I first saw Lea DeLaria as host of one of Comedy Cental's periodic Out There specials focusing on gay and lesbian comics. She earned my eternal affection (and frequent quotation) when, introducing musical guest Phranc, she appeared onstage holding an acoustic guitar and announced: "I know that right now many of you are looking at me and saying, 'a lesbian with a guitar . . . NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!'" After making her splash in standup, being the first openly gay comic on national television and headlining all over the United States and abroad, she moved into small parts in films and television (including a memorable guest spot on The Drew Carey Show) before moving onto what some call the "legitimate stage", making her Broadway debut with a revival of On the Town. She's now appearing in the Tony-nominated revival of The Rocky Horror Show.
As the above career overview should show, DeLaria is what we in the jet-set refer to as "multitalented". Knowing her to be in-your-face funny as a comic, but not having had the chance to see her perform as a singer, I was most curious to hear Play it Cool, her album of jazz interpretations of songs from the musical theater.
DeLaria set out to make an album of relatively contemporary material alongside a few standards in imaginative arrangements. Backed by a core sextet of excellent jazz musicians both young and . . . not so young, she shows herself to be an always interesting, lively singer, if not always the equal of her material or her collaborators.
The opening, a swing "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is designed to make listeners who know the show from which it's taken (Sondheim's Sweeney Todd) say "But . . . but . . . you can't sing that outside the story!" And I admit, I was taken aback -- the cries of "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!" seemed so ill-suited to a jazz song. And yet, a swing standard kept coming back to me -- we take it for granted now, but consider the story behind "Mack the Knife"!
Pianist Brad Mehldau is featured to good effect on "Cool" from West Side Story, as Seamus Blake is on tenor sax and Gil Goldstein, also on piano, is on "Once in a Lifetime" and DeLaria does a nice turn on all.
Yet, by a little more than halfway through the disc, it's evident that she is as good as her material and no better. It's difficult to imagine her saving weaker material on the strength of her voice or performance. In an interview with Talkin' Broadway, she says that she wanted to make an argument for interesting material in recent years on Broadway, but her choices here don't make for a very convincing case. When she's covering Sondheim, Bernstein, Bricusse and Newley, the results are pretty great, but more recent work from Michael John LaChiusa and Tom Waits can't stand up to that. The best of the "new generation" tunes is Randy Newman's "Life Has Been Good to Me", from his Faust.
This album seems unlikely to be thought of as a classic in future decades, but it is a superior (by today's standards) example of the kind of record Artie Shaw or Frank Sinatra and their generation used to make. Back then the best pop songs came from musicals and musicals were looked upon as a primary source for pop singers, before the rise of the professional pop songwriter and, especially, the "singer-songwriter" and the notion that interpretive singers were somehow lesser than Loesser.