Five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald has broken new ground on many planes throughout her illustrious career. Her singular talent, intelligence and charisma have transcended boundaries of time period, medium, genre and even race. Cast in the chorus of Broadway's The Secret Garden fresh out of Juilliard's classical voice department, she quickly moved up to a series of principal roles in major productions, both musical and non, winning a record number of major awards and widespread acclaim, as well as acheiving success branching out into television. Another fruitful arena for McDonald has been concert stages worldwide and an extensive recording career, including a prodigious solo output of first-rate productions on Nonesuch Records.
Click through to see my choices for the essential recordings of Audra McDonald on disc.
"Go Back Home" (2013 solo album)
Audra McDonald's most recent solo album may be her best yet. For someone who began her career with such sparkling virtuosity and well-trained craft, it is quite remarkable how she continues to evolve artistically. This latest release finds her at a new peak of expressiveness and sensitivity, with an impeccable knack for knowing when to whisper and when to wail. Her own integrity of focus ties together an eclectic array of songs ranging from contributions by Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb, Comden & Green and Jule Styne to interesting new work, such as Steve Marzullo's deeply affecting setting of James Baldwin's poem "Some Days" and the popular duo of Marcy Heisler & Zina Goldrich's hilarious "Baltimore," along with McDonald regulars Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa.
"Way Back to Paradise" (1998 solo album)
McDonald's debut album is a stunning set of songs by then up-and-coming composers including Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa. She impressively brings out the neo-classical depth of the music and dramatic complexity of the lyrics, pointing forward toward a new kind of musical theatre. If the sounds and images of this material veer from traditional Broadway idioms, McDonald's robust renditions are never short on melodic beauty or passion and pluck, particularly on LaChiusa's "Tom" and "Mistress Of The Senator" from Hello Again, Brown's now standard "Stars and the Moon" from Songs for a New World and the should-be standard "You Don't Know This Man" from Parade.
"Happy Songs" (2002 solo album)
After the heavier tone of her first two albums, Audra McDonald expressed a more upbeat vibe for her third, "Happy Songs." If not all of these songs are exactly happy, they're peppy and find McDonald full of life and verve — and delivering some of her strongest belting performances on record. In a tunestack consisting almost exclusively of Great American Songbook compositions, featuring Arlen & Harburg's "Ain't It De Truth?" Rodgers & Hart's "I Wish I Were In Love Again" and Arlen & Gershwin's "Lose That Long Face," McDonald once again proves to be an equal opportunity enlivener, making Michael John LaChiusa's "See What I Wanna See" feel at home among the classics.
"Build a Bridge" (2006 solo album)
"Build a Bridge" is so titled to describe a collection of non-showtune crossover covers, including songs by John Mayer ("My Stupid Mouth"), Nellie McKay ("I Wanna Get Married"), Randy Newman ("I Think It's Going To Rain Today"), Laura Nyro ("Tom Cat Goodbye") and Rufus Wainwright ("Damned Ladies"). Interpreting the work of these contemporary (and relatively contemporary) singer-songwriters, McDonald again found simpatico fodder for her gifts. In fact, she's so comfortable in this genre, that it feels totally appropriate when she sneaks in Adam Guettel's "Dividing Day" from The Light In The Piazza.
"How Glory Goes" (2000 solo album)
"How Glory Goes" is a bit of a mixed bag, at least compared to the rest of Audra McDonald's nearly flawless discography, in that the good is so very good, but the bad isn't nearly as compelling. On one hand, you have McDonald truly shining on tracks like Kern & Hammerstein's "Bill;" Arlen & Mercer's "I Had Myself a True Love;" Ahrens & Flaherty's "Come Down from the Tree;" the tearjerking "I Won't Mind" by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Libby Saines and Annie Kessler; and, especially, Bock & Harnick's "When Did I Fall In Love?" — all of which receive thrilling performances equal to or better than anyone else's previous recordings of the songs. Then, on the other hand, there are the misfires like a couple of lesser songs by modern musical theatre writers and particularly unworthy takes on two Arlen standards that wilt in McDonald's inappropriately soprano delivery, "Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home" and a disappointing "The Man That Got Away."
