By Steven Suskin
10 Jan 2010
Have you heard the one about the Broadway actress who challenged herself to make a CD for a flat $1,000 and did precisely that, recording it in the bathroom of her studio apartment? The fact that she did it at all is admirable, and the fact that she managed to turn out a professional-sounding item is impressive. The fact that it is a first-rate CD makes the economic discussion irrelevant. And Donna Lynne Champlin's "Old Friends" is a first-rate CD; if she didn't tell us in her liner notes that she spun it out of ten hundred-dollar bills, and if she didn't include a photo of her singing over the sink, we wouldn't be talking about such mundane matters. We would simply be saying that "Old Friends" is quite good and recommending it to your attention.
Ms. Champlin is of course familiar to discerning New York theatregoers. This is the actress who played the Carol Burnett-inspired character in Carrie Hamilton and Ms. Burnett's Hollywood Arms, back in 2002; and who more recently sang a Pirelli of note in the John Doyle-helmed Sweeney Todd in 2005. (I actually remember her raising an eyebrow at her Honoria Glossop inBy Jeeves, during its limited local engagement at the Helen Hayes in 2001.) Champlin is presently in Billy Elliot, earning a paycheck; an onstage injury, apparently, left her sitting around her studio apartment with the time and the energy to — well, to see if she could make a $1,000 CD by herself.
She could, indeed, and did. Mind you, this is not something you should try yourself unless you can not only sing but write your own arrangements and play them on your own keyboard. Champlin is accompanied by violinist Jessica Wright and cellist Elisa Winter, who unless DLC has a huge bathtub must have come along later to added their music to the tracks. But Champlin did the vocals (including backup work), piano, accordion, flute, tin whistle, and synthed guitar, bass, strings, chimes and percussion. In this case, the singer is very much beholden to her musicians.
The 15 tracks come from a variety of places, with only one song that the average listener might find familiar (that being Charles Chaplin's "Smile"). Seven of the songs appear to be from musicals, although four are from musicals unknown to me (and which might be unproduced). In fact, I am pretty much unfamiliar with 12 of the 15 items. No harm in this, of course. However, I am struck by a certain sameness in many of the selections; Ms. Champlin might have profited by the presence of a song selection associate. This is a minor qualm, though; "Old Friends," and Donna Lynne Champlin, make good friends.