Savoring the Solo Album: Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

In my last post, I argued that solo albums have value in contemporary musical theatre. But what value do they bring specifically? I’m glad you asked! To answer that question, it’s important to understand how a solo album goes from but a twinkling in an actor’s eye to a professional studio recording. So pull out your textbooks and turn to chapter six; it’s time to talk about the solo album birds and the bees.

On the surface, making a solo album seems relatively simple. An actor has the inspiration to record a solo album (or is nudged in that direction by a label), they pick the songs they want to sing, a label or other outlet records and distributes the album, and—poof!—it exists. But like any musical venture, before a solo album can be birthed there are several considerations that must be explored. Which songs work best for the actor’s vocal range and musical sensibilities? How do the songs work on the album as a whole? Is there an emotional through-line to the songs selected? What should the orchestrations be?

The best solo albums are those where the actor "Stops, collaborates, and listens." (Photo: "Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer" by YoTuT / CC 2.0)

The best solo albums are those where the actor “Stops, collaborates, and listens.” (Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Photo: YoTuT / CC 2.0)

But perhaps the most important consideration for an actor when developing a solo album is: Who do I want to work with? Solo albums are not just an opportunity for actors to sing songs from composers and lyricists they like; they are a chance for actors to actively work with those composers and lyricists. After all, it takes two—or three, or four, or five—to tango.

There is a unique symbiosis that occurs when actors collaborate with composers and lyricists on their solo album; the composers and lyricists bring to the actor their musical expertise and access to their song library, and in turn, the actor gives the composers and lyricists a chance to have their songs recorded by a top-notch musical theatre star. When you have that much talent collaborating on a project, the result is quite often magic. It’s just a statistical fact. And for a little taste of that magic, you needn’t look further than Julia Murney’s fabulous debut solo album, I’m Not Waiting.

Julia Murney and Andrew Lippa share a rare and meaningful connection, one that stretches back all the way to when Murney originated the role of Queenie in the off-Broadway cast of Lippa’s The Wild Party. Of their relationship, Lippa has said, “I never have to rehearse with Julia when I’ve written something new for her. She just knows how to sing it. It’s almost as if she’s writing the song as she’s singing it. She’s inspiring.” So when Julia Murney began working on her first solo album back in 2006, Lippa produced it. And to round out the party, Tom Kitt and Stephen Oremus provided musical direction.


Julia Murney’s I’m Not Waiting.

I’m Not Waiting is a near flawless album. It is the musical equivalent of a well-curated museum. Every song has a purpose, and these individual songs add up to create a compelling, moving, and infectious whole. (I should probably mention for the sake of editorial honesty that this album is my favorite solo album of all time.)

Lippa contributed three of his songs to the album, but it’s easy to imagine he had a hand in the album’s overall structure and concept. This is an album where “Fancy”—the campy, histrionic Reba McEntyre power ballad—is followed by “I’m Not That Girl,” and it just works. It’s audacious and unusual, but it absolutely works.

While the whole album is fantastic, the standout song is the album’s namesake, “I’m Not Waiting.” And oh, what a song it is. Penned by Andrew Lippa, “I’m Not Waiting” is a song about a woman who has been led on by the whims of a man and finally has had enough. Though fiery and defiant, there is real longing and regret undercutting her dismissal of this fickle lover, and Murney hits both emotional beats with pinpoint accuracy.

Towards the end of the song, she sings, “We stagger to a party as if it were an alibi. You lose me at the party, and I stop to wonder why I’ve been waiting for you,” and the heartbreak is palpable. Girls, if this is not already in your audition songbook, it needs to be! It is that good.

What makes this song so exceptional for fans of musical theatre is that it only exists because of Julia Murney. It is not a part of a musical in-development or song cycle; Lippa wrote “I’m Not Waiting” specifically for Murney. And this fact alone makes “I’m Not Waiting” essential listening. It is a musical theatre song that you will only ever hear in one place: Julia Murney’s solo album. Because Murney wanted to make a solo album, and because she collaborated with Andrew Lippa, this new and wonderful musical theatre song now exists in the universe.

This is by no means unique. Solo albums quite frequently serve as an outlet for musical theatre composers and lyricists to write and release new songs specifically for the album itself. As a format, the solo album actively helps to create new musical theatre. And that, my theatre-loving friends, is a valuable thing.

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