Theatricality and Truth: Audra McDonald, Go Back Home

By Daniel Garrett

Audra McDonald, Go Back Home
Andy Einhorn, Music Director
Doug Petty, Producer
Nonesuch, 2013

Audra McDonald has a large voice, at once plainly American, theatrical and expressive; and in the title song “Go Back Home,” about opportunity, fate, and the return home, it is hard to distinguish between the artifice and the felt.  With voice and orchestra, and Audra McDonald’s theatrical voice the composition is large, glossy, self-dramatizing.   (The song, surprisingly, is from The Scottsboro Boys.)  In “The Glamorous Life” the different expectations of generations—mother and daughter and possibly grandmother—are explored: the drudgery of housework and mothering and the lack of recognition is contrasted with the traveling theatrical life; a recitation with occasional high notes.  It contains Sondheim’s customary capturing of the cruel contradictions of modern life , of differing roles (he invests truth in theater).   McDonald’s voice is compelled to embrace and embody something more significant than appearance—even while discussing the power of different appearances.

“Baltimore” is a detailed comic song on the advice of parents, its use and limits; a song about the lack of preparation for bad boys, for the wrong man, to be found in Baltimore, Maryland.  It is a satirical account of the psychology in youthful relationships, with comically detailed lyrics bewailing Baltimore boys.  “First You Dream” is a big ballad of hopeful speculation, with lyrics about nature and yearning; and with orchestral heft and a McDonald’s soaring voice.  Dreaming is the guide in the exuberant song.  “Tavern,” based on an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, with themes of memory and refuge and praise for helpful people, features a beautiful voice that seems more suited to artificial scenes than the real world; the melancholy in the lyrics do not reach the heart.

On Audra McDonald’s Go Back Home, Adam Guettel’s  “Migratory V” has exultant, pretty tones, with lyrics that suggest a large perspective, with glimpses of nature and spirituality.  What is the source of the dramatized feeling in the person?  Men see women differently after sex, the lyrics of “Virtue” note: men change the state of women then judge the state.  It is a short reflective commentary.  Female morality is judged differently (loving or cruel), depending on whether or not a man benefits from her choices.  Both “Virtue” and “Married Love,” composed by Michael John LaChiusa, were inspired by the written observations of actress-singer Marlene Dietrich.   “Married Love,” on the practicalities of maintaining a relationship, makes a distinction between brain and heart, between men and women, saying men are simpler than women—and women must act simpler to maintain the relationship.  Some of the lines are given a bluesy reading, comic and gritty.  Nice varied tone, including reflective recitation.  The reflective becomes raucous.   In “I’ll Be Here” an accidental meeting becomes flirtatious then lasting; it is a story-song about relationship and marriage in contemporary New York, a relationship ended by a public disaster, with grief comforted by joyful memory and a sensed approval.  There is a new love discovered and accepted at the end of the song.  An acknowledged variety of days, up and down, “Some Days” is sung in a sensitive tone of voice.  It has a text by James Baldwin, one of his poems.  The references are general enough—about experience, belief, compassion; and the singer reads it as something to do with equality.  “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music, is a ballad-homage to home, with a prominent string instrument (violin?).  “Make Someone Happy” lacks the persuasive intimacy of Streisand’s interpretation, though it is not bad: it sounds like the advice of one performer to another—yet, rather than mere advice and testimony, it could sound more like personal experience.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.