DIVA TALK: A Chat with Four-Time Tony Winner Audra McDonald

DIVA TALK: A Chat with Four-Time Tony Winner Audra McDonald News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Singer-actress and four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald
Singer-actress and four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald Photo by Barron Claiborne

AUDRA McDONALD

Lincoln Center's American Songbook series scored a coup this season when the most acclaimed musical theatre star of her generation, Audra McDonald, signed on to open the program's seventh season. McDonald has created a brand-new show for her Jan. 6-8, 2005, concerts, which will mark the American Songbook's first season at the Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center. Although she will offer a few songs by some of her musical theatre favorites — expect a couple Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel ditties — McDonald's program will primarily celebrate contemporary pop writers, including the work of Elvis Costello, Laura Nyro, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Prince. Those who have been lucky enough to witness McDonald live know that the four-time Tony Award winner is one of the most riveting concert performers around. Not only does she boast a lush voice that can belt or soar to the stratosphere, but McDonald manages to imbue each song with irresistible honesty and emotion. I recently had the chance to have a brief chat with the down-to-earth performer, who scored her fourth Tony Award last season for her powerful work in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. That interview — conducted by phone as McDonald awaited a plane to Utah for a series of concerts — follows:

Q: Tell me about your program for the American Songbook series.
Audra McDonald: We always try and put a few of our favorites in, but it's basically a new show. We're doing a lot of other works by these composers and then some pop material, trying to explore the bridge between their work and the pop world. I'm not crossing over — this is not Audra's big crossover. I'm not becoming Britney Spears. [Laughs.] Actually, a lot of the music I've chosen is music that I think could have been conceived for any musical in this day and age.

Q: What are some of the songs?
McDonald: I'm doing a couple of Laura Nyro tunes, an Elvis Costello tune, a Stevie Wonder, two Randy Newman, and then I'm doing some of my composer friends as well. Michael John has written a new piece for this concert.

Q: How do you go about choosing songs? Do you pick them yourself or does your musical director come to you with ideas?
McDonald: It's both. I pick a lot of it, but I get a lot of ideas thrown at me from different places. My music director, Ted Sperling, helps a lot. I also have a lot of people whose taste in music I appreciate and respect. Certain things — like the Laura Nyro tunes — came from [conductor] Michael Tilson Thomas back in 1998. And, the Elvis Costello tune was a tune that a pianist of mine suggested that I sing, and then I was chatting with [jazz vocalist] Diana Krall, and she said, "You know what song you should sing? My husband's." [Laughs.] When things like that drop into your lap or come across your consciousness like that, I try and pay attention to them. Q: And, you're also going to record these songs? When will you be heading into the studio?
McDonald: Well, we recorded a lot of them already and the rest of them [will be recorded] right after the concert. Hopefully [it will be out] in the spring [on Nonesuch].

Q: I know at one point there was talk about bringing Raisin in the Sun to Los Angeles. What's happening on that front?
McDonald: I'm hearing a lot of stuff like they're trying to get it maybe done on television. I'd love to revisit it. It's certainly not a role that you can do for a long, long stretch because it's so heavy. I find that living that life every night is very difficult.

Q: I always wonder with people who sing if doing a play is as fulfilling or as enjoyable as doing a musical.
McDonald: It's absolutely as fulfilling. I just mean that particular role — because it's such a heavy role, she's so down the entire time — that it can be hard to shake that off on a long-term basis.

Q: You were also recently part of the workshop of 110 in the Shade. How did that go?
McDonald: It went really well. It was a piece that I was only slightly aware of when [director] Lonny [Price] brought it to me and wasn't all that taken with it until I started to work on it. And, now I absolutely love the piece. There's a lot of work to be done, I think, but the piece itself, the music is incredible, and the story is such a beautiful story. I was joking, and I kept calling it Lizzie's Very Big Day because it all happens in one day for her, and it's a pretty huge journey she takes. It went really well, but that's all I can officially say. [Laughs.]

Q: What's happening with the new Michael John LaChiusa piece, R Shomon, that you performed at Williamstown?
McDonald: I guess we're just waiting to figure out where exactly we're going to do it in New York. It is going to have a New York life — we're just not sure at this point exactly where. There are a couple places, but we haven't been told definitively which place we will end up in.

Q: How was your experience working on the show?
McDonald: It was great. As with all of Michael John's pieces, it's very challenging. It's very . . . sharp is the wrong word, but it's definitely its own thing. It doesn't pussyfoot around on any level, nor does Michael John — he's not that type of a person. It was a great experience. It was a sold-out run, and people seemed to be really, really into it up there. It was great, after workshopping it for so long, to finally get it up on its feet and see it fully realized.

