“Your arias cause a stir in my sad and lonely heart”
Ringing the changes with her fourth album, Build a Bridge saw Audra McDonald take a break from the classic musical theatre songbooks she’d been exploring on her last two albums to turn to an altogether more contemporary world of rock and pop. There’s still room for some of the new musical theatre that she has tirelessly championed her whole career, of course there is, and there’s something utterly beguiling about the effortlessly modern feel of this collection.
That’s not to say that the selections are today’s Top 40 hits – Neil Young sits beside John Mayer, Randy Newman by Nellie McKay after all – but that Doug Petty’s arrangements and production style, together with that peerless soprano marries the material together in a beautiful way, that ultimately just celebrates the joy of good song-writing. Through McDonald here, one can trace how the timeless melodies of Bacharach and Costello’s ‘God Give Me Strength’ progress naturally to the chamber-pop of Rufus Wainwright’s charismatic ‘Damned Ladies’.
Mayer’s ‘My Stupid Mouth’ and Laura Nyro’s ‘To A Child’ are just two more of the tracks that really blossom under her attention but for me, the highlight comes with the musical theatre. Guettel’s ‘Build A Bridge’ and ‘Dividing Day’ both shine but it’s the melodic and emotional power of Ricky Ian Gordon and Jessica Molaskey’s ‘Cradle and All’ that is just quietly breath-taking, McDonald’s interpretative skills rarely better.
Not everything works quite as well, especially towards the disc’s end. Nyro’s ‘Tom Cat Goodbye’ is just challenging and not in a good way and a rather po-faced take on ‘Bein’ Green’ makes it unduly portentous, a couple of choices not quite paying off in the determination to maintain the musical integrity. But what we lose in the muting of the more humorous side of McDonald’s personality here is more than made up for with the musical intelligence on display, beautifully broadening her capability to make the music, any music, sing.