Audra Talks: Tony Collector McDonald Takes on Marie Christine

Audra Talks: Tony Collector McDonald Takes on Marie Christine At a time when American musical theatre is at a crossroads, all eyes have turned to a prodigiously talented singer-actress named Audra McDonald. Winner of three Tony Awards by age 28, McDonald has emerged as muse and chief cheerleader for a new generation of composers, including Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jason Robert Brown. Currently, she is playing the title role in LaChiusa's Marie Christine, an ambitious musical retelling of Medea set in the Creole society of New Orleans at the turn of the last century. Getting an interview with McDonald is not easy; her personal managers guard her time (and presumably her voice) carefully. Given the acclaim that come her way since she stole the show as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel six seasons ago (which played, like Marie Christine, in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre), one might expect her to be a blossoming diva. Where great talent lies, star temperament must follow, right? Wrong. Speaking during previews, McDonald is warm and down-to-earth, willing to answer questions about her decision to play six performances a week in Marie Christine and eager to downplay the notion that the future of musical theatre rests on her slender shoulders.
Audra McDonald in Marie Christine.
Audra McDonald in Marie Christine. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

At a time when American musical theatre is at a crossroads, all eyes have turned to a prodigiously talented singer-actress named Audra McDonald. Winner of three Tony Awards by age 28, McDonald has emerged as muse and chief cheerleader for a new generation of composers, including Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jason Robert Brown. Currently, she is playing the title role in LaChiusa's Marie Christine, an ambitious musical retelling of Medea set in the Creole society of New Orleans at the turn of the last century. Getting an interview with McDonald is not easy; her personal managers guard her time (and presumably her voice) carefully. Given the acclaim that come her way since she stole the show as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel six seasons ago (which played, like Marie Christine, in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre), one might expect her to be a blossoming diva. Where great talent lies, star temperament must follow, right? Wrong. Speaking during previews, McDonald is warm and down-to-earth, willing to answer questions about her decision to play six performances a week in Marie Christine and eager to downplay the notion that the future of musical theatre rests on her slender shoulders.

Playbill On-Line: Do you feel sympathy for Marie Christine?
Audra McDonald: I find her very sympathetic in that she's so corseted -- emotionally, mentally, in every possible way -- especially as a person of color in that society. Her desire to be free of those restrictions overrides all else. And in finding a man who can give her that freedom, her desire to express herself fully causes all these horrible things to happen.

PBOL: Have you ever seen Medea?
AM: I didn't see Zoe [Caldwell] or Diana Rigg do it, but I knew the story very well. I had done a lot of the monologues in high school; growing up, I was obsessed with Greek myths. In sixth and seventh grade, I used to pray to Zeus and Hera: "I know you're still up there and you've just been forgotten!"

PBOL: Did Zoe [McDonald's co-star in Master Class] give you any advice?
AM: Zoe's very smart -- she doesn't give acting notes per se, she just offers 100 percent support. She's given me books, and she calls and says, "I know what you're going through now; keep your energy up."

PBOL: How strange is it, after playing Ragtime's Sarah, to be doing another role that involves a mother who hurts her children?
AM: I know; it's really weird. Maybe it's material I'm drawn to. I actually have quite a maternal streak. I'm desperate to have children; I can't wait until I can take the time out to do that. But in seeing the sympathetic side of this woman's character, she is absolutely destroyed at having to [kill her sons]. She sees it as the only way out. She is protecting them. PBOL: What's been the biggest challenge in playing this role?
AM: I think the most difficult thing is the expectations that other people have of me and of this piece. I look at Marie Christine as a great piece of theatre, and a great role to work on. I'm learning so much as an actress and a singer: how to focus, how to stay 100 percent committed to everything I'm doing, especially in a role like this where I'm on stage the entire time. It's something I haven't had. I mean, I played Evita in dinner theatre, but the reward of this is being able to submerge myself in such an incredible piece. I can't be concerned with "Can Audra McDonald do a big role?" "Will it be a fourth Tony?" The fact that I have three is ridiculous!

PBOL: Has the audience response been what you expected?
AM: We didn't know what to expect. This is a show that has a definite point of view. Some people hate it and that's okay; some people love it and that's okay, too. I've had friends come backstage and go, "Uccch!" and other friends who have loved it. It's like that "Sensation" [art] show at the Brooklyn Museum -- everybody's going to have an opinion about it. It doesn't bother me.

PBOL: Why do you think people hate it?
AM: Some people think it's too dark. "Why does she have to kill the kids? Where's the happy ending?"