Q: It's two separate pieces . . .
McDonald: It's three separate pieces actually. . . There's something very fascinating about telling the exact same story from three different viewpoints. It's really neat to see, [but] it's hard to play because you have to remind yourself of who [you are] in each version. "Who am I playing? I'm me, but I'm this person's version of me, therefore I wouldn't do this." That was very tricky to figure out in rehearsal. You have to be incredibly specific, down to when I move my left arm. . . And, then, the second full piece, which is called "Glory Day," it was great because Michael John calls that his variation on the "Wizard of Oz" characters, set in sort of a post-9/11 experience — looking for a heart, courage, home, brain. It was great to play all these different characters.

Q: When did you and LaChiusa first meet?
McDonald: At my very first audition for Carousel. I sang for [Lincoln Center Theater producer-director] Ira Weitzman and [casting director] Daniel Swee, and they said, "Can you go back out in the waiting room and wait?" And, then they said, "We want someone to hear you." And then they brought me back in, and they had Michael John and [choreographer] Graciela [Daniele] and said we want you to sing for them. That's when I first met both of them.

Q: You're also going to make your Houston Opera debut. . .
McDonald: Yes, I'm doing a double-bill. The first half is Gian Carlo Minotti's The Telephone, which is actually two people, and then the second half is La Voix Humaine, which is a one-woman opera. Both of them take place on the phone, which is the fun part about it. One is a happy ending, and one is very much not a happy ending. [Laughs.]

Q: Did you ever want to pursue opera?
McDonald: I went back and forth while I was at [Juilliard] as I started to discover that I had an operatic sound. I went back and forth with "Well, maybe I do want to be an opera singer." But my first love has always been Broadway. I think what I've learned is that opera is a possibility if it's the right role and the right situation, as opposed to I want to make a full-tilt boogie run at that — that's not me.

Q: How has it been combining motherhood and working?
McDonald: It's very difficult, especially as they get older. When she was a baby — I remember, I think maybe Zoe was a month or two months old, and I was on the phone with Patti [LuPone] and I was asking her how she did it, and she said, "Honey, they're just potatoes at this age. You just take 'em with you. It's your own little sack of potatoes to take with you." But as they get older, you can't really travel with them as much, and they're more aware of you being gone. So it's a difficult thing to juggle.

Q: Is your base New York or L.A. now?
McDonald: New York.

Q: Will you be here for the holidays?
McDonald: Yes, thank God! I wouldn't want to be any other place. [Laughs.] [The Frederick P. Rose Hall is located within the Time Warner Center at Broadway at 60th Street. Tickets for American Songbook are available by calling (212) 721-6500. Visit www.lincolncenter.org for more information.

DIVA TIDBITS:

Nothing Like a Dame — the annual fundraiser benefiting The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative of The Actors’ Fund of America — celebrates its tenth anniversary in March. Presented by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the tenth annual Nothing Like a Dame concert will be held March 14, 2005, at the St. James Theatre. Those participating in the event will be announced shortly. Tickets for Nothing Like a Dame 2005 will go on sale Jan. 5, 2005, by calling (212) 840-0770, ext. 268. Visit www.broadwaycares.org for more information.

That glittering gigastar, Dame Edna Everage, will make her Metropolitan Opera debut Dec. 31. Everage, who is currently delighting Broadway audiences in Back With a Vengeance, will be part of the Metropolitan Opera's New Year's Eve gala performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). Everage will appear in the second act of the Rossini opera during the "music lesson scene." The scene, which finds Rosina and Count Almaviva in a lovers' tryst, will boast the unique vocals of Everage. The Met's production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia features Katarina Karnéus as Rosina, Matthew Polenzani as Count Almaviva and Dwayne Croft as Figaro. Maurizio Benini conducts the 7:30 PM performance. For tickets, call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org.

BBC Radio 2 will celebrate Boxing Day — Dec. 26 — with a rebroadcast of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. The recording features Petula Clark as the deluded silent screen star Norma Desmond and Michael Ball as the ill-fated screenwriter. The broadcast, which was taped this past March at the Royal Opera House in Cork, will air at 6:30 PM London time. (Ball will also be featured in a Christmas Eve concert on BBC Radio 2 Dec. 24; that concert airs at 7:30 PM.) For more information visit Click Here.

The new Disney musical On the Record, which features songs from both classic Disney films and Disney's Broadway outings, will be recorded Jan. 10, 2005. Kaitlin Hopkins, who is set to replace Emily Skinner in the touring production, will be featured on the CD. The recording will also include the vocal talents of co-stars Brian Sutherland, Ashley Brown and Andrew Samonsky as well as company members Meredith Inglesby, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, Keewa Nurullah, Josh Franklin, Leigh Ann Larkin, Koh Mochizuki and Lyn Philistine. No release date has yet been announced.

Well, that's all for now. Happy holidays, and happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)