Audra McDonald. Theatre royalty. Over her illustrious career, McDonald has morphed into dozens of women, telling the stories of archetypal women like Sarah and Ruth Younger, historic figures as Billie Holliday and, now, Shuffle Along’s Lottie Gee. Her characters are many, but her voice is singular. As McDonald was honored at the New Dramatists’ Annual Spring Luncheon May 12, we asked theatre’s notable names to think back to the first time they heard her sound.
I was furious because it was the last Broadway revival of She Loves Me, and at Tony time we expected to win a number of Tonys, and then along came Audra McDonald, and I thought, “Who is that? She’s winning the Tonys we were going to win.” So I was very upset, and then little by little I began to realize that as a performer, Audra is a form of nature. She has sung my songs, and no one could do them more thrillingly, [in particular] “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello! She does that just extraordinarily.
I think the first time I heard Audra was the [cast recording] for Ragtime, and I remember thinking first off, “Who is this woman?” and second, “How is she singing this song this way?” I remember trying to mimic her and trying to figure out how she was doing what she was doing so much so that my parents gave me a cutoff time at home where I had to stop singing because I was singing Audra for so long it was keeping everybody awake.
No [I don’t remember]. Maybe that’s a tribute to how ingrained in life she has become. It’s just one equals the other; you can’t think of one without the other. She sang at my university a bunch of years ago. It’s the kind of talent that makes you just want to throw in the towel. [Laughs.]
Yes. I know exactly the first time I heard her sing. I was going in to audition for Secret Garden on tour, and I had just finished up my fourth audition, and I was kind of disappointed. I come outside, and I see this woman, and I’m like, “Who the hell is that?” She’s beautiful, and she reminded me of the way my mother looked at that age. So I was like, “Hi, my name’s Norm.” I actually introduced myself on the spur of the moment. Ever since then I’ve had a big crush on her. Later on, I found out that she ended up getting the show, going on tour and coming to Broadway with it, and then I went away to do a show in Toronto, the next thing I know she’s doing Carousel, and then she wins her Tony and blah blah blah. Every time I was around her I got giddy.
The first time I heard her sing I went to go see 110 in the Shade, and I was in the last row because I didn’t have any money. I got a rush ticket; I was in the last row by the lighting instruments, and that’s how I saw that show. I didn’t know who she was, and I was just blown away by her, and I remember thinking, “Who’s that person?” I was so taken with her. I remember I went home, and I looked her up, and I listened to her stuff on YouTube, and I was like, “I’m gonna pay attention to this lady.” She just blew me away, and she’s also very vulnerable onstage and open and dramatic, and you feel something for her, which I don’t think happens all the time. So that was my introduction to her, and I’ll never forget that.
I think [the first time I saw her perform] was probably in [a] play. She’s true. She just does not know how to lie on the stage and then, of course, there’s that incredible instrument.
Renée Elise Goldsberry
Oh my God, yes. Audra is everything to me. I saw her in Carousel when I was in college. From the beginning she’s always been the measure of what it means not only to be a wonderful performer but to be a wonderful woman. One of the things that I hold in highest esteem about being in this business is the fact that I know her. Just knowing her is really a blessing.
Brian Stokes Mitchell
The first time I heard Audra sing was Ragtime. We met on an airplane on the way up to Toronto, and there she was, and I introduced myself. So that was the first time we met, but the first time [I heard her sing]—we were probably singing together. Might have been “Wheels of a Dream.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.