Saturday, November 28, 2009


Very exciting...


Day 28: One grand album.

Donna Lynne Champlin’s debut, self-produced CD, Old Friends, is one grand album. Literally. On recovery during Billy Elliot, she decided to record her own solo album, with a budget of one grand and six weeks time. But the result is an artistically grand album that is probably the most revelatory and unique solo album I've ever heard from a modern musical theatre talent.

I first encountered her as Honoria Glossop in the American cast of By Jeeves, and then heard her kick some serious ass on the Original Cast Recording of 3Hree (luckily, her big song "The Air Is Free" came at the end of the CD; otherwise I never would've made it through the whole album; as it stands, I don't think I ever got to the end of 'Flight of the Lawnchair Man'.) She also appears on Ricky Ian Gordon's My Life With Albertine, and is probably known to most as Pirelli in John Doyle's revival of Sweeney Todd. So with the kind of a resume, one should expect the unexpected from her album, but all in a good way.

I hesitate to go track-by-track, because each one gets successively better, so I'm going to focus on the three songs that establish exactly what makes this album a must: an obscure, a whoa-really? and a so-over-played-it-usually-makes-me-vomit. The obscure is "Eiffel Tower" from The Blue Flower ; the whoa-really? is "Only Hope" from A Walk To Remember, done so infinitely better than Mandy Moore that I didn't even think it was the same song; and finally, Jason Robert Brown's "I'm Still Hurting", which

(to be fair, I didn't actually watch any of those. I'm sure there's some lovely performances in there, though.)

But in the hands of DLC, the song is in a whole new ballgame. Right from the get-go you know this is a woman who knows her way around delivering a song: rather than clueing us in with the familiar opening chords, the track opens with just five seconds of the most effective silence I've ever heard in the beginning of a song, and when she comes in with the verse, she's been singing all of two notes and managed to convey more in that than most Cathys convey in the entire show. She also wraps it up with a twist: in the closing "I'm still hurting", she doesn't go for the angry belt on "I'm" - rather, the note drifts up there, and gives the song the natural fade it deserves. And did I mention she's a classically trained singer? So you get none of this riffy screamy modern wailing fierceness which is all the rage these days.

Old Friends was undoubtedly a labor of artistic love, and I'm sure in many ways a gamble. Speaking as someone who is writingdirectingproducing his own show simply because it's an artistic product I believe in that I really want to share with the world , I struggle with feeling a little self-indulgent, as I feel there's this sensibility in theatre that anyone who self-produces is creating a vanity project, and I don't doubt that's true in a number of cases. But Donna Lynne Champlin's Old Friends is a firm statement for the opposite: there is nothing vain or self-indulgent about her album at all; rather it sets an example for performers everywhere to show who you are and what moves you as an artist and share that with the world however you can, even if that way just happens to be a $1,000 budget on a CD.

And so, Ms. Champlin, I tip my hat to your efforts... if only I was done finishing it.