It's been said that "Behind every great man is a great woman," but in the case of Tony Award-winning superwoman Audra McDonald there are three musicians backing her in the history making role of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill: musical conductor Shelton Becton, drummer Clayton Craddock and bass player George Farmer portray the musicians accompanying one of jazz music's most iconic figures during her final live performances.
It's no mystery that to get a show to go well on The Great White Way, a lot of moving pieces are assembled. And although actors, singers, choreographers, directors and even playwrights get a lot of light shone upon them, there are hundreds of other players whose hard work goes unrecognized.
In Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill — currently playing at Broadway's Circle In the Square Theatre — history was not only made when McDonald won her record sixth Tony Award earlier this year. History is being retold continually thanks to Lanie Robertson's enduring story which reveals a more complex, raucous and raw look at Billie Holiday after her star started to fade.
And a story about the legendary "God Bless The Child" singer/songwriter can't be told without music playing a major part. During performances of this play with music, Becton, Craddock and Farmer are not tucked away hidden in the pit playing their instruments; they are on the stage and behind the lights with McDonald throughout.
Becton, who plays the role of Jimmy Powers, Holiday's musical director, has been working Broadway behind the scenes for the past decade in shows such as The Color Purple, Memphis and Baby It's You!. Getting to shine as an actor (of sorts) — for the first time ever — is much more than the Gibson, NC native bargained for. "I've become a part of the show, which was not my original intent, but it has stretched me and has made me grow as an artist and I appreciate the opportunity," he said in a recent interview.
|Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva|
"It feels great to be a part of a historical piece, this one particularly because it sort of commemorates the life and achievement of Billie Holiday," Becton, 61, shared. "I was only six when she died, but I heard her music over the years. And now to be really presenting it in such a great fashion is wonderful for me, and it's great because it's also a history lesson — not only for me but for people who see the show."
"We get such insight into her life and to the multifaceted person that she was," he added. "And the music that she produced has lasted through from the time that she was alive until now. People still sing that music. It's timeless."
"I tell people I have the greatest job on the planet, and I do," Craddock, 48, boasted. "I get to play music six nights a week with great musicians and a legendary performer in Audra McDonald... It's music I love to play in a great venue in front of people who are mesmerized by her performance and the story of Billie Holiday."
The Howard University alum worked with both Becton and Farmer on Memphis, which played for three years at The Shubert Theater and won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical.
"So I get to do what I love with people I love to play with an amazing performer and I get paid to do it." The former money manager and divorced father of two said he entered the Broadway scene by accident. "I was playing in various bands and wedding bands and with different singer/songwriters over the years," he explained. "I knew this guy named Matt Beck, who is now the guitar player for Rob Thomas and he played in Matchbox Twenty. And he had recommended me to go out on a tour of Footloose back in 2000, and I did that for a year. I came back and he had recommended me for an Off- Broadway show called tick, tick... BOOM! at the Jane Street Theater." The Manchester, CT native went on to sub in shows such as Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Evita and The Color Purple. Before Memphis' hit streak, he played for four years in the Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz.
|Photo by Derrick Baskin|
Throughout the lulls of working steadily on and Off-Broadway, Craddock still works in wedding bands. "Yeah, I do that from time to time," he said. "I keep my connections in that because shows don't last forever unless you're like The Lion King and The Book of Mormon."
Farmer, a Vienna, Austria native, is also keen on all of the nuances of being a Broadway musician. But "life was good" for the 42-year-old baby of the bunch. In New York City since 1996, he worked as a construction worker while freelancing as a musician. His big break came with the Off-Broadway production of Spring Awakening for the Atlantic Theater Company. The Bill T. Jones-choreographed show went on to play Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre for a little more than two years and won a string of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2007.
Calling McDonald "the ultimate professional and a fantastic singer," Farmer described being in the show and now on its record-breaking live recording "an incredible honor."
On July 24, PS Classics announced that its release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill topped four of Billboard's charts in its first week of release. Recorded during the May 27-31 performances and produced by Tommy Krasker, it was also McDonald's highest-charting solo release ever, according to Billboard. Read Playbill.com's track-by-track write-up of the cast recording here.
"I was quite surprised," Farmer admitted. "I did not expect that. I was very happy, of course. It's a great tribute to Billie Holiday. It's a great tribute to Audra. It's a tribute to how this trio plays behind Audra I think as well.
"We had done a lot of homework to get the songs right," he added. "We're talking about a very, very specific time in jazz history and American music history... I think it's a hard thing to reproduce."
Not for these guys and the lady who's playing Lady Day. Mission accomplished.