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
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 Playbill.com about portraying a legendary figure in music history on Broadway.

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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."

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."