Porgy & Bess – New Broadway Cast Recording (2012)
For many of us, Bess was the great classic musical role we were waiting for Audra McDonald to play. Indeed, in musical theatre, there is no other established voice of comparable legit gravitas, nor is there in opera a dramatic soprano with equivalent acting ability. When Diane Paulus' revival of Porgy & Bess opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater, McDonald had to live up to some high-profile great expectations, but she did not disappoint. More than a souvenier, the cast album is an excellent capture of McDonald's gutsy, wrenching performance, for which she won her fifth Tony Award.
Ragtime – Original Broadway Cast Recording (1998)
One of the few truly great new musicals of the last 40 years, Ragtime debuted on Broadway in a mammoth production that unfortunately proved financially unsustainable. Chief among its many assets was the crackling score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and Audra McDonald's heartbreaking performance as Sarah, both of which are exquisitely preserved on this album. If McDonald's role disappears from the action too early, it makes a lasting impression and the cast as a whole is uniformly stellar.
Carousel – 1994 Broadway Revival Cast Recording
Listening to Audra McDonald sing the role of Carrie Pipperidge on disc, you can actually feel the excitement of her early career's immediate ascent high into the stratosphere of Broadway stardom. It's a rich, exuberant performance, full of warmth and humor and sung with natural grace and authority.
110 in the Shade – 2007 Broadway Revival Cast Recording
A fan favorite for decades since its original Broadway production, Harvey Schmidt, Tom Jones and N. Richard Nash's 110 in the Shade (based on Nash's The Rainmaker), could not have found a better Lizzie for its revival than Audra McDonald. In her hands, musical theatre go-tos, "Love, Don't Turn Away;" "Raunchy;" "Old Maid;" "Simple Little Things;" and "Is It Really Me?" are brought to glorious life for a new generation.
Sweeney Todd – Live At The New York Philharmonic (2000)
It was an almost absurd luxury to cast a star as luminous as Audra McDonald in the small part of the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd. Such a coup could only have occurred in a short-lived gala concert presentation and the other good thing about this type of event is that it also allowed for the score to be performed by no less than the New York Philharmonic. The resulting album, boasting a spectacular cast of theatre and opera stars led by the divine Patti LuPone and George Hearn, arguably holds its own opposite the original cast album. McDonald is riveting, supplying real heft and then a surprisingly touching turn in the lovely, specially-added lullaby within "City on Fire."
Dreamgirls in Concert – 2001 Concert Cast
Speaking strictly of voice type, Audra McDonald is not the ideal Deena Jones in Dreamgirls. Modeled on Diana Ross, Sheryl Lee Ralph's performance in the original Broaday production and certainly Beyoncé's in the film were much closer to the mark. Still, McDonald's performance as Deena in the 2001 concert can be considered a triumph. Taken on its own terms, McDonald's work here is irresistible as she brings authenticity and her unique allure to the title song and thoughout. And her co-stars, Lillias White and Heather Headley, are just fabulous.
Marie Christine – Original Broadway Cast Recording (1999)
Michael John LaChiusa's 1999 Marie Christine set the Medea myth in late 19th-century New Orleans (and Chicago) and gave Audra McDonald her first leading role on Broadway. If the dark, complex quasi-operetta was not for everyone, McDonald's work was beyond reproach. The wonderful cast recording is more than worthwhile for her full-bodied expressions of LaChiusa's "Beautiful," "I Will Give" and "Way Back to Paradise," not to mention a supporting cast including vocal heavyweights Anthony Crivello, Mary Testa, Vivian Reed and Janet Metz.
"Leonard Bernstein's New York" (1996)
Nonesuch Records' 1996 studio production (also released in conjunction with a television special) brought together an eclectic and stellar group of Broadway actor-singers, including Mandy Patinkin, Donna Murphy and Judy Blazer, along with then rising star soprano, Dawn Upshaw. Even in this gifted company, Audra McDonald shined brightly, offering perhaps definitive recordings of Wonderful Town's "A Little Bit In Love" and West Side Story's "Tonight."
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)