Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro
As a singer and songwriter, Laura Nyro was the equal of Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Yet, while we discovered King and Mitchell’s compositions from their own albums, most of us learned Nyro’s songs through hit covers from the likes of the 5th Dimension, Barbra Streisand and Three Dog Night. So, though most of Nyro’s albums are available on CD, her work (or, at least, a small slice of it) survives largely as fodder for Golden Oldies stations. Fortunately, venerable music theater performer Judy Kuhn has opted to dig deeper, mixing the familiar with the comparatively obscure to salute the remarkable depth and breadth of the Nyro songbook.
Interestingly, Kuhn sounds akin to the Tapestry-era King as she examines the many facets of a richly versatile writer who was equally skilled at exploring the giddiness of communal tipsiness (“Sweet Blindness”) and the darkness of fatal drug abuse (“Been On a Train”), the joy of motherhood (“To a Child,” “Mother’s Spiritual”) and the temptation of demons (“Captain Saint Lucifer”), the cacophonous underbelly of her native New York (“Buy and Sell”) and the social unrest of her generation (“Save the Country”). Listening to Nyro filtered through Kuhn, it’s hard not to be reminded of composer Jonathan Larson’s Rent. And the parallel seems apt, party because of Kuhn’s innate theatricality, but more because Nyro and Larson, though separated by several decades, embraced many of the same themes—New York as a creative melting pot, sexual freedom, the incomparable value of friendship, the lights at the end of dark tunnels, internal and external quests for peace, love and understanding—in their passionately-woven songs. And both died far too young.