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In Los Angeles, the truism is that everyone you meet has a screenplay in his or her bag. In New York City, the calling card is more likely to be a CD, and given the amount of talent residing in its borders, one is likely to find many an enjoyable album encompassing every genre of music imaginable. Thus, the next few columns will focus on albums from folks who call the environs of the Big Apple their home.

Happy SongsIf any modern Broadway performer deserves the moniker 'star' (versus 'I've-done-one-star-making-role'), it is Audra McDonald, who has the distinction of winning three Tony Awards by the time she was 28 years old. Her third solo album, Happy Songs, was influenced by the birth of her daughter last year, as she wanted to do an album that reflected the joy that she was feeling. One has to wonder about what she considers 'happy,' however, since only five of the fourteen songs on the album are even remotely 'happy' in nature. The rest of the songs encompass themes such as the lynching of one's husband (Berlin's "Suppertime"), recovering from an abusive relationship (Rodgers and Hart's "I Wish I Were In Love Again"), generalized angst (Arlen and Koehler's "Ill Wind"), and many a 'my man has done me wrong' song (by everyone from Harold Arlen to Michael John LaChiusa).

That aside, Audra sounds her usual wonderful self on the album, and the songs showcase her myriad talents. While the album largely contains songs from the '30s and early '40s, it includes two contemporary songs that are written in a similar vernacular. She has great fun with LaChiusa's "See What I Wanna See," a highly infectious number from R. Shomon that really gives her a chance to cut loose and shine. Equally entertaining is the bass-driven "Beat My Dog" by Jay Leonhart, which provides quite the stylistic departure for Audra.

On November 2nd, Audra will be performing selections from Happy Songs at her Carnegie Hall solo debut. If the CD gives any indication, it should be quite the event.

It's Better With a BandAnother diva/star who has shown great staying power is Barbara Cook. A live recording of her 1980 Carnegie Hall concert was released in 1986 entitled It's Better With a Band. As it has been long out of print, it should be considered wonderful news that it has finally been re-released by DRG.

Comparing this album with her most recent release, Mostly Sondheim (also recorded live at Carnegie Hall), one is struck by how little Cook's voice has changed over the years. Unlike her previous 'comeback' concert at Carnegie Hall in 1975, Band contains very few Broadway songs or numbers usually associated with Cook. Instead, the album more closely resembles her pop-inspired album, As Of Today, as it contains songs by Peter Allen and Marsha Malanate ("Inside"), Harry Nilsson ("Remember," which is effectively paired with "Come In From the Rain" by Melissa Manchester and Carol Bayer Sager), Laura Nyro ("I Never Meant to Hurt You," which forms an emotionally devastating pairing with "I Never Knew that Men Cried" by Wally Harper and Paul Zakrezewski) and Joe Raposo ("Sing," translated into French and paired with her signature song, "Sing a Song With Me"). She not only gets away with singing pop songs utilizing her crystalline soprano but makes it sound as if it were as natural as breathing, which showcases why Cook is one of the top performers Broadway ever had (and lost).

Other highlights on the album include the hysterical self-mocking number, "The Ingénue" (Wally Harper and David Zippel) and a Leonard Bernstein medley that consists of "Simple Song," "One Hand, One Heart," "Some Other Time" and "I Can Cook, Too."

SouvenirFresh from performing as Mrs. Norstrom in A Little Night Music at Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, soprano Anna Bergman has released her debut solo album, Souvenir. As Bergman is a classically trained soprano, it is not surprising that Souvenir contains arias from operas ("Quando M'en Vo" from La Boheme, "Vilia Song" from The Merry Widow and "Mein Herr Marquis" from Die Fledermaus) and Broadway ("Ice Cream" from She Loves Me and "My Heart Is So Full Of You" from The Most Happy Fella, sung with Ron Raines), as well as a French art song (Poulenc's "Les Chemins De L'Amour"). Toss in songs by Sondheim ("So Many People"), the Gershwins ("By Strauss"), Rodgers and Hart ("You're Nearer"), Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit ("Home"), Carole King ("So Far Away") and a medley of Noel Coward tunes and you have quite the eclectic mix.

While Bergman shows great diversity in song selections, vocally and stylistically there is an overwhelming 'sameness' to the album. When she finally relaxes on the pairing of "So Far Away/You're Nearer," the resulting simplicity and intimacy is breathtaking. The album would have benefited by her doing so more often throughout. Still, Bergman possesses a gorgeous instrument that never becomes shrill or overproduced (a rarity in sopranos who straddle the fence between opera and Broadway) and is well worth looking into for those with a classical bent. For more information, visit www.annabergman.com.

