Oh yeah—I'm doing that, too!" laughs Audra McDonald, when asked about one of her many commitments in the coming months.
McDonald can be forgiven for briefly forgetting an item or two on her glutted itinerary. Between now and the end of the year, the alarmingly busy singer and actress will have graced nearly every famous concert stage in America, from Boston's Symphony Hall to the Hollywood Bowl to Carnegie Hall. And whatever spare hours she ekes out in between will more often than not be spent in either a recording or television studio.
A somewhat breathless McDonald spoke with Playbill On-Line three days before beginning a week of performances at Joe's Pub—the first time she has headlined the club since she helped open it, to resounding fanfare, in the fall of 1998.
As she did then, McDonald will focus of the songs of the theatre's younger crop of composers: Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa. Also in common with the 1998 engagement is the new gig's musical director, Ted Sperling.
"What we're doing this time will be very low key," said McDonald. "Ted and I thought it would be sort of nice to go back and take another look at these composers. That's basically what we're doing. I'll have the music there in front of me. We're just looking at some more young guns, some of the same ones, some new ones." Among the fresh writers now on the singer's radar are Jim Legg, John Bucchino, Lawrence O'Keefe, David Yazbek, Gary Fagin and Elise Thoron.
Following this year's Tony Awards ceremony (one of the few in recent years at which the actress won't be in contention), McDonald will make two appearances this year at Carnegie Hall.
The first Carnegie concert bring McDonald's career full circle in a certain sense. The Julliard graduate first burst onto the theatre scene playing the second female lead, Carrie Pipperidge, in the landmark Lincoln Center Theatre revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. Eight years later, she will play the primary female lead, Julie Jordan, in a concert version starring Hugh Jackman as Billy Bigelow.
"I'm very excited about doing it," she said. "It is a little bit odd. All the recitative that happens before the "Mr. Snow" song—I've had to really restrain myself, because I find myself coming in on all of Carrie's parts, which might upset Lauren [Ward, who plays Carrie] a little bit. And it will be a little strange for Lauren and I, because Lauren understudied Julie at Lincoln Center. She and I went on quite a few times together."
McDonald's second Carnegie Hall date, on Nov. 2, will mark her solo debut in that august auditorium. The concert will consist entirely of selections from her third and latest solo album, "Happy Songs," due out in late summer.
"It's all big band music. It's all from the 20s, 30s and 40s. There are a few cheats past then, but for the most part [its from that time]." Among the selections are "Ill Wind" by Harold Arlen, "I Must Have That Man" by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh and "On a Turquoise Cloud" by Duke Ellington. She is backed up on the album by anywhere from four to 30 musicians, depending on the song.
As for the stage, McDonald—whose last New York play was Marie Christine in 1999—has no immediate plans. She was sought for the upcoming Broadway revival of Man of La Mancha starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, but a new pairing of her and her Ragtime co-star wasn't to be: a television pilot she made for NBC was picked up in mid May. The drama, from the makers of "The West Wing," is called "Mister Sterling" and features her as the chief-of-staff for young U.S. Senator William Sterling, Jr., who will be played by Josh Brolin.
"She's very smart," said McDonald of her character. "It's basically a political drama. I don't start out as a chief of staff. I start out as a press secretary. Through a wild set of circumstances, I end up the chief of staff all within 24 hours. What I like about it—and this is my very naive take on the whole thing—is that she and the senator are sort of like Luke and Leia in Star Wars in terms of battling this institution," the federal government. "I would guess that [President Bush's national security advisor] Condoleezza Rice had a bit of an influence on this character."
The series won't entirely keep her from the stage. She said she will still concertize on the weekends. And the theatre is never far from her mind. "Lots of people who do television series are able to do theatre in the spring and summer months. There's a project," a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa, "that I worked on a few weeks ago that I'm hoping I'll be able to do come next spring or summer. I think it's really exciting, very interesting."
But that's far in the future and McDonald's current motto is: "Whatever's happening today is what I'm doing." That means Joe's Pub.
"It will be very informal! Spread that around! In fact, if you want to come up and maybe help me polish the stage beforehand, that's fine, too."