PBOL: It is Medea, after all.
AM: That's the thing -- there are happy musicals out there, if that's what they want to see. This season is so incredibly rich and diverse, there's something out there for everyone. What I think is fabulous is all these interracial relationships on Broadway, from Aida to Kiss Me, Kate and our show. It's exciting.

PBOL: Obviously, your chemistry with Anthony Crivello is very important.
AM: Incredibly important -- the show hinges on it. If the audience doesn't understand why she would fall for him and what he represents to her, they can't go on the journey. We don't ask that the audience agree with what she does, we just ask that they understand. [Laughs] Anthony and I officially met the day of the photo shoot for the poster. It was like, "Hi, nice to meet you -- I'm going to be grabbing your chest for the next three hours in my underwear." He's fabulous in the role, and the singing he has to do is so emotional. We were very lucky.

PBOL: What draws you to Michael John LaChiusa's music?
AM: The complexity of it. He won't write a pretty melody just because, in musical theatre terms, it's time for a nice melody. Every bit of his writing stems from what the character needs, feels, and wants. It all stems from a complete dramatic impulse, and I find that incredibly exciting. As complex and difficult as it is to learn, once it all comes together, it makes sense. Talk about “Being John Malkovich” -- I'd like to be inside Michael John's head for a day because he comes up with these incredibly complex melodies and leitmotifs, and puts them together in a way that works.

PBOL: Do you find his music accessible?
AM: I find it very accessible, but I recognize the fact that some people don't. At the same time, a lot of people once thought Stephen Sondheim wasn't accessible, and he's now a musical theatre legend. The same thing when jazz first crept its way into America.

PBOL: Were you surprised to get so much attention for recording “Way Back to Paradise,” an album of unfamiliar songs by young composers?
AM: I was thrilled that it brought attention to these great composers because they deserve it, but I don't feel I was that innovative in deciding to sing it. All of my friends -- Judy Blazer, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, everybody -- have been singing new music. What do we do between gigs? We do readings and workshops; we sing at benefits where someone has written a few songs. I was lucky enough to have a record label like Nonesuch that was willing to take the financial risk of putting all of them together on a CD and try to make a commercial success out of it. I have another album that will be released in the winter that's a mixture -- some familiar, some not so familiar.

PBOL: You studied classical singing at Juilliard. What distinctions do you draw between opera and musical theatre?
AM: The lines are getting so blurred now, especially with 20th century opera where they're relying more on plot and you're allowed to speak. Composers like Michael John borrow from all aspects, as Andrew Lloyd Webber did. People are saying that Marie Christine is more of an opera, but I just look at it as a musical piece of theatre. I don't think you can really call it one or the other.

PBOL: How do you feel when people put you on a pedestal as "the future of musical theatre"?
AM: I can't be involved with that [thinking], because it would be too much pressure for anybody. When “60 Minutes” did a piece on me, my mother called and said, "Audra, it's wonderful that you're getting nice press, but do not let that put any pressure on you. The only pressure you should feel is to be as good a performer as you can be. And if you choose not to perform anymore, that's fine, too." I'm very moved by these new composers; I love to do their work, and to do my part to make sure that this art form survives because it's the career I have chosen. That's all I'm interested in. I was talking with my fiance about this last night -- I want to be a great singer and actress. Whatever work I can get to help lead me in that direction is what I want to do.

PBOL: Are there any revivals that you'd like to do?
AM: Tons. When Dreamgirls hit Broadway, I was devastated because I thought, "By the time I'm old enough to move to New York, I won't be able to do it." I would love to be Deena someday in Dreamgirls. At the same time, although it's scarier to do a new piece, Marie Christine has got me feeling more alive than I've felt in a long time, so I have to trust that. We could fall flat on our faces, but at least we've tried. That's what's exciting -- just going for it.

PBOL: Was winning your third Tony a surprise? Do the three Tonys put any pressure on you?
AM: Oh, God, they were all surprises. It's such an incredible honor, but truly, it's something I can't think about much. This is awful, but the only time I ever think about my Tonys is when I get followed around in stores by people saying, "Can I help you? Can I help you?" That's when I want to say, "I have three Tony Awards! Can I just shop here without you thinking that I'm going to shoplift because I happen to be black?!" I think it's great that Danny Glover finally came forward and said, "I can't get a cab driver to stop for me." Anyway, that's the only time I'd like to use my Tony Awards for something. Other than that, I'm honored to have been thought of in that way by the theatre community, but the pressure is huge. Each time I do something, I don't think about the Tonys. I just hope I can live up to my own standards.