Here's to the ladiesTwo-time Tony nominee Christine Andreas has released a CD, Here's To The Ladies , which is dedicated to the great leading ladies of Broadway. Based on her cabaret show of the same name, Andreas is backed by a 45-piece orchestra. To say that the album sounds lush is the understatement of the year. The miracle, however, is that neither Andreas nor the orchestra ever overwhelm the material. Although largely known as a soprano, Andreas utilizes her lower chest register throughout most of the album, which lends an intimacy to the numbers. While all of the songs are familiar, being standards long associated with Ethel Merman, Barbara Cook, Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Helen Morgan, Angela Lansbury, Barbra Streisand and Gertrude Lawrence, all are made personal by Andreas, who has crafted one of the finest female vocalist albums of the year.

The album will be released in stores October 15th but is currently available through PS Classics' website: www.psclassics.com. NOTE: Christine Andreas will be celebrating the release of her CD with a performance at the Algonquin's famed Oak Room on October 27. For information and tickets call 212-840-6800.

The Girls of SummerOne of the most engaging performers I witnessed this summer has been Barbara Fasano, who completely wowed me at The Broadway Musicals of 1964. Her rendition of Jerry Herman's "Ribbons Down My Back" ranks up there with the best, and thankfully it is included on her CD, The Girls of Summer , which won the Bistro Award in 1999 for Outstanding Album. Fasano has a sultry voice and an engaging way with a lyric that works with a variety of songstyles. Who would have thought that Springsteen's "Thunder Road" was a beautiful ballad? Or that Cyndi Lauper and Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Sally's Pigeons" was so heartrending? Barbara also shines on two Sondheim numbers, "Cool" and the titular "Girls of Summer," which have been given a sensual groove in no small part due to Rick Jensen's simmering arrangements. For more information on Barbara, including upcoming performances (which I urge you to attend), visit www.humanchild.com.

Michelle PirretTwo names that you probably don't know (but should) are Michelle Pirret and Bernard Bieman. The latter is a 94-year old composer whose songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Guy Lombardo and Sarah Vaughn (who's recording of "Vanity" was a hit in 1955). The former is a young actress/singer whose smoky jazz vocals are showcased in a CD devoted to Bieman's music, Somewhere in the World. The two met when Pirret, then an undergraduate at NYU, auditioned for Bieman. They became fast friends, and the resulting album is a testament to their mutual friendship and talents.

Most of Somewhere in the World is performed with a light samba/bossa nova swing that suits the songs and Pirret's voice and style. While Bieman has been writing songs for over five decades, most of the numbers on the CD (many of which are receiving their premier recordings) were written in the past twenty years. All of the songs, however, have a timeless quality and are well worth looking into by singers looking for new 'classic' material. One of the more intriguing numbers on the album is "Forget About Me," which is recorded twice; once by Pirret in a playful samba arrangement, and once by Bieman, who was so sure she would samba-up the song that he wanted to show how it was written. Both are equally enjoyable and it is fascinating to compare the two.

Overall, this is a beautifully realized album that is sultry and mellow; the perfect accompaniment for the upcoming fall evenings. For more information and to hear samples from the album, visit www.michellepirret.com.

Quel FromageAnother writer you may not be familiar with is Michael Colby, lyricist/librettist of the musicals Charlotte Sweet (for which he received a Drama Desk nomination), Tales of Tinseltown, North Atlantic (for which he received a Show Business Award), Slay it with Music, Delphi or Bust, The Human Heart, and Mrs. McThing. On October 29, 2001, Amas Musical Theatre celebrated Colby's 50th birthday with Quel Fromage: 50 Years of Colby , a show comprised of his show and cabaret songs. The show, which has been preserved on disc, featured many a Broadway and cabaret star, including Darius de Haas, Donna English, Alison Fraser, Christine Pedi, Stephanie Pope, David Gurland, Ron Raines and Michael Feinstein.

Before listening to the album, the only song of Colby's with which I was familiar was the hysterical "I Can Sing" from Tales of Tinseltown (previously recorded by Alix Korey on her first CD, Songs You Might Have Missed). Thus, it surprised me that his ballads resonated more with me than his comedy numbers: the opening number, "My Song" (effectively sung by Michael Feinstein),"Lana Laney" (a touching story song about seeing someone at a high school reunion and sung by Eddie Korbich), and the final number, "That'll Be Enough" (beautifully sung by Audrey Lavine). While a large number of the songs are very show specific and would be hard to perform in clubs or cabaret shows, Quel Fromage is a treasure trove of unfamiliar material and well worth looking into, especially by theater companies interested sampling his shows. For more information visit Michael's website.


-- Jonathan Frank


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