ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Honoring Audra McDonald at the Drama League Gala; Plus, Fanilows!

By Seth Rudetsky
18 Feb 2013

I'm writing this column while firmly on the ground, but soon I'm going to be way up in the air. For a long time. I'm flying to Australia for the week! First, I fly to Los Angeles (six hours) and then 14 hours to Sydney. I'm sure I'll have many comments/complaints about my flight in my next column, so stay tuned! Until then, I'll tell ya about the good ol' US of A. Last Monday I was asked to perform at the Drama League salute to Audra McDonald. It was so great!

Audra and I met back in the early '90's when I was playing piano for an industrial audition. She sang from Dreamgirls and I immediately thought she had five Tony Awards in her future (I was extremely psychic that year). We've been friends ever since, so the Drama League folks asked me to "deconstruct" her. For my act, I first played a recording of her in the Dreamgirls concert I put together for the Actors Fund and I highlighted the part where Audra belted an E. That's right belted an E! Here's a little snippet.

After I played it for the crowd I told them how Audra called me really early the day after the concert. Every word she said was laden with crazy morning voice. In a bedraggled, phlegmy voice she thanked me for putting together the benefit and I immediately interrupted and said, "Audra! You belted an E last night! Why don't you belt that high more often?" In the same, bedraggled, phlegmy voice she replied, "Because I sound like this the next day." Point taken. I ended my deconstruction by showing a video of the two us in Mexico's Club Med where she was singing (and I was playing) "I Could Have Danced All Night." During the performance, I decided to spontaneously modulate up a half step (for fun!) and she was then forced to end the song on a high C sharp, a note she claims she never sings in public. Of course, she sounds amazing. But she still has that Audra sass and when I surprise her with the modulation she surprises me — giving me the finger. Actually, it wasn't that much of a surprise. Watch

There were so many stars saluting her at the Drama League event. It was thrilling. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directed the whole show and one of the numbers featured all of Audra's leading men…singing her song from the shows they did together! Norm Lewis came onstage at the end and started singing "I Loves You, Porgy." He was super-serious and really emotionally moving…until he started the bridge up the octave in Audra's range. Turns out he has a beautiful soprano voice! Black Mary Sunshine? Anybody? Then Norm started singing, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and suddenly I heard, "Stop! Stop!" I looked into the audience and saw Will Swenson (Audra's husband) holding a mic he had hidden in his suit jacket pocket. He told Norm, "You sang that song to Audra eight shows a week all last year and frankly I'm jealous. Now, it's my turn!" Then he started singing "Audra!!!! You're my woman now!" It was fabulous.

Lonny Price talked about directing Audra in various projects and mentioned the time he looked at a piano on the set and said, "It would be funny if you sat down and suddenly played a segment of some piano concerto." Audra simply nodded and said, "Which concerto?" He thought she was kidding 'til she explained that she studied piano for many years. He was mind-boggled by her talent level and joked, "Next you're gonna tell me you dance on pointe." Audra responded, "Well, it's been a couple of years since I have…" Lonny then realized she can do anything. I loved his quote about her: "If you're Audra's director, the only limit to what she can do, is your imagination." Brava!