Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, a play with music that opened at Club Circle in the Square April 13, represents the best of both worlds for Audra McDonald, who has five Tonys pretty evenly divided between straight acting ( Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun) and singing ( Carousel, Ragtime and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess).
Here, in this Broadway revival of Lanie Robertson's 1986 Off-Broadway hit, the actress reports to work first, weaving slowly with a determined steadiness through the cabaret tables that now clutter the Circle's stage to the bandstand, where a jazz trio waits to accompany her through a long slog of songs and cerebral free-fall.
From the first word, which is actually three words — "All I know," slurred and blurred into a 90-proof single unit — you realize the actress is on the right soundtrack, her beautifully enunciated lyric soprano left at the coat-check in favor of the frail, lazy, damaged sound of Billie Holiday in the dregs of a career ruined by booze and drugs.
Playwright Robertson picked "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" for her opening number on purpose because of those three little, lost words. "Nightclub singing really was the only thing Billie knew," he said. "Gradually, she awakes to the fact that she is on stage in front of an audience before a microphone, and she does the only thing she knows how to do: she performs"—between big waves of bad memories.
"That's the only thing she could ever count on," McDonald seconded, "all she knew." If Holiday sounded and looked a long way past The Primetime Players, there were extenuating circumstances, McDonald argued. "Yeah, she's a little bit drunk at the beginning, and she'll obviously get a lot worse—but that's how Billie spoke. If you listen to interviews with her when she's supposedly straight with Mike Wallace, you can't really understand her. She slurred her words. And, at the end of her life, she had swollen feet and beaten legs—consequently, she was slow getting to the stage because it was hard for her to walk—so it's not all the alcohol. That comes as the night goes on. When she lumbers on at the start, there are physical reasons."
McDonald will give you an argument that Lady Day is the best of her musical world simply "because it's not my voice, and staying in somebody else's voice is hard."
How did she find the Holiday sound? "A lot of studying and a lot of listening," she answered. "It's been a year and a half of studying—studying every single tape and video I could and listening to her over and over again and singing along with her.
"I love singing 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do.' It's, like, her happiest moment. She says, when she finishes it, 'I think this is going to be a great evening.' It was a mistake for her to come back to Philly. That's the happiest she gets all evening."
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, with a few tiny little asterisks, is an all-Audra outing. The most conspicuous one is her musical director, Jimmy Powers, played unobtrusively but always compassionately by Shelton Becton. Did he know he was such a good actor? "No, I didn't," he replied without thinking. "I've never done any kind of acting before. I'm always just playing piano. I'm musical director for Roberta Flack, and I've also worked with Patti Austin and Judy Collins. I've worked in the pit for lots of musicals like Ain't Misbehavin' and Memphis and The Color Purple."
Then there's Emerson, the invisible owner of the joint. Periodically, she yells at "Em" tending bar at the back, and he barks back. That's the director Lonny Price, on tape. All told, the show has been a good two years in the coming-together, Price said. "We did a workshop in September for two or three weeks, another in January, then a week in the room before we came here. We were pretty ready when we arrived." The 14 songs woven into the telling patter are very similar, he said, to the original production. "Tim Weil—the musical supervisor of Rent—did all our arrangements and orchestrations, but they're completely authentic. They're from the recordings. The show runs 85-90 minutes and has maybe 45 minutes of songs. There's still a lot of play because the songs are short. They're not long, involved pieces of music."
The heavy petting in the play is between Lady Day and Pepi, her Chihuahua (played by either Chico or Roxie, both trained by Bill Berloni, who has had himself a pretty busy week—on April 6 with Romeo, the English bulldog in Threepenny Opera, then April 10 with Trixie, the Pomeranian in Bullets Over Broadway, and now this).
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"We had open auditions for Pepi because the producers wanted to find a dog that was already living in New York City," recalled Berloni, "but, out of the hundreds of applications we got, there wasn't one I thought would work, so we used my Legally Blonde dogs. The little dog tonight appeared in the national tour of Legally Blonde."
