On May 3, a group of students from around the city—those given the gift of arts education from Rosie O’Donnell—invited family and friends to Rosie’s Theater Kids on 45th Street for a sneak peek at their upcoming Passing It On gala. A few minutes before places, I asked the students to name their musical theatre idols. One girl enthusiastically responded, “Audra McDonald…! And Adrienne Warren.”
That morning, Warren, who now shares the stage nightly with the aforementioned six-time Tony winner—offering a transformative performance in which she steps out from McDonald’s shadow and into the spotlight—was nominated for a Tony Award for her dual role as Florence Mills and Gertrude Saunders in Shuffle Along.
For over a year, Warren looked at her small, square vision board—the kind backed with cork and made for inspirational pictures or papers to be pinned on. In the center is a white piece of paper, frayed at its edges, with a quote reading: “Whenever something doesn’t work out the way you thought it would, instead of thinking that something went wrong, see it as something that went unexpectedly well, but for reasons that are not yet apparent. Everything plays out to your favor.”
Surrounding the quote: a picture of Mills, one of the iconic 1920s singers she brings to life, and handwritten messages Warren penned to herself. One says, “Don’t stop learning.” Another says, “Tony nomination.”
“Actually,” she explains to me from inside the Tony nominations meet and greet, “I found that quote from an ABC casting director, whom I adore dearly—I won’t say her name—but I found it in her office, and I put it on the board, and then I put it next to a picture of Florence Mills and ‘Tony nomination.’ I looked at it every single day for a year and a half, and to see this all come to fruition is kind of wild.”
In a year where the race for a Tony nomination was so tight (even her acclaimed Shuffle co-stars McDonald, Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell were left unnoticed), it took more than just willing the honor into existence.
Over a year ago, Warren was in a room with Shuffle’s director and choreographer, George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover, respectively, who pushed her skills to the limit. Aside from mastering some of the most demanding tap choreography Broadway has seen in years, Warren had to tap (literally and figuratively) into the era of the 1920s to create (or recreate) voices she had never heard.
“In the very beginning,” she recalls, “when George C. Wolfe took me into a room and asked me to play around with a couple of songs with my vocal technique, I had no idea what was going on and what I was creating. I was very nervous because when you’re representing people who truly existed in this world—as Florence Mills and Gertrude Saunders did—you want to do right by them. And, these were voices that I couldn’t find because they were never recorded and never videotaped. I had to read as much as I possibly could [and listen to] commentary about these people—about these wonderful women’s voices—and create these styles for them, and that was terrifying for me because I was doing something with no guidance, and that’s a horrifying thing. But, I knew with the guidance of George, I was going to be led in the right direction.”
Did she want to give up? “Yes, all the time,” she admits. But, instead, she rented rehearsal studios in her free time to refine Glover’s choreography and worked through dinner breaks.
At the first company rehearsal for Shuffle Along, Warren thought, “What am I doing here?” She had always idolized McDonald, and now the two share the stage (and a song in the show’s second act).
In fact, Warren had been following in McDonald’s footsteps since college. At Marymount Manhattan, where she attended before making her Broadway debut in Bring It On: The Musical, she starred as Sarah in a production of Ragtime—the role that gave McDonald her third Tony win (for Featured Actress, Warren’s category).
“That’s actually when my voice started growing,” she explains. “I was an alto before that, and I started studying very hard with my voice teacher, Joyce Hall, and that’s when my voice started growing because I had to learn how to sing the song ‘Daddy’s Son.’ That just seemed impossible to me at the time. [Audra] really doesn’t know, but she was the beginning of a huge breakthrough for me vocally.”
Relaying the story of the young girl at Rosie’s Theater Kids who deemed Warren and McDonald her idols, Warren’s eyes well up with tears.
“I love kids so much,” she says, “and that means so much to me because I still feel like a kid, and Audra McDonald was my hero—or is my hero—and every day, I get to share the stage with her. It just shows you that if you have dreams, they can come true if you work hard and you stick to it. And, I’m proof of that.
“I have learned that I have no limits.”