PBOL: Let's talk about your recent appearance as Grace Farrell in the highly rated TV movie of Annie. What was it like to hear all those cheers at the premiere screening in the New Amsterdam Theatre?
AM: We all had a ball. It was like we were all pretending to be movie stars. None of us are, but it felt like that. It was hysterical. I was really happy with how [the movie] turned out. I was so busy during the filming: I'd be on the set until 5 o'clock, then fly to Cleveland or Philadelphia for a concert, then fly back and go straight to the set. I had no idea what the end product would be. Also, as someone who hadn't done much film or TV, it was great to work with Rob Marshall because he makes you feel beautiful and comfortable.

PBOL: Everyone laughed when you and Victor Garber emerged on Christmas morning without having changed clothes. Grace and Warbucks spent the night together!
AM: [With mock exasperation] We worked so hard to make that scene not look like that.

PBOL: What were you doing?
AM: We were up all night with the FBI trying to find a loophole in the Mudges' [Annie's fake parents] story.

PBOL: Oh, sure!
AM: Well, he made an honest woman of me at the end. On the funny side, we'd be sitting in this huge mansion with all these extras in diamonds and Victor looking so handsome…. One day, I leaned over and said, "Hey, Victor -- wouldn't it be great if we were really in love and getting married, and if we were really rich and lived in a place like this?" And he said, "Get a hold of yourself!"

PBOL: You mentioned a fiance. When's the wedding?
AM: Probably September 10 or 11 of next year. We got engaged in August. That's him. [She points at photos of a sweet-faced guy hugging a big dog.] His name is Peter Donovan; he's a bass player, and we went to Juilliard together. He studied classical music, but he also plays jazz. He's subbed with the New York Philharmonic; he played Dream and Marlene; he does a lot.

PBOL: He feels secure about being with someone more famous.
AM: Oh yes, I think so. It's great, because he plays all of my concerts. He's a rock; he really is. When my grandfather, who just passed away, met Peter, he didn't say two words to him. But when we were taking pictures and getting ready to leave, he said, "Get the rock in the picture." I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Peter -- Petros -- means rock." We laugh about that now, but it's true. Peter does mean rock, and that's what he is to me. He and my sister keep my feet on the ground. They'll be the first to tell me, "You need to get over yourself."

PBOL: I guess I don't have to ask how you keep your life in balance.
AM: If you were to ask Peter, he would say that I haven't achieved that balance. It's a real struggle for me because my work really defines who I am. I'm just now learning that I need to learn to relax.

PBOL: You're doing six performances a week of Marie Christine. Was there ever any question about your doing all eight?
AM: No. When we negotiated the contract and I said I didn't want to do the matinees, I think everybody understood. A lot of people around the business know that I have a penchant for missing shows. That is because of the fact that I have not stopped working since Carousel. The vacation I took in August was literally the first vacation I'd had since then. I've only got one voice, and I have to make it last a long time. I'm not going to do a show when I am at a point where I could vocally damage myself, just so that tongues won't wag. I had some health issues that I've taken care of, and I'm in much better shape physically than I've been in a long time. But coming in to this show, I just thought, "Why run the risk?" I defy anyone to survive a decent run in this show doing all eight performances. God bless Anthony -- I don't know how he's getting through all eight. There are two possible scenarios: You can do a show when you're sick and people say, "She doesn't sound very good," or you can miss the show and people say, "She can't show up." You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. In the end, I would opt for vocal heath, because I don't want people saying 10 years from now, "Well, she had a career, but she blew it all out."

PBOL: With a voice like yours, you could have a pop career on the order of Mariah Carey or Celine Dion. Did you ever consider going that route?
AM: That's not me; that doesn't feel truest to the core of who I am. I'm not being elitist -- I think [pop music] is a perfect personal expression for Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. They're brilliant at that style. But Stokes [Brian Stokes Mitchell] has a term: your "power place." And that's not my power place.

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Audra McDonald shares her favorite memories of the three shows for which she won Tony Awards.

Carousel (1994):
"Every night as the lights went down, Sally Murphy [Julie] and I would get into our characters and reach over and squeeze each other's hand. Every moment of that show was joyous, and some of my closest friends in the theatre are from that experience."

Master Class (1995):
"My happiest memory is gathering with Zoe and the cast as she warmed up. She'd tell us stories in that incredible voice. She has such respect for her craft and for everybody involved in the show; she knew every crew member's name."

Ragtime (1998):
"When we were up in Toronto, [director] Frank Galati asked everyone in the company to sit in a circle and read aloud a passage from the novel Ragtime that meant something special to them. It was the most amazing communion of people with a singular desire to tell this story."