Savoring the Solo Album: It all started with an Audra

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I love the solo albums of Broadway stars. Solo albums fill my iTunes library and clog up my car’s CD changer. I belt out songs from solo albums in the shower. A world without Sutton Foster’s Wish and Orfeh’s What Do You Want from Me is not a world I want to live in! And as an avowed solo album enthusiast, I have been disheartened to find that solo albums are often dismissed in some musical theatre circles as mere pop endeavors, more about the celebrities behind the album than the musical theatre they showcase. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m here to set the record straight, to be your solo album Virgil, guiding you through the world of solo albums to show how they help enrich the broader contemporary musical theatre landscape.

But first, a story.

As a typical high school drama kid, I loved musical theatre, but I also did not know very much about it. Drama classes in school tended to focus on plays by the greats—Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams—and musicals were only ever peripherally mentioned. As a result, my love of musical theatre extended only as far as the big-name Broadway musical mainstays that made their way in regional tours to the small performing arts center near my suburban Florida home. Your phantoms, your green witches, your French revolutions, your chorus lines, your New York bohemians: these were the shows I loved most dearly. They were the only shows I knew existed. And then, as a junior in high school, I stumbled upon Audra McDonald’s first solo album, Way Back to Paradise, and my life changed forever.

Audra McDonald - Way Back to Paradise.

Audra McDonald – Way Back to Paradise

Way Back to Paradise is a vocal tour de force, but for me it was also an education. There are so many beautiful musical theatre songs on the album, most from composers and shows that I had never heard of. Adam Guettel. Ricky Ian Gordon. Michael John LaChiusa. I began researching these names, reading interviews they had given with theatre websites, probing message boards and forums for the latest details on their current projects, and seeking out cast albums that featured their music. In addition, I purchased Audra McDonald’s other solo albums and listened to them with eager enthusiasm, excited not only to be transported by Audra’s amazing voice, but also to mine the albums for new and unknown musical gems. In time, I became enraptured by this beautiful little world we call “contemporary musical theatre”—and all because of that one album.

Solo albums play an important—though rarely talked about—role in fostering contemporary musical theatre. In a community where cast album is king, solo albums are the worker bees, showcasing musical theatre songs that might never have the chance to be prominently featured on a cast album recording. In the coming weeks, I’d like to explore the various roles these solo albums play in sustaining contemporary musical theatre, as well as highlighting songs from solo albums that worth a listen. But most of all, I hope these posts will encourage you to listen to more solo albums!

Now, if you want to listen to more solo albums, where’s a good place to start? Well, you can’t go wrong with the solo albums of the Broadway legend who first introduced me to the format: the incomparable Audra McDonald. A great point of entry is her latest offering, Go Back Home, released last year. It is a wonderful mix of Broadway standards, lesser-known selections, and songs that have never been recorded before. Among them are two new songs written by Michael John LaChiusa, “Virtue” and “Married Love.” Both songs are selections from LaChiusa’s one woman show in development about the iconic Marlene Dietrich advice book, Marlene Dietrich’s ABC. In “Married Love,” the song builds from a woman confidently asserting her strategies for a happy married life to the quiet heartbreaks that can accompany a life of domesticity. There is a jazz lounge sensibility to the song; Audra alternates between moments of coyness and vulnerability in a smooth, conversational manner. By the time she sings the lyric “You lose what makes you feminine. It’s the only thing you’ve truly owned.” I feel like I have followed her through the ups and downs of a long marriage. The advice definitely hails from a past era (Be his mother, his child, the moon to his sun, the silver to his gold) but there is a certain charm to it, as if we are stepping back in time to Dietrich’s heyday in the 30’s and 40’s.

Ultimately, hearing this song not only gets me interested in LaChiusa’s new show, it also makes me excited about the vibrant state of contemporary musical theatre. Who knew the lowly solo album could inspire all that?

Click here to watch Audra McDonald perform Michael John LaChiusa’s “Virtue” and “Married Love” at Live From Lincoln Center.

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