Monday, June 12, 2006

Music Morsels, Vol. XXIII - Way Back to Paradise

In the last decade and change, a group of musical theater composers has been, through, at the very least, copious mention in The New York Times, appointed kind of "keepers of the flame" of the kind of serious, musically sophisticated musical theater championed and written by Stephen Sondheim. While the group's membership is hardly official, and some composers are sometimes included and some not when discussions about the future of musical theater arise, by high frequency of citation, the roster would most likely include Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jeanine Tesori. Each of these has produced scores worthy of seeking out on their own, but to the casual musical theater fan looking for a sampler of these folks output--and one sung by the premier musical theater vocalist of her generation to boot -- Audra McDonald's debut disc, Way Back to Paradise, is hard to beat.

After acclaimed turns in the plays Carousel, Ragtime, and Master Class, Audra McDonald made a relatively esoteric choice for her eagerly awaited debut album. Rather than record the same classics that most singers opt for on solo discs, McDonald chose to put together an album of exclusively "current material" to showcase some of the best new work being done in the genre. And in doing so, she put together a truly impeccable lineup of theater songs. These are dramatic, melodic, intense, playful, soaring, intimate songs--some all so at once. Only one has come anywhere close to becoming a "standard," (Jason Robert Brown's rapidly-becoming-a-cabaret-staple "Stars and Moon"), but in today's pop environment that's hardly noteworthy. The fact remains that this is an unusually potent and well-programmed musical theater disc, and one well-worth exploring. Highlights include the impish "Way Back to Paradise," the quietly dramatic abortion dialogue "Come to Jesus," the stark and open "You Don't Know this Man," the sweetly bitter ode to infidelity "Tom," the enchanting and swinging "Baby Moon," and the slow-burning-then-exploding "I Follow."

Grade: A+

Until Whenever

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