Julian Eaves reviews Seth Rudetsky’s online concert with Audra McDonald which streamed online on Sunday and Monday as part of Seth’s online concert Series.
This kicked off with a real Shirley-Bassey-esque mood, a thumping, ‘I Am What I Am’ from, ‘La Cage Aux Folles’: initially, some sound issues really were to the fore, with the music apparently emanating from the bottom of quite a deep fish-tank. The audio for the spoken interactions was much clearer, and then the whole of the sound engineering perked up. And we all touched base with encouragement for maintaining safety measures for controlling the Covid-19 pandemic. Once that was out of the way, we quickly moved into other themes. Racism, and Audra’s confrontation with it, loomed immediately large, with recollections of the career prospects available to women of colour in the USA when she was starting out (around the time of the first run of ‘Dreamgirls’). The chorus, she hoped, might be where she could get: at no point did she dream of anything more.
The next number’s lyric, however, ‘Being good just isn’t good enough’, (from ‘Hallelujah, Baby’, a 1967 Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green show about the African-American struggle), kind of summed up where she was really at, ‘inside’, perhaps. And the chat was off, ranging far and wide across their mutual and frequently parallel careers; there was a telling anecdote about singing on an AIDS-ward in a hospital, a ward also shared by seriously ill convicts, where Seth did a weekly cabaret, and Audra was one of his ‘singers’. This segued nicely into a Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim, medley: ‘You’ve Got To Be Taught’, perhaps Hammerstein’s most powerfully inclusive and anti-prejudice lyric, and, ‘Children Will Listen’, from, ‘Into The Woods’: this put together two lyricists who have transformed the musical theatre stage, and just happened to be like surrogate father and son, perfectly illustrating the close bond between craft in the ‘industry’ and personal ties that make it more like a family.
Activism, of course, is the name for this sort of thing, and so we got talk about that, too. We heard all about how Robert Marshall jigged the ‘re-shoot’ of the last scene in the movie of ‘Annie’, where everyone was supposed to twist it, so the states which might object to seeing a white man proposing to marry an African-American woman would ‘not have a problem with it’. Marshall basically did one dodgy take and then moved on to other things: his ‘re-take’ was no good, and so the original shoot had to be accepted by the Disney corporation. And it was.
Nice. So, sometimes the gods smile and are kindly. This got us moving on into the – much tougher – ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ (Kander and Ebb), a real-life cause celebre of false accusations of rape made against a group of black men, who, despite subsequent retractions of the charges made by the white female alleged victims, were sentenced to death. A nightmare of suffering then ensued, resulting in everyone getting involved and the ordinary people caught in the middle being pulled this way and that until the juggernaut of bigotry and entrenched opinions eventually ran out of steam.
Audra also showed us how to get through disasters, with ‘Ordinary Mothers’ (a Sondheim song cut from ‘A Little Night Music’, and one has more than a passing similarity to ‘Children Will Listen’, but we’ll let that pass… for now). Seth was also on top of every nuance, not just of the songs, but also of where the whole conversation was going, one that expressed very much a shared outlook on life, a positive one: ‘Theatre will be back and it will be better… more inclusive…. we can create opportunities… why not?’ She urged us to, ‘set up a performance thing where you can stream into the audiences’ you want to reach. All of this, it seems, was driven by the bottled-up emotions we all carry around with us, but which in this time of enforced stillness and reflection we have had a chance to drag out and take another, long, hard look at.
So, Seth led us into Kate Miller’s, ‘Are you F***ing Kidding Me?’, and Audra gave it the gloriously rich beauty of her voice, layering the abrasiveness of the lyric with a deceptively attractive varnish. ‘Your Daddy’s Son’, Sarah’s song from the musical ‘Ragtime’, (Ahrens and Flaherty), came next in this emotionally charged happening, a song that is an extraordinary mix of lullaby and keening. After that, they lifted us up right away with another well-chosen match, by a writer, McDonald has supported: Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Stars And The Moon’, from his ‘Songs For A New World’. But the fireworks were truly lit with a re-hash of Streisand’s medleyfied, ‘Down With Love’ (Arlen/Harburg), with a finale of ‘Summertime’ (the Gershwins). So sweet.
And the chemistry? The friendship was always warm and bubbling through the easy repartee and shared humanistic values. And there was time for a finale word about two pandemics, Covid-19 and racism, ending with the upbeat message, ‘We can get out there and beat them’, nailing this with a barnstorming encore, ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, ‘The Sound of Music’. OK. I guess now we all know what we’ve got to do.