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

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22 Jun 2014

Billie Holiday

Price has done so many shows with McDonald — three Sondheims in Ravinia (Sunday in the Park with George, Anyone Can Whistle and Passion), a couple of his Sweeney Todds in New York and 110 in the Shade on Broadway — that he almost qualifies as her Svengali. It was he who suggested she give Billie Holiday a whirl.

"It's a play that I've known," he said. "I did it at Long Wharf… ten years ago, and I'm always looking for something for Audra. You can't present Audra with anything easy. It's got to be something challenging. To play Billie in practically a one-woman show and sing 15 songs — that qualifies as challenging, so I presented it to her.

"More than anything else, I feel Audra's an actress. I know she has that incredible voice, but the reason I respond is what's behind it. I've always thought her a great actress. We'd been talking and working, and she'd been studying Billie, then one day, honest to God, Billie showed up. It was magic."

All the Holiday classics are sung — albeit, as she progressively disintegrates on stage (i.e., "Easy Livin'" is done the hard way). "Billie always said that she couldn't sing the songs unless she was in an emotional place that she could justify them," Price noted.

McDonald is mindful of the fact that the 44-year-old Holiday, at this low point, is four months away from death's door. "It's a struggle to get through these songs," she admitted "Some make her happy, some come out easily, some she doesn't want to sing at all. She won't go near them. She'd have to be threatened to sing some songs.

"There's a lot going on, and, at the same time, this is a woman who is very ill and not dealing with that. Her best friend, Lester Young, just died, and she's estranged from her husband, who is a horrible man anyway. My gosh, they even arrested her on her deathbed! Even though she didn't see herself as a victim, she was certainly a target."

McDonald was very young when she saw Diana Ross's Oscar-nominated Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues," and it scared her to see "this woman being treated that way. She was very much a victim in that film. I think there's a million ways to interpret Billie Holiday because she touched something so deep in everybody. Everybody feels like they've had an intimate moment with her. They feel that they own a piece of her."

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