Emily Skinner wrote in the liner notes to her self-titled solo album:
“What I didn’t want was an ego trip of the ‘Songs I like to listen to myself sing the most’ type.”
I don’t know about everyone else, but I like those kind of ego trips! After all, if you don’t like to hear yourself sing the song, why the heck would anyone else want to hear it? Who cares who picks the songs as long as you sing them well?
I love a good solo album. It’s a delight to hear the stars I love singing songs I wouldn’t otherwise get to hear them sing. On message boards, people are always fantasizing about ideal casts and who they’d die to hear sing different parts. A solo album is a theatre fan’s chance to dream in stereo.
Though while we all love a good solo album, sinking your hard-earned money on a great voice underperforming on disc is a major letdown. Not only is it a waste of money if you don’t like the CD, even worse, it’s a waste of talent. It can also hurt that star’s chance of having a successful second album.
So, as an avid theatre fan, here are some guidelines for recording a solo theatre album that will entertain and delight your fans and hopefully win you a few more.
1. Theatre folk seem to like to pick the most obscure Broadway songs to sing. For example, Dorothy Loudon performed a song from Ballroom on the My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies concert. I’ve read a ton about Broadway musicals, and I’ve never heard of that show. Audra McDonald chose a song from Hooray for What. She sang it well, but, um, it never stuck to the ribs, you know. Heather Headley sang “He Touched Me” on The Love Songs, and I still don’t know which show that’s from.
It’s understandable because an artist wants to have the chance to trod a path that few have trod. There are songs that, because they are so popular, have been performed by everyone and their YouTube-obsessed cousin. But if you are making a theatre CD, the selling point is going to be your awesome voice singing songs people have wanted to hear you sing or have wanted to have on disc.
So, guideline one is to select a variety of songs for your CD that are both new to your audience but also familiar. I like being introduced to new songs. It’s just that when you have a CD that is mostly new songs, it can be difficult to enter in without the hook of familiarity. Theatre songs are linked to stories, so if you are performing a song from a 1930s show that is no longer produced, it’s hard for people to follow your stories. At the same time, it’s nice to be introduced to new songs. It’s great to see a new show and have one or two of the songs in your back pocket to look forward to. A blend of the new and familiar is always a good mix to have.
2. Recording songs from shows that were never recorded, however, is a big bonus. I love that Emily Skinner brought in Alice Ripley to record a duet from James Joyce’s The Dead on her solo album. That’ll be one of the few chances I’ll ever have to hear anything from that score. Similarly, Matt Bogart’s “Tell My Father” from The Civil War, which was never recorded by a Broadway performer, is a highlight on his CD.
It’s also a joy for your fans to hear the songs you performed on stage as a replacement or tour cast member. Personally, I would love to have Merle Dandridge signing an Aida song or Kim Huber singing one of Belle’s songs. We theatre fans eat that sort of thing up. Feed us well!
3. If you want theatre people to buy your CD, do a theatre CD. Audra McDonald can pull off her solo albums because she has the marketing push behind her and has found crossover success. But if you do, say, a jazz CD, then don’t be surprised when it doesn’t sell well. I love Brian Stokes Mitchell, and I have no clue how his Playbill CD has sold. However, it was a jazz CD. Personally, I’m not interested in jazz. Jazz fans buy jazz CDs with jazz songs, and theatre fans buy theatre star CDs with theatre songs with theatre arrangements. Personally, I want a Brian Stokes Mitchell theatre CD, just not with jazz arrangements.
In fact, there is one beautiful theatre voice I won’t name who has permanently destroyed several aging pop songs for me because they were such a poor fit for her tremendous talents, and now I can’t bear the thought of hearing them again. Oh, if only she had recorded theatre songs!
That is not to say that there isn’t room for difference. For example, Adam Pascal’s rock albums are great. But he’s not taking “The Party’s Over” and turning it into a rock anthem. He’s got the voice to pull it off, and he’s doing rock songs. Similarly, Laura Bell Bundy has a country album out. She’s not directly reaching her Broadway fans. She’s not doing “For Good” with a country twang. I’m sure many of her fans will go along for the ride, but she knows her primary audience for the album isn’t Broadway.
So if you want to primarily sell your theatre voice, do theatre songs! And do them with theatre arrangements.
