STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Award Winner Audra McDonald

STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Award Winner Audra McDonald Three-time Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald takes on series TV in NBC's "Mister Sterling."
Audra McDonald as Jackie Brock in
Audra McDonald as Jackie Brock in "Mister Sterling." (Photo by Glenn Campbell)

"Mister Sterling," which debuts on NBC-TV Jan. 10 at 8 PM ET, is an hour-long drama concerning a former California governor's son (Josh Brolin) who, following a politician's sudden demise, accepts a Senate appointment. However, it's the presence of a Sterling Miss that makes "Mister Sterling" of special interest to theatre fans. Three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald plays Jackie Brock, who becomes the title character's chief of staff.

Brock, explains McDonald, "is hyper-intelligent, hyper-energetic, very blunt and doesn't really have a private life. She's just completely passionate about work." Having interviewed her on a few occasions, I comment that the description sounds a lot like Audra herself. "There might have been a little bit of typecasting," she says, laughing. As we speak, McDonald's finishing the taping of the eighth episode. The series' commitment is for 13 weeks, and depending on its success, she has a long term contract.

Crossing to the other side of the looking glass is the latest adventure for this Alice in Wonderland, who's experienced a whirlwind decade — amid the Mad Tea Parties of Broadway, concert stages and recordings — since her 1993 graduation from Juilliard. While still in school, McDonald made her Broadway bow as a replacement in The Secret Garden, playing the East-Indian Ayah. But it was as Carrie Pipperidge in Nicholas Hytner's innovative production of Carousel that Audra awed audiences, and took home her first Tony. Next, she won for her portrayal of Sharon, the student who stands up to Zoe Caldwell's formidable Maria Callas, in Master Class. The third trophy came as the unwed mother, Sarah, in Ragtime, the musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel.

The neat feat of winning three Tonys in five years had been accomplished earlier by Shirley Booth, Gwen Verdon and Zero Mostel, but McDonald set a record by doing it before her 28th birthday. Was that beyond her expectations? "Beyond beyond!" she exclaims. "I used to dance around my living room and dream of accepting an award someday, but never in my wildest dreams . . . " She received a fourth Tony nomination for Marie Christine, an updated version of Medea, which Michael John LaChiusa wrote for Audra.

Some people interpreted a September "New York Times" Arts & Leisure article as McDonald turning her back on the stage. The piece stated, "Broadway has no brighter star—except that this one no longer shines there and doesn't expect to return any time soon." It noted that the failure of Marie Christine "left McDonald wondering whether Broadway audiences . . . were no longer willing to take a chance on her kind of show." Insists Audra, "The article was not me—in any way, shape or form—renouncing Broadway. Terry Teachout [the writer] asked me how people were accepting new Broadway shows. I thought, for the most part, they haven't been receiving them. The writer may have used the article to express his own feelings. I'm not doing Broadway right now; I did it for eight years straight." Her new job not only requires a switch in coasts, but also a shift in hours. "It's a major adjustment," observes McDonald. "It's not unusual for me, in a week, to have four 4:30 AM calls; then you work 16/17 hours a day. I'm not quite used to that — to doing anything that early in the morning." Isn't there something called turn-around, where an actor has 12 hours between calls? "Yeah, but that doesn't always happen either. [Laughs] If you don't get your turn-around, they just pay you to take it away. You get the money." But is an actor alert enough to endorse the check? Comments Audra, "Exactly!"

So, for television, one needs to develop a different type of energy. "You really do," agrees Audra. "You conserve it. You need sustainable energy, too, because you have to last through the entire day—instead of just your three hours at night, per show, on Broadway."

Audra's work in series television dates back to a 1999 episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street," in which she played Yaphet Kotto's daughter. Her TV-movies include "Having Our Say—The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" (CBS, 1999), playing the outspoken Bessie in her twenties; "The Last Debate" (SHO, 2000), as a journalist; and "Wit" (HBO, 2001), the adaptation of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, for which McDonald received an Emmy nomination in the role of nurse Susie Monahan. There were previous opportunities for her to be a TV-series regular. Audra almost played Bill Cosby's daughter in "Cosby," his 1996-2000 sitcom. "I did the pilot, but that was it." Cast as psychologist Audrey Jackson in two 2000 episodes of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," she says, "There was talk about continuing the character—but, at that point, I wasn't ready to commit to a series."

Of course, series work does give her singing voice a rest. "Compared to the Broadway schedule, absolutely. But I'm still doing concerts every weekend. I don't know for how much longer. I have a baby [who turns two Valentine's Day]. It's hard."

A very successful concert career—often performing selections from her solo CDs, the third of which was recently released—struck a high note in November, when McDonald had her first solo concert at Carnegie Hall. "I had a fantastic time! It's a lot of fun singing with a big band. It was packed to the rafters. Everyone seemed to be there for a good time, and that's all we wanted."

On New Year's Eve, she performs in Berlin, with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. "We're doing a concert version of Wonderful Town. I'm doing some Gershwin tunes, and some stuff from Street Scene. It's sort of a big hodgepodge, but a gala event. [Laughs] I think there are four other singers; I heard Brent Barrett may be coming."

