It comes as no surprise that six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald’s performance in the screen adaptation of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1993 musical Hello Again is nothing less than remarkable. In mere minutes of screen time, McDonald manages to walk away with the film, delivering not one, but two deeply layered performances.
Written as a series of ten interlocking love scenes in which one character carries over into the next, Hello Again is deceptive in its demands. While the actors are only responsible for the two scenes in which they appear, they are often required to re-invent their characters as they boomerang throughout eras in New York City history.
The film made its limited, nationwide release November 8–15. Read reviews here.
Hello Again’s impressive ensemble cast also boasts Emmy Award winner Martha Plimpton, Cheyenne Jackson, Jenna Ushkowitz, and T.R. Knight, whose back-to-back scene work is layered into a collective emotional foundation that informs every scene that follows.
When McDonald makes her first appearance more than an hour into the film, it feels as though she’s been there all along, waiting in the wings—poised to deliver a galvanizing performance that anchors the entire film. And in truth, she has been.
In 1993, a then unknown 23-year-old McDonald was in final callbacks to play Carrie Pipperidge in Lincoln Center Theater’s 1994 Broadway revival of Carousel—a role that would earn her the first of her six Tony Awards (so far).
It just so happened that LaChiusa and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele were down the hall holding auditions for LCT’s upcoming Off-Broadway premiere of Hello Again.
What happened next would change the course of both McDonald and LaChiusa’s careers.
“Our relationship goes back to the beginning of my career on Broadway,” McDonald explains. “I met Michael John when I was auditioning for Carousel. He and Graciela Daniele were in the process of casting Hello Again. I went in and did my audition for Carousel for Ira Weitzman and Daniel Swee, and they said, ‘Could you wait outside for a minute?’”
“And then everyone else was going into the audition room, and I was sitting outside having no idea what was going on,” she recalls. “Then I saw who turned out to be Graciela Daniele and Michael John go into the room. They called me back in and said, ‘Can you sing again for Graciela Daniele and Michael John LaChiusa?’ So I did, and then Michael John gave me ‘Tom’ [from Hello Again] and he said, ‘Take this, learn it, and come back.’”
A few weeks later McDonald returned to perform “Tom” for LaChiusa, Daniele, and other members of the Hello Again creative team. The song is a complex emotional thrill ride about a brief, but life-changing encounter, and McDonald’s performance made a lasting impression on LaChiusa.
Still, she didn’t book the job.
“Michael John looked at me and said, ‘You’re not old enough. But I’m going to write a musical for you one day,’” McDonald recalls. “And he was true to his word. I ended up getting Carousel, but he was true to his word.”
LaChiusa kept his promise to McDonald, and in December of 1999 Lincoln Center Theater produced his operatic musical Marie Christine on Broadway. The New Orleans-set take on Medea was written as a vehicle for McDonald, who was Tony-nominated for her performance. LaChiusa earned Tony Award nominations for the show's book and score.
When news of a Hello Again film adaptation came around, McDonald was the first actor to sign onto the project. Looking back, it seems fitting that McDonald recorded both “Tom” and “Mistress of the Senator” on her 1998 solo debut album. Her onscreen performance of the latter song is arguably the film's standout scene.
“It’s kind of wild to finally be able to be in Hello Again,” McDonald says. Hello Again, which includes a completely new scene and song on screen, also provides LaChiusa another opportunity to write for McDonald.
“We decided it would be cool to bring the film even further into the 20th century and Cory Krueckeberg [Hello Again's screenwriter] came up with the idea to do an artsy MTV video,” LaChiusa says. “I got to write a really trashy, cheesy song for Audra to do, which I love so much: ‘Beyond the Moon.' It’s hysterically funny in the film in many respects, with Audra as the moon goddess. It’s fun to watch it.”
And as far as LaChiusa is concerned, McDonald’s Hello Again debut was worth a 25-year wait. “It’s great to actually see her play the role,” he says. “I think she’s magnificent in the film. She takes it to a whole new level. To see her play opposite Cheyenne Jackson and Martha Plimpton, her performance is so many layers deep and in such a short amount of screen time... It’s really quite remarkable to see what she does.”