There are tricks to bring out a dog's affection. "We actually put peanut butter on Audra's glass, but this dog—when you bring her two inches in front of your face—she'll give you a kiss. So it's choreographed. Audra's controlling when the licks happen.
"The other part of this situation is that Audra, being such a method actress and a dog lover—she has three dogs of her own—said, 'What can I do to make the dog fall in love with me?' In between shows, she takes naps with it. An hour before curtain, it goes to her dressing room, and they play. She has really made this dog her own."
The play opens in March 1959, about four months before Holiday, tragically all of 44, would die of cirrhosis and heart failure at a hospital in Harlem.
The play's setting is a then-popular, now-extinct bar at 15th and Bainbridge Streets in North Philadelphia, a slight upgrade from a sleazy club that inspired the play. "A friend of mine saw her a few months before she died in a small dive in North Philly," Robertson recalled. "I named it Emerson's Bar and Grill because she was bare and grilled, telling her life to the audience. I don't know the actual name of the place where he saw her, but he said only six or seven people were there to see her. The incongruity of an artist of her stature being so ignored—I don't want to cry telling you this, but it haunted me. My reason for writing this is to rid myself of that ghost.
"The play could have been set in any number of other cities in America of the late '50s where racism was rampant—Boston or New York or Birmingham or Atlanta—but it's set in Philly primarily because my friend saw her there and it was the place that sent her to prison. Philadelphia was not very high on her appreciation list. As she says in the play, 'Philadelphia's always been the rat's ass for me.' I also set it there because it would bring up—for the character—all of these emotions."
At 77, after writing plays (some 40, he estimates) for the past 35 years, Robertson suddenly—and, judging from the broad grin, happily—finds himself a Broadway playwright. "Since Lady Day, there has been more attention to the biographical plays I've done, but, in Europe and in Canada, more of the other plays have been done."
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Primary Stages has presented two of his most notable bio-dramas: Nasty Little Secrets about murdered playwright Joe Orton and Woman Before a Glass about bohemian socialite/art collector Peggy Guggenheim. "The characters I write about I choose because I think they're emblematic of societal problems. It's a way to deal with contemporary problems—in Orton's case, homophobia; in Billie's case, racism."
A similar key moment opens his new play. "It's about the 50-year friendship of Claude Monet and Georges Clemenceau. The play is set in April 1914, a couple of months before the First World War began and a month after Monet had given up painting following the death of his son. He had cataracts and was signing off on painting anymore. Clemenceau came to Giverny with a commission from the French government for him to do a big painting. Overcoming a lot of internal obstacles on Monet's part, Clemenceau persuades him to begin something. I don't know if the play is good or bad, but the ending's sensational because he paints The Water Lily. It's called The Gardener because Monet once said, 'There are only two things I'm good at in life: gardening and painting.' At that point in life, he'd sworn off painting, and he said, 'This garden is going to be my legacy. I'm not painting anymore.'"
How does he find The Big Moment in the life he is dramatizing? "If this person at the point in his or her life speaks to a problem in society," he said. "With The Gardener, it's how does one continue—at the end of one's life—to do one's job in the face of enormous grief? The answer is friends. The love of friends can call you back to life."
McDonald had her own cheering section in place: Pippin director Diane Paulus, who guided her to a Tony as Bess; Mothers and Sons' Terrence McNally, who wrote her two Tony-winning roles ( Master Class and Ragtime); Brian Stokes Mitchell, who was Tony-nominated opposite her in Ragtime; Norm Lewis, musing over his musical travels, playing her Porgy between musical trips to Paris (from Les Miz to The Phantom of the Opera for the next six months), and Bryonha Marie Parham, also of P orgy and Bess.