Berlin is McDonald's birthplace. Her father was serving in the U.S. Army and stationed there at the time of Audra's 1970 birth. She and younger sister Alison grew up in Fresno, California. At nine, Audra was diagnosed as being hyperactive. Reluctant to put their daughter on medication, her parents followed a doctor's advice "to drown me in whatever interested me, which was song and dance."

She made her stage debut in a dinner-theatre production of The King and I. During adolescence, she appeared in a number of shows, including Hello, Dolly!, A Chorus Line, Grease, The Wiz (as Dorothy), and Evita (in the title role). "I did Evita when I was 16 [in Fresno] and again at 19 [at the Pocono Playhouse]." Regionally, she also played Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. When McDonald told her parents that she wanted to live in New York, they would only agree if she attended school. On a whim, she auditioned for Juilliard and was accepted.

Juilliard, recalls McDonald, "gave me a really good foundation, but the whole time I was there, I kept thinking: 'I'm in the wrong place. I've completely gotten off my path. My path is Broadway. I can't leave—it's Juilliard!' It did lead me to exactly where I wanted to be, but I never would have predicted it at the time."

For Carousel, Audra initially sought the part of Julie Jordan, because she had never played a comedic role. "I thought: I can't make people laugh. I was very afraid of comedy." The New York Times reviewer lauded Audra not only for her voice, but also for her "ready sense of comedy."

In the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, she was billed as Audra Ann McDonald, because she was "so damn excited" when filling out her Equity application that she included her middle name. Following the show, she dropped it. "Everyone thought it was some huge mystery. They asked: 'Was it a numerology thing?'"

Though McDonald's never formally studied acting, she played beautifully opposite Zoe Caldwell in Terrence McNally's Master Class. In a 1998 interview, Caldwell told me, "In Philadelphia [during the tryout], I realized very quickly that Audra was an extraordinary talent — one I adored working with. We really played onstage. There was true danger with the two of us, which is the best kind of theatre." Caldwell became a major influence and, more importantly, a friend; Audra's daughter, Zoe, is named for the actress.

How does McDonald enjoy motherhood? "Amazing! Best thing I've ever done! It changes your life, your perspective; it's really, really humbling. I'm thrilled we [she and husband, bassist Peter Donovan] made the leap and decided to do it." McDonald's musical credits on television include playing Grace Farrell, Daddy Warbucks' secretary, in "Annie" (ABC, 1999), and numerous PBS appearances. She's been on "Great Performances" three times: "Some Enchanted Evening—Celebrating Oscar Hammerstein II" (1995), "Carnegie Hall Opening Night 1998," in which (with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting) she and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang a medley of George Gershwin standards and selections from Porgy and Bess, and "My Favorite Broadway—The Leading Ladies" (1999).

Among her other PBS shows are "Leonard Bernstein's New York" (1997), "Christmas in Washington" (1998), "A Capitol Fourth" (2000), "Audra McDonald in Concert" (2000), and "On Stage at Kennedy Center" (a 2002 Richard Rodgers tribute). She's also done three editions of "Evening at Pops": a 1999 salute to Judy Garland, Harold Arlen and new composers; and two 2002 Richard Rodgers shows — one featuring his work with Hammerstein, the other, songs with Lorenz Hart.

Also on Broadway, McDonald's appeared in concert versions of Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd; Off-Broadway, she's performed in The Vagina Monologues. She's done workshops of Disney's Aida and Dear World.

Audra's major influences were Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Now, she's working with Josh Brolin, whose father is married to Streisand. I jokingly ask if Brolin's stepmother ever visits the set. A puzzled McDonald replies, "Josh is a grown man, with children that are 14 and nine." I say that I just thought the stepmom may stop by, maybe with some chicken soup. Catching on, Audra laughs heartily.

Since NBC publicist Adam Giagni kindly sent me a tape of the first two episodes, I was able to see McDonald in "Mister Sterling." I thoroughly enjoyed both shows. As with each character she portrays, Audra finds the believability and truth in Jackie Brock; either acting or singing, McDonald seems incapable of hitting a wrong note.

At the end of the first episode, an exchange nicely echoes Audra McDonald's whirlwind decade since her graduation. "What are we getting into?" questions a staff member, referring to the actions of the new senator. Says Jackie Brock, "I don't know. . . . It's going to be a wild ride!"

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END QUIZ: Another Tony winner coming to TV is Nathan Lane, whose new CBS sitcom, "Charlie Lawrence," starts on Sundays nights, sometime in January. Lane's first sitcom, "One of the Boys" (NBC, 1982), starring Mickey Rooney, cast Lane as the college roommate of Rooney's grandson, Dana Carvey. Who played Carvey's girlfriend on the short-lived series: a) Meg Ryan; b) Cheryl Ladd; c) Michelle Pfeiffer? (Answer: Next column, Jan. 19)

The Nov. 24 question was: Which of the following Tony Award winners played the mother in Paddy Chayefsky's "The Catered Affair" ("Goodyear Playhouse," 5/22/55): a) Gertrude Berg; b) Shirley Booth; c) Thelma Ritter? The answer is C.

(Michael Buckley also writes for The Sondheim Review.)