This year Audra McDonald made Broadway history by winning her sixth Tony Award for her performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. In this show, she recreates one of Billie Holiday’s last performances at a dive bar in South Philadelphia. Her performance in this production is inspiring. Recently, PS Classics released a live recording of this phenomenal show, which allows a listener to experience this remarkable performance. While listening to this two-disc live original Broadway cast album, one can hear the energy and rapture of the audience and performers. This cast recording embodies the true spirit of what Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is about as well as encompasses the uniqueness of Ms. McDonald in the role of Billie Holliday.
I have heard it said that “Jazz is Americana,” jazz is a form of music that is uniquely American. It is an art form that needs remembered, celebrated and embraced. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill celebrates the music of one of the jazz legends, Billie Holiday, as well as tells her story throughout the concert. That is what I loved about listening to the discs, there are so many personal stories about Holiday’s life, which was full of tragedy, but still she is bold, spirited and soulful. One can learn about the life of Holiday, as well as what life was like for her living in America in the early to mid-20th century. This recording not only brings to life the memory of the music of Holiday, but it also pays tribute to her spirit and perseverance, and there are heartbreaking moments from her life that are told through monologues during the show.
McDonald has embodied the spirit of Holiday with every note, and this recording is Audra McDonald completely transformed. She takes on the essence of Holiday, and does this with ease and impressive precision. Each song has the soulful sound of Holiday, and her stories are being told with each song and through her dialogue. A few of my favorite numbers on the cd are “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” In “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” McDonald personifies the energy of Holiday, in addition this number exhibits the magnificent piano accompanist, Jimmy Powers, played by Shelton Becton. “God Bless the Child” is a timeless classic and one of Holiday’s best known songs. McDonald gives it beautiful vocals, but also incorporates the story behind the song where she explains that she wrote the song for her “Mama, ‘the Duchess.’” At the end of the song, the energy and awe of the audience can be heard through the thunderous applause this song receives. There are many moments on these discs that are touching, and emotional, the one song that I found truly emotional was the song “Strange Fruit.” In every lyric and in every note there is meaning. This song was originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, which exposed American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. This song is heartbreaking, and one of my favorite numbers in this recording.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is a recording that showcases the heart and soul of Billie Holiday and her music. I am a firm believer that there is no other experience like live theatre, but PC Classics has captured the essence of this show at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre with one of America’s great actors, Audra McDonald. For more information about Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill visit the show’s website at ladydayonbroadway.com.
Final Thought: The live recording of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is Audra McDonald like you have not heard her before. She transforms into Billie Holiday, and this recording is a reminder why McDonald is one of the greatest artists of our time.
Kelli Curtin is editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online sites broadwayworld.com and figlancaster.com, and is a freelance writer. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on twitter @theatrescribe and on Facebook/theatresensation.