Audra McDonald's third album may be called Happy Songs, but the cover -- on which she is depicted in sepia tone, inserted into a photograph from the 1940s, dolled up in period getup, and looking like she's waiting for a train -- suggests that the title is intended ironically, a suggestion further documented by a perusal of the songs on the back cover, which include Irving Berlin's anti-lynching ballad "Supper Time" and Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Ill Wind (You're Blowin' Me No Good)." The former song is associated with Ethel Waters and the latter with Aida Ward, while the leadoff track, "Ain't It de Truth?," was introduced by Lena Horne, and "I Must Have That Man!" was first sung by Adelaide Hall, all predecessors of McDonald as a black female musical theater star.
By singing their songs, she embraces that heritage, and by singing so well, she demonstrates that she is their equal.
But she also addresses the work of white female stars like Dinah Shore, who introduced "Tess' Torch Song," and Judy Garland, whose arrangement of Rodgers & Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again" is updated here, and she holds her own with them, too.
Happy Songs is an affectionate look back at a more extravagant era of entertainment when women's emotions (as written for them by men) were expressed powerfully, and these songs explore the range of those feelings.
The choices are sometimes daring, such as the wonderful, but long-forgotten Freddy Martin hit "I Double Dare You" from 1937, which McDonald handles with frenetic energy, and, stepping out of the long-ago past into the recent days of nightclub novelty, Jay Leonhart's song of comic romantic complaint, "Beat My Dog." Such numbers demonstrate that these can be "happy songs," even when the sentiments are less so.