Savoring the Solo Album: Great Pretenders

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so the saying goes. In this blog series, I have been examining the ways in which musical theatre composers and lyricists use the freedom of the solo album to write original, engaging, and distinctive songs for the album’s star to sing. But what happens when the goal of the composer/lyricist team is not to write an entirely new song, but a song which evokes the musical style of someone else? The answer: musical homage.

Musical homage is almost as old as music itself. When the first caveman banged two rocks together and created a tune, you can bet your bottom dollar that there was a second caveman who, upon hearing it, banged two rocks together in a slightly different way to create an entirely new tune. Most early twentieth century blues music drew heavily from the African-American spirituals of the nineteenth century. Elvis took elements from blues and gospel to help create the sound that would later be called rock n’ roll. And almost every rock act for the last fifty years has been inspired musically by Elvis in one way or another.

This phenomenon exists in the world of musical theatre as well. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison’s musical The Drowsy Chaperone is a self-aware sendup of Broadway musicals of the 1920s, with each song channeling the sound of classic Jazz Age musicals like No, No, Nanette and Hit the Deck. “Turn It Off” from Book of Mormon looks and sounds as if it has been plucked right out of a flashy Busby Berkeley production number. The songs of Ragtime use the titular musical style in order to authentically evoke turn-of-the-century America. In short, musical homage is nothing new in the theatre.

Kelli O'Hara - Always

Kelli O’Hara – Always. Album design by Robbie Rozelle.

In Kelli O’Hara’s second solo album, Always, musical homage plays a key part in one of the album’s standout songs. Among a sultry adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful” and Jason Robert Brown’s delightfully hummable “Another Life,” the song on the album that packs the most punch is Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s homage to Stephen Sondheim, “You’re Always Here.”

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey are established musical theatre creators in their own right, penning such emotionally charged musicals as Next To Normal and If/Then. Yet, like most of the contemporary musical theatre world, they are indebted to Sondheim and mark him as one of their great influences. So when Kitt and Yorkey were asked to write a new song in the style of Sondheim for his 80th birthday celebration, they jumped at the task. In the Summer 2012 edition of The Sondheim Review, Kitt laid out the parameters he and Yorkey followed for writing their song. They wanted to write:

“A song with a strong central character, and which goes to unexpected places, both lyrically and musically.

A song about an emotion we’ve all experienced, but said in a distinctive way (Brian needed to take the lead on this).

A song with a strong melodic motif and contour that serves to underscore the meaning of the lyric.

A song that reflects both joy and pain.

A song that forces me to think carefully about the kind of accompaniment that will serve the dramatic moment.

A song that honors the tradition of craft and form but goes a little off the beaten path.”

The resulting song, “You’re Always Here,” delivers on Kitt and Yorkey’s extensive Sondheim stylistic requirements. In the song, a woman waffles between contempt for an absent lover and longing for him to come back once more. O’Hara’s vocals help color in the inherent paradox of the woman’s emotions, and you truly believe she wants for her lover to come back into her life AND for him to leave her alone forever. The song ends without a resolution to this duality, with O’Hara singing, “The thing that I need so is the thing that I most fear. That’s to know that you won’t go. You’re always here.” A Sondheim-ian ending, indeed.

Kelli O’Hara sang this song at Sondheim’s birthday celebration, and shortly thereafter, she decided to include it on her solo album so the rest of the world could hear Kitt and Yorkey doing Sondheim. Ultimately, “You’re Always Here” is more than an homage; it is a tribute to all those who are able to write musical theatre today because of the foundation Sondheim built. It is a great contemporary musical theatre team tipping their hats to one of the greatest musical theatre composers who ever lived. It is a song for anyone who loves musicals, which is to say, for all of us.

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