Sunday, May 18, 2014


A few minutes into the movie Lady Sings the Blues, I figured out how to watch the thing. If you stopped thinking about Billie Holiday, forgot there had ever been such a person as Billie Holiday, it was really a pretty good movie. 

You don't have to go quite to that extreme to enjoy Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, but it's best to ignore the book and just enjoy it as what it pretends to be, a late performance in Philadelphia by Lady Day. Holiday, of course, would never have spoken so openly about her life and trials to strangers, and much of what we hear in the spoken interludes is purest fiction. If you can put that aside, which is not always easy to do even with the lights down, even with the well structured illusion of a night club evening (members of the audience down front sit at cafe tables and interact with Lady), this is one of the finest concerts of the year.

Audra McDonald, I have to say, mimics Holiday masterfully, singing in a voice that is not her own. This did not work as well for me when she was speaking, but the singing, which takes up most of the show, is masterfully done.  You may have seen McDonald on The Colbert Report recently when she did a number from the show, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." My first impression watching on TV, after having seen the show at Circle in the Square, was that McDonald was overdoing the impression. Or, I thought, maybe it's just that TV exaggerates what seemed natural in the theater.

But then I did the obvious thing. I played a few very late recordings of Billie Holiday singing the number live, and McDonald had nailed the performance. 

So -- don't go to this show looking to learn anything about Billie Holiday from the script. Still, there is so much about Holiday to be learned from the singing.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

There is a story that Ruth Brown started out as a Billie Impersonator, and Billie told her in no uncertain terms she should stop...I read this in liner notes for a Ruth Brown album...Ruth did stop... I saw one of these shows years ago doing a Dinah Washington evening...It was exactly as you described it here, Aldon!