hattie, then launched into "Another Openin', Another Show"; she was joined by the chorus for a second refrain; and then the dancers came on and made a big production number of it. In Michael Blakemore's new production, the song is used as an atmospheric opening for the show itself. An empty stage slowly fills as the song builds, the various characters enter and join in -- in order of reverse prominence, as in a curtain call -- until the number caps with the stars' entrances. This is an effective and satisfying use of the material, enhancing the show by making the song part of the action, an idea that wouldn't have occurred to anyone back in 1948 (except Rodgers and Hammerstein). My point in detailing this is that the change required totally new musical routing; it would have been impossible to stage using Russell Bennett's fine original orchestrations.

Other sections have been similarly rethought, including most of the dance segments, making a new musical setting imperative. Musical Director Paul Gemignani, orchestrator Don Sebesky, and dance music arranged David Chase have undertaken their assignments while always remaining true to Cole, darling, in his fashion.

Kate rises or falls on its leading man, and Brian Stokes Mitchell is more than up to the part. He does especially well on the Porter patter songs -- what joy to be able to hear every syllable of those words! I feel compelled to add that his passionate rendition of "Were Thine That Special Face" displays a fire that was absolutely absent at the performance I attended. Maybe he had the flu that night? Marin Mazzie does a lovely job, especially with "So in Love" and "Wunderbar." Her "I Hate Men" seems to presuppose "I Love Lucy," I'm afraid, but I suppose that was at the director's direction. Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren -- who steal the show as a pair of thugs in tights -- are happily present with "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (and its multiple encores).

Director Blakemore, choreographer Kathleen Marshall, and ghostwriter John Guare have done a marvelous job refashioning the show. (One change which is unobjectionable, if not exactly brilliant, occasioned the insertion of a gagged version of "From This Moment On" into the second act. This number -- which I suppose would stand up poorly over repeated playings - has been excluded from this new album.) Kiss Me, Kate is a great classic of the American musical theatre with some some hidden, surprising weaknesses. Blakemore and all, happily, have glossed them over without in any way insulting the original.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (now available from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com

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