If you don’t know who Audra McDonald is, but appreciate vocal music,
now’s the time to find out. The angelic lyric soprano has just released
her fourth and most accessible solo album, “Build a Bridge,” filling it
with covers of songs by mainstream pop songwriters like Bacharach,
Costello, Rufus Wainwright, Randy Newman, and John Mayer.
Her previous albums mostly contain songs by musical theater
composers, so her fan base consists mostly of people who have the
soundtrack from “A Chorus Line” on their iPods. Unafraid of a little
Stravinskyian polyphony, many of McDonald’s songs aren’t exactly
user-friendly to those who like straightforward melodies.
Here she shines brightest when performing the work of Adam
Guettel, a musically progressive Broadway composer. He provides the
title track, which relates an emotional gulf in a relationship as a
river, mirroring the widening break by increasing harmonic intricacy.
On “Build a Bridge,” McDonald has selected songs that portray
complicated emotional states, showing off her acting as well as singing
She probes the depths of “Dividing Day,” a Guettel masterpiece
from his recent Broadway musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” adding
anger to the melancholy of Tony-winner Victoria Clark’s original
interpretation. The song features jazz pianist Fred Hersch, who
balances harmonic tension and melodic release, an appropriately
unsettling touch to a song that chronicles a loveless marriage: “I can
see the winter in your eyes, telling me, / ‘Go now, we did it, you
curtsied, I bowed. / We are together, but no more love, / No more love
Every song on “Build a Bridge” resonates with the vocal
intensity poured into “Dividing Day.” Unfortunately, some of the pop
songwriters represented on the album don’t provide McDonald with
material as emotionally rich as Guettel does, making her inspired
recreations of John Mayer’s facile “My Stupid Mouth” and Neil Young’s
boring “My Heart” seem vapid in comparison.
But most of the pop isn’t bathos. McDonald covers a pair of
songs by ’70s songwriter Laura Nyro (“To a Child” and “Tom Cat
Goodbye”) and a tango by Rufus Wainwright (“Damned Ladies”), none of
which feel like a waste of McDonald’s talent.
The best songs on the album, like Guettel’s contributions,
are melancholy ballads like “Cradle and All,” a poignant reflection on
a mother’s lost time with her child and husband, co-written by Broadway
composer Ricky Ian Gordon and actress Jessica Molaskey.
Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green,” originally written for Kermit the
Frog, ironically falls into the ballad category as well. While this
track may seem like a pander on an album built for mainstream
acceptance, it actually showcases McDonald’s versatility, coming off as
a meditation about self-acceptance. Time will tell if she crosses over
successfully, but it’s hard to imagine a better album to bring her to
—Reviewer Kyle L. K. McAuley can be reached at email@example.com.