Maccers and I went to hear Audra McDonald on Friday at the Rose Theater, the gorgeous fifth-floor centerpiece of Lincoln Center’s new Columbus Circle performing-arts complex. No sooner did we get off the elevator than I spotted a pair of musician friends in the lobby, who hastened to tell us that McDonald had canceled Thursday’s concert, which was supposed to have been the official opening night of this year’s American Songbook series. Sure enough, McDonald came on stage, perched herself gingerly on a high stool, and told the audience that her daughter gave her a case of intestinal flu that had knocked her flat the night before.
To our amazement and relief, she got through the whole program, and though she mostly sang sitting down, sipping gingerly from a bottle of Gatorade, she sounded just like herself. The only other apparent sign of distress I could detect was that she sang a bit flat from time to time, which was perfectly forgivable under the circumstances. Otherwise she performed very much in the manner to which she has long since accustomed us, one that I admiringly described a couple of years ago in a New York Times profile:
Ms. McDonald is a true theatrical singer, trained to bounce her voice off the back wall, be it in a Broadway house or a concert hall. Such performers are never at their best in nightclubs, though Ms. McDonald (who listens mostly to jazz in her spare time) can and does function fairly comfortably in cabarets like Joe’s Pub…
Her tangy soprano and powerfully evocative way with words are as effective on record as in concert. (Listen to the way she bites into the most savage quatrain Lorenz Hart ever wrote, from “I Wish I Were in Love Again”: “When love congeals/It soon reveals/The faint aroma of performing seals,/The double-crossing of a pair of heels.”) Happy Songs
(Nonesuch), in fact, is as close to perfect as an album of standards performed by a theatrical singer can possibly be. The only thing it lacks is intimacy. Yes, Ms. McDonald scales down her vocal gestures with self-effacing skill, steering clear of the italicized exaggeration that makes queen-sized personalities such as Betty Buckley all but unlistenable on record. But even in a soft-spoken ballad like “I Must Have That Man,” she sings as though she is on stage, playing to an attentive crowd.
Not surprisingly, that is where she feels most at home. “I had a great time at Joe’s Pub,” she said, “and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that kind of place to me–you can really get into the words there, be completely vulnerable and naked–but you can’t do everything you want to do in that kind of environment.”
I had Saturday off, and how did I spend it? I went to a Broadway show, naturally. To be specific, I went to the Ambassador Theatre to see Chicago, this time as a civilian instead of a critic. I love Chicago, and I adore the current Broadway revival, among the most brilliantly effective productions of a dance-driven musical to have graced the Great White Way. Unfortunately, my previous visit to the Ambassador Theatre had left a bad taste in my mouth, as I duly reported in The Wall Street Journal:
I taxied up to the Ambassador Theatre to see Melanie Griffith play Roxie Hart in “Chicago.” This 1996 revival, smartly directed by Walter Bobbie and flashily choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse, the show’s creator, got an added jolt of publicity when Rob Marshall’s lively film version of the most cynical musical ever to open on Broadway became a runaway hit. The insertion of a medium-sized movie star into so long-running a production is doubtless intended to rope in Broadway novices who’ve never heard of Fosse, much less Ms. Reinking. (It can’t hurt that Antonio Banderas, Ms. Griffith’s husband, is appearing just across the street in “Nine.”)
Alas, “Chicago”‘s new star is sucker bait: Ms. Griffith sings like a cat with a cold, dances like a junior-high cheerleader and reads her lines like a cross between Jennifer Tilly and Betty Boop. She was so bad, in fact, that I felt embarrassed for the rest of the otherwise solid cast…If I were Melanie Griffith, I’d blush at the thought of sharing a stage with such consummate professionals. I guess being a movie star means never having to say you’re sorry.
