Audra McDonald and the Troubled, Alcohol-Fueled Final Days of Billie Holiday

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22 Jun 2014

Audra McDonald in <i>Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill</i>
Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

Audra McDonald, who won an historic sixth Tony Award for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, and director Lonny Price, open up to about portraying a legendary figure in music history on Broadway.


Both act the hell out of a lyric, pulling you into the meaning and emotions of words in a totally opposite manner — Billie Holiday in a frail, faltering little-girl wail versus Audra McDonald with her definitive, intelligent, almost operatic exactness.

Ordinarily I don't think of them in the same sentence, let alone the same show. "Well, wait till you see it," confidently countered Lonny Price, who directs McDonald's Holiday in Lanie Robertson's solo concert-cum-meltdown, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. "She has transformed herself. If you close your eyes, you're gonna think you're hearing Billie Holiday, not Audra McDonald."

Slowly, I turned and walked to the Circle in the Square, which has also gone through a transformation itself and come out a cabaret. Some of the audience sits at tables leading up to a bandstand that a star can stumble up to and stagger away from.

By actual count, it took one word — in truth, three words ("allIknow") smeared together into one alcoholic blur — to make a case that the six-time Tony-winning actress (known to her nearly 100,000 Twitter followers as AudraEqualityMc) has indeed been able to summon forth this tragic and iconic jazz stylist.

McDonald was abundantly aware of the skepticism that preceded her taking on this role. "When most people heard I was doing this," she said, "I'm sure a lot of them thought, 'Well, what is she going to do? Sing it all an octave higher?'"

Theatrical alchemy is a little more complicated than that. It took McDonald a year and a half of intensely focusing on every tape and video of Holiday extant, endlessly watching movements and mannerisms, sometimes singing along with her.

Their connective link was their emotive abilities. "That's absolutely Billie, and so, in that sense, it's something that I understand," said McDonald, "but it's a whole new way for me because I have to do it all through Billie's eyes and through Billie's interpretation — not through Audra's, which is an entirely different thing."


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