“I’ve spent my whole career trying to stay out of any box that anyone could put me in. ‘I’m going to do a play now.’ ‘Now I’ll do a musical.’ That was my instinct. So I don’t feel boxed in. But ‘African-American woman’ is part of my identity. I don’t want to relinquish that – especially as a mother, helping my daughter find her identity.”
This week, we’re diving right into an entirely different genre of music: musical theatre. Tony award winning singer/actress Audra McDonald, has made quite a name for herself. From broadway, to television, to film, McDonald has truly done it all. But let’s take a closer look at how she got where she is today. She has taken her classical music background and become a multi-dimensional performer. One of her earlier albums called How Glory Goes shows the true diversity of her repertoire, and truly foreshadows her success. After listening to her album, I truly believe that musical theater should aspire to the standards of classical music, rather than the awful “nasal” sound we so often hear in this genre.
My initial thoughts when hearing this album was that I enjoy Audra’s vocal technique that she includes in her repertoire. In classical voice, a big factor in projecting sound is to elongate vowels (and boy, do I love a good vowel). In an article from Musical Theatre Resources, they go on to explain this as “legit” singing and use examples such as Julie Andrews. This is very unlike current day broadway, where consonants are emphasized. By really taking her time on those beautiful vowel sounds, she creates a vibrato that has a full, ringing sound. A great highlight would definitely be her rendition of Summertime from Porgy and Bess. Right when she holds out that high B at the end, I literally get chills. Technically, this is an American opera, but this piece expressed such an easy free-ness to the voice that I had to include this piece as a highlight. In most broadway productions, high notes are belted and may sound nice, but can easily put strain on the voice. Therefore, Audra’s method could prove to be more beneficial to the singer. Maybe it’s just the lowkey classical music snob in me, but I enjoy her incorporation of this style of singing throughout her album, and it genuinely made me enjoy musical theater more. This series of songs proves classical voice training could be incorporated in any genre. However, what about the actual song pieces? So far we’ve discussed the voice, but the context of the actual pieces leaves a creative void that the album fails to fill.
The problem I have with this album is the lack of diversity in repertoire. I always look for contrasting pieces that really give layers to the listener. However, most of the pieces sounded so similar that it was hard to discern many differences. For example I Won’t Mind, and Come Down From the Tree. Don’t get me wrong, these are both emotional, moving pieces and individually sound great. It’s just that almost every song has the same narrative. Each song her telling a story to another character about overcoming something for love. While this is a great narrative, it isn’t great when you hear it 8 times in a row. I think Audra could’ve had a better repertoire selection. While the individual tracks had a story arch, the album as a whole maintain one note with no climax or surprise. Maybe that is the fault of music theater itself.
All in all, I enjoy Audra McDonald as an artist and listeners can expect to hear a calamity and warm inviting tone to her voice. I might not enjoy the song selection, but I do enjoy this style of singing being brought back into popular songs on broadway. She really doesn’t let herself be limited to a certain style of singing and I really respect that as a fellow African-American singer. So many times it’s expected for black singers to be limited to chest voice. McDonald will always be the standard I hold up to musical theater. Keep bringing the house down with that resonance.