I’d been wanting to go back to Chicago ever since Griffith moved on, but when I tried to include it in a Journal column I wrote last summer about long-running musicals, I ran into an unexpected roadblock:
If I had to guess, I’d say that most vacationing out-of-towners who take in a Broadway show probably do so in the summer. Unfortunately, that can be the worst time of year for playgoing. Actors go on vacations, too, and it’s in the summertime that you’re most likely to get stuck with understudies, second-stringers and temporary substitutes for the stars who lit up the sky on opening night. Nobody tells you that at the box office, though, nor are your hundred-dollar tickets plastered with stickers warning the inexperienced theatergoer that many hits go creaky in the knees after a year or so. That’s why Broadway producers don’t like critics to drop in on routine performances of long-running shows. When I inquired the other day about revisiting “Chicago,” for example, the publicist turned me down flat. “Too many understudies right now,” he told me….
A couple of weeks ago, a reader of “About Last Night” told me that Chicago was looking especially good these days, so I bit the bullet and went, not as the Big Bad Drama Critic of The Wall Street Journal but strictly as a regular guy who felt like catching a Saturday matinee on his day off. This time around, Roxie was being played by Tracy Shayne, an old Broadway hand (she’s had long runs as a replacement in A Chorus Line, Les Miz, and Phantom) who was subbing for the vacationing Charlotte d’Amboise. I’d never heard of her, but my correspondent assured me that she was terrific, so I decided to see for myself, and you know what? She was terrific. Shayne is a tough little pixie, professional to the hilt and a pure pleasure to watch, who knows exactly what Roxie Hart is all about. Not only is she a superb dancer, but she’s also a damned fine singer with a well-placed, vividly tinted voice (I think she ought to try her hand at cabaret). Good singing is a commodity that can no longer be taken for granted on Broadway, least of all now that slightly faded Hollywood stars are in demand to take over the lead roles of hit shows in need of a box-office boost. Lauren Hutton, for example, is excellent in Wonderful Town, but her singing is no better than good enough. I can think of worse things–starting with Melanie Griffith–but I can’t tell you what a relief it was to hear a major musical-comedy role sung really, really well, from the first note to the last.
Chicago would have been worth seeing (and hearing) just for Tracy Shayne, but I was no less happily surprised by the overall quality of the show, all the more so because the role of Velma Kelly was played by an understudy, Donna Marie Asbury, another dancer-who-can-really-sing who got her bumpy start as one of the fresh-faced kids in the ill-fated original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Asbury gave a strong performance, as did the rest of the cast, and I went home as happy as I could be, even though I hadn’t seen a single star all afternoon.
One of my favorite pieces in the Teachout Museum is “Composition,” a 1962 color serigraph by Stuart Davis. Most of Davis’ prints are way too rich for my blood, but I was able to afford “Composition” because it was published in a large edition of 500 copies, and because Davis died before he could sign any of them. Now one of those unsigned prints hangs over my bookshelves, crisp and jazzy and deeply satisfying to behold. Am I any less delighted to own it because it isn’t signed? I don’t think so. Of course I’d be pleased if it were, but I buy prints because I want to look at them, not for their investment value.
I thought of “Composition” as I rode the subway home last Saturday afternoon. Why is it that so many people need the imprimatur of a big name in order to enjoy a Broadway show? No doubt it has a lot to do with the staggeringly high price of theater tickets, which has a way of corrupting our aesthetic responses: if you’re paying $100 for an orchestra seat, you want to see somebody famous up there, even if she isn’t any good. You want, so to speak, to see the signature.
I won’t pretend that I’m entirely immune to this temptation. Whenever I show off my copy of John Marin’s “Downtown. The El,” I always point out that it’s pencil-signed in the margin, the same way I’ve been known to brag about having seen certain big-name performers in the flesh. Nevertheless, I’m fairly pure-hearted when it comes to art, and just as I treasure my unsigned copy of Stuart Davis’ “Composition,” so, too, did I have the time of my life seeing Tracy Shayne in Chicago, even though I didn’t know who she was before I got to the Ambassador Theatre. Whoever she is, she’s a trouper, like Audra McDonald, and that’s what theater is all about. The world is full of wonderful artists who never become rich or famous, who do what they do simply because they love it with all their hearts. God bless them, every one.