Savoring the Solo Album: Who Could That Be? (New Discoveries)
For the past few posts, I’ve looked at how solo albums benefit contemporary musical theatre by providing a platform for composers and lyricists to write and record new stand-alone songs, experiment with new musical genres, highlight the songs of a musical in development, or use the singer’s star power to broaden the fan base for their work. But all of these benefits assume one thing: the listener is already familiar with the composer or lyricist!
The most basic way solo albums benefit contemporary musical theatre is by introducing listeners to new writers of musical theatre. For a composer or lyricist still branded with the moniker “up and coming,” a featured song on a star’s solo album can provide an important boost to their career.
In fact, dear readers, it was a solo album that first introduced me to the wonderful works of Deborah Abramson. As much as I would like to believe that I am the type of person who has known about every musical theatre composer from time immemorial (thanks in large part to plumbing the depths of the BroadwayWorld message boards,) composers and their body of work slip through my radar all the time. Such was the case with Deborah Abramson until I bought Stephanie J. Block’s delectable solo album, This Place I Know.
Stephanie J. Block is one of those powerhouses of musical theatre who can make every song sound like it was written specifically for her. I am sure I don’t need to tell you this, Green Room. Everyone and their mother knows that Stephanie J. Block is one of the most versatile singers in musical theatre. She’s a legend. In This Place I Know, Block delves deep into the songbooks of several contemporary musical theatre composers to bring us songs that are at once familiar and yet also refreshingly original. I didn’t know most of the songs Block selected when I first listened to her solo album, but it was easy to guess who had written them. “Making Good” contains many musical motifs that immediately link it to Stephen Schwartz and Wicked (the song was, in fact, cut from the final version of the show). The introspective “Something Beautiful” has the distinct charms of a Flahery and Ahrens number. Other songs, like a fantastic new arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” are more obvious to surmise (Parton even duets with Block on the song. Two divas for the price of one!). However, there was one song one the album whose origins I couldn’t place for the life of me: “Gotta Start Small.” A quick perusal of the liner notes led me to the names Deborah Abramson and Amanda Yesnowitz.
After a trip down the Google rabbit hole, I learned that Abramson is a grad of NYU’s prestigious Musical Theatre Writing program. Her music has frequently been featured in cabaret evenings, including The Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know: LIVE! concert that was held at 54 Below last January. Abramson frequently collaborates with lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz, as well as William Finn and Peter Mills. She has both arranged music for Lea Michele and had Michele perform her own original work. By the time I watched Lea Michele perform Abramson’s emotionally evocative “Another Day” on YouTube, it was obvious that Abramson was as talented a composer as anyone else in the game today. And once I heard the hilariously meta “Holy Mother of God, Deborah Abramson” (with lyrics by William Finn), I was completely hooked.
The song that sparked this exploration, “Gotta Start Small,” is a ballad from the point of view of a songwriter who is broken but trying to put the pieces of her life back together. Though the singer is finding small ways to move forward and progress in life, the tone of the song is punctuated by desperation and exhaustion cutting through the optimism of the lyrics. Stephanie J. Block’s voice all but quivers as she sings, “I call my mom, expect the worst. But I stay calm and I speak first. Yes, we conversed without fronts, for once.” That simple two word lyric—“for once”—is loaded with so much subtext, revealing mountains about the singer’s fragile state. Rarely is a song able to say so much with so little. This is a beautiful and complex musical theatre song, one that signals the arrival of a truly great composer in Deborah Abramson and her equally talented lyricist, Amanda Yesnowitz. If you are unfamiliar with Abramson’s work like I once was, this song will make you want to listen to everything she has ever written.
So there you have it. Solo albums can expand our musical theatre horizons and point us to work from exciting new composers and lyricists we might not have heard of otherwise. The next time you hear a song on a solo album that you aren’t familiar with, check out who wrote it. You might just find your new favorite composer or lyricist.
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