Savoring the Solo Album: Those Pesky Little Job Titles
So far in this series exploring solo albums, I’ve looked almost entirely at how the composers and lyricists who write the songs included in solo albums enrich the word of contemporary musical theatre. The albums’ performers, as magnificent as they are, have been secondary. However, another wonderful aspect of solo albums is that they allow performers to do more than just… well, perform. They can also actively create.
The traditional roles in the solo album-making process are self evident, but at the risk of stating the obvious, let’s go over them. An actor or actress—the star—decides to make a solo album. A composer/lyricist (or composer/lyricist team) gives the actor permission to record one of their pre-existing songs or writes a new song specifically for the solo album. The actor records said songs and releases the solo album. Fans everywhere buy the album and rejoice. World peace ensues.
But the process is not always this clearly delineated. Quite often, the metaphorical lines are blurred. Composers frequently produce or music direct the solo album on which their songs are featured. Some even duet with the performer or add backup vocals. And in a few cases, the performer gets to reach beyond their role and help write the very song they end up singing on their solo album. When it comes to the performer blurring the lines between writer and singer, no person exemplifies this quite as vividly as Jessica Molaskey.
Jessica Molaskey is a Broadway veteran who has appeared in everything from Chess to Oklahoma! to Songs for a New World. She has also been active on the cabaret circuit for several years. But what makes Molaskey unique as an actress is that, in addition to performing, she has written the lyrics to many songs featured on albums over the years, including “Greed,” co-written with her husband John Pizzarelli and performed by Audra McDonald for her Seven Deadly Sins song cycle.
On Molaskey’s third solo album, Make Believe, we get another taste of her abilities as a lyricist. Make Believe is very much a jazz album, with syncopated, big-band renditions of standards like “I Can’t Say No,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “All That Jazz” populating most of the album. Don’t get me wrong; these jazzed-up standards are such fun listening. Molaskey is able to take a song you have probably heard a million times like Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Stepsisters’ Lament” and make it new in a way you didn’t know possible. (Seriously, listen to it! You won’t believe it’s the same song.) But one song breaks from this mold, both in terms of sound and style: “Cradle and All.”
Co-written with Ricky Ian Gordon, “Cradle and All” diverts from the album’s throwback jazz sound to deliver an aching, melancholic song that seems tailor-made to pull at all of our heartstrings. It’s a lullaby from a daughter to her parents late in life – parents, we learn, that were cold and absent through much of her childhood years. It’s poignant and emotionally complex, with the daughter soothing her sick or dying parents (the exact ailment is unclear) with a lullaby that they never sang for her, all while churning up the pain that their emotional distance caused. “Oh hush, oh hush, don’t you fret,” she sings. “Your melody isn’t over yet. And I will forgive you as you will forget.” Molaskey mines this fraught relationship in such a way that it lingers with you long after listening.
Were this merely another song on Molaskey’s solo album, it would still be an incredible achievement: a shining example of how performers can actively write songs that enhance the broader musical theatre community. But “Cradle and All” is not merely another song. In the ten years since it was released, it’s become a very popular song for singers in recitals, concerts, and cabarets. Audra McDonald even sang the song on one of her solo albums, Build a Bridge. “Cradle and All” is slowly becoming a classic musical theatre song, one you’re bound to hear sung for many years to come. Because of Jessica Molaskey: the performer, the writer, the artist, the woman who defies job titles. Thanks, Jessica!
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