At least five Tony-winning actresses turned out to hail the five-time Tony winner: Anika Noni Rose, Nikki M. James, Phylicia Rashad, pretty-in-pink Tonya Pinkins and Adriane Lenox. Playwright Robertson had his followers, too—notably Leslie Uggams, who starred as Ethel Waters in his Stringbean, and S. Epatha Merkerson, who replaced Lonette McKee in the original Off-Broadway edition of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Having given at the office, casts from several shows came after their matinees to welcome the new kid on the Broadway block—from Aladdin ( Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed); the Presidentially favored A Raisin in the Sun ( LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo, Jason Dirden and Bryce Clyde Jenkins); the Presidentially slighted All The Way ( J. Bernard Calloway, Susannah Schulman, Peter Jay Fernandez, Danny Johnson, Gina Daniels and Christopher Gurr); The Realistic Joneses ( Marisa Tomei); the current Les Misérables ( Will Swenson and Ramin Karimloo with wife Mandy Karimloo); Beautiful (Ainka Larsen, Jarrod Spector); If/Then ( LaChanze and Jerry Dixon with Mario Cantone); Bullets Over Broadway ( Brooks Ashmanskas); Rocky ( David Andrew Macdonald and Andy Karl with Orfeh); The Velocity of Autumn ( Stephen Spinella); and After Midnight ( Carmen Ruby Floyd and Daniel J. Watts).
"I'm going to do a small part, Ursula, in Much Ado About Nothing," trilled Kathryn Meisle. "The Delacorte's a great venue. I love it. The first time I worked there, I was with Raul Julia, playing Desdemona to his Othello. The last time was 12 years ago. I played Olivia in Twelfth Night. There's nothing like walking to work in Central Park."
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Betsy Aiden, the Lady Bird to Bryan Cranston's LBJ in All The Way, laid a heavy theatrical fact out there: "Of the 21 plays that have opened this season, nine are new plays all written by white men, and, of the remaining 12, only two have been written by women—Lorraine Hansberry and Sophie Treadwell, both dead for 45 years."
Elizabeth Ashley, a pet player for producer Jeffrey Richards, is about to disappear in a couple of weeks into a sound booth to record John Lahr's epic tome on Tennessee Williams. And, chanteuse Lisa Carroll has produced a hip-hop holiday album with rapper Hasiv McNealy called "Rapping Up Christmas: Homies for the Holidays."
Working marrieds heading from theatre to television: John Ellison Conlee ("Boardwalk Empire") and Celia Keenan-Bolger ("Law and Order: SVU"). Robert Petkoff, the much-battled Hubert Humphrey of All The Way and his actress-wife Susan Wands still look as if they're in love. "We just had our 20th anniversary on Wednesday so, for actors, that's practically a record," said he. "Can you believe it? We got so lucky." All The Way is one of his few forays into straight plays. He was especially memorable in the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof. "We got to do the cast album, and I remember at the time thinking, 'Oh, gosh. There'll be a generation of high school kids, who'll imitate me as Perchik when they do the show. Then I just heard there's going to be a 50th anniversary production, and I thought, 'Oh, no! My run is over! There's going to be some other new Perchik, and they're going to start imitating him--because, God knows, I was constantly imitating Richard Burton when I did Camelot in high school.' You imitate the person that you hear."
Randy Graff, who was Golde to Alfred Molina's Tevye in that particular Fiddler, was in attendance. Her most recent triumph was stealing The Act in one of those "reunion" songfests at 54 Below with an unknown Kander and Ebb ditty. "They told me it was six minutes and 45 seconds, and I had no idea about it," she said. "The first time I heard it was a demo, and Fred Ebb sang it. Everything I need to know about that song was in that demo." It was about how early sex abuse can lead later in life to excessively good manners—and it was dropped on the road for being "too dark." Also: Sierra Boggess of the great Guys and Dolls at Carnegie Hall; Christine Quinn and Kim M. Catullo; The Bridges of Madison County composer Jason Robert Brown with wife Georgia Stitt; fashion legend Michael Kors; Victor Garber; Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich; director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall with producer-hubby Scott Landis; Gabriel Byrne; comic Freddie Roman; Christine Baranski of "The Good Wife"; Pablo Schreiber, taking a filming break for a night at the theatre; Reg Rogers; country singer Chely Wright and spouse Lauren Blitzer; Wicked/Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz; The Glass Menagerie's Brian J. Smith; Jeffrey Tambor; and, delightfully, Mothers and Sons' Bobby Steggert with mom.