4. Give us theatre interpretations. I love Susan Egan’s solo album So Far. In addition to Egan’s great voice, she gives us a theatre CD in which she sings theatre songs as if she was in the show. That’s really the ideal album for the theatre fan.
I think of as an example the two Fantasia solo albums, both which have not sold to Fantasia’s American Idol fanbase. Fantasia earned a billion votes by singing one style, then produced two albums in a completely different style. She’s probably happy with their R & B integrity and how they reflect the kind of music she wants to do, but she’s not making the kind of music people voted for her singing. The result is that her sales reflect that. It’s the same analogy for theatre albums. If people are buying your CD because they liked what they saw on a Broadway stage (or on YouTube or on an OBCR or whatever), then determine what level of success you want to have before releasing the solo album that deviates from it.
Also, if you do have traditional theatre interpretations, do your character analysis work. A theatre song is not intended to be sung only by hitting the notes. Even if you can hit amazing notes, there’s more to a theatre song than that. That’s actually really boring. Unfortunately, I bought a CD by a theatre star whom I esteem highly, but his CD is so boring. It’s like a solo choir concert—a performance lacking emotion.
5. Make sure that the sound quality is top notch. There are a few CDs out there with great voices I won’t name that sound like they were recorded in a tin can in a basement. The vocals are strong, but they don’t have a clear audio quality. If you’re going to go through the process of recording your voice, do it justice!
6. If you do a gospel album, you’re not allowed to be photographed without a significant percentage of your clothing for a ten-year time span. Jubilant Sykes (from the Encores! Bloomer Girl), for example, did an album that showcased his voice beautifully through Gospel songs in 1998. He’s never been photographed without a majority of his clothing. And he’s got one year to go.
7. As for arrangements, if you can’t finance a full accompaniment, follow the example Chuck Wagner set on his self-named solo album. I once read how many instruments he used, and while I don’t recall that number, I do know the final tracks don’t sound like they were done on a budget. The ideal is a full orchestra, but if you can’t do that, be creative.
8. Do an album. Actually record it. I don’t know the financial aspect of recording a solo album, but there are plenty of people out there who need to do a solo theatre album—Carolee Carmello, Rachel York, Donna Murphy, Brian d’Arcy James, Anthony Crivello, and Norm Lewis all come to mind.
When I think of great solo theatre albums, several come to mind as great examples. One of those is Matt Bogart’s Simple Song album. His song selection is a mixture of classics, contemporary, and rare. A sampling of the seventeen tracks include “Soliloquy” from Carousel (classic), “I Don’t Hear the Ocean” from Marie Christine (contemporary), and “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife (rare). I know that when I finally get to see The Baker’s Wife (or Anyone Can Whistle), because of Bogart’s album, I’ll have something to which I can look forward.
In his own words (from the liner notes), his “aim was to create a theatre album where I could bring the appropriate theatricality to each of these pieces as though I were simply performing them live and on stage . . . I feel these theatre songs demand a certain attention be paid to their design to tell a specific story.” As Michael John LaChiusa also writes in the liner notes, Bogart understands that a song “needs no embellishment, no ego-driven interpretation.” And because of this, it’s an extraordinarily effective album. When I hear his “Written in the Stars,” I feel like I’m sitting in the theatre watching the show.
I’ve never seen Matt Bogart perform, but the CD showcases his talents beautifully. The songs use traditional arrangements, but he makes them his own through his theatrical character-driven interpretations. Because there is a mixture of songs, you can focus on hearing the new ones for the first time and take the time to figure them out, while enjoying the better-known songs instantly. There’s also a blending of different styles of songs, so it doesn’t feel like one long ballad or you don’t skip ahead to the songs that have a different tempo just for a change of pace. It is a well-rounded CD that perfectly showcases Matt Bogart’s talents.
In thinking about Bogart’s Simple Song CD and Susan Egan’s So Far, both produced for Jay Records by John Yap, I wonder why this Yap fellow isn’t doing this with other people. He should be calling Sutton Foster, Brent Carver, or Marla Schaffel.
So . . . In short, don’t forget your roots. If you want to do something different, then go completely different. But after that, come back and do a theatre CD. We love your voice. It’s just that there’s a lot of CDs out there vying for our money, and we want to spend it on what we love.
the Broadway Mouth
August 23, 2007