For Tony Winner Audra McDonald, The Sound of Music Live! Is an Unexpected Full-Circle Moment

By Adam Hetrick
December 4, 2013

Five-time Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald takes on a heavenly role and an iconic song in the NBC broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music Live!



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When Audra McDonald hits the final note of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" during the live broadcast of the beloved family musical The Sound of Music on Dec. 5, it will ring-out a homecoming for the stage and screen actress, who earned her first Tony Award in the 1994 Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.

Playbill.com spoke with McDonald about her history with the musical and the ambitious undertaking of bringing The Sound of Music to modern audiences in a new way.

The song "Edelweiss" has a strong family connection for you. Can you share a bit about that?
Audra McDonald: When I was born, my uncle gave me a music box that had little birds on it. Two of them were getting married, one was officiating, and they were all circling a tree. It played "Edelweiss." It was in my bedroom from the time I was born. Then, when I was nine years old, I was looking to audition for this dinner theatre because I wanted to get a trophy and was trying to figure out how to get a trophy. [Laughs.] My parents said, "Try auditioning for this and if you get this, we'll see about getting you a trophy." I wasn't sure what to sing, and the requirement was to sing something from musical theatre. The only thing I really knew well was "Edelweiss." So I sang "Edelweiss" and my dad played it for me on the piano. So, that's been my connection. But also, I was born in Germany. So when people say, "Hey, you're playing Mother Abbess?" [Laughs.] I say, "Well, you know in actual fact I was born in Germany. Not Austria, but Germany!"

McDonald in rehearsal
photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC

What was it like stepping into the rehearsal room, hearing that song and returning to the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein? In several different ways this is a full-circle moment for you.
AM: Of course. It's never a show I thought I would be in; never in my life. It's a show that I've associated with, in terms of being a fan of it, being moved by it and it being a part of my life growing up, like every other kid in America. But then, this also ties in with my close association with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization over the years since Carousel, then being close to [Richard Rodger's grandson] Adam Guettel and his mom [Mary Rodgers Guettel]. Then all of the sudden, here I am finding myself in the actual musical. It feels strangely like a homecoming, although, Lord knows, on paper it doesn't look like it should be, but it feels that way.

You're singing one of the most well-known songs in musical theatre. It can be a bear to sing. What are the challenges for you?
AM: There's a lot of pressure with that song. I don't want to say it's the eleven o'clock number, but it is the moment where Maria's fate is decided in terms of her deciding to go back [to the Von Trapp family]. I mean, the show could end with her just going back to the abbey and that being it. [Laughs.] I've got wonderful people in my life, Andy Einhorn and my voice teacher, Arthur Levy, helped me find a way into it vocally where I didn't feel too stressed out about it. And now, it's about singing it to that sweet face - to Carrie [Underwood] - who's so sweet and pure, and in the moment and emotional. It's about sticking with Mother Abbess' objective, which is "I can see that this is her path." It's really a tough love song. She's kicking her out of the nest.

Carrie Underwood and Audra McDonald
Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Something wonderful that audiences who only know the film will discover is that there is a deepening of the supporting characters in the stage production. We learn more about Elsa and Max, as well as the relationship between Mother Abbess and Maria, who duet on "My Favorite Things."
AM: Any time you get a little bit of history on these characters, it's a wonderful thing. In the stage production we learn a little bit about Mother Abbess; that she was raised kind of in the same area that Maria was, that she knows that song too, that she has a little bit of Maria in her. Maria is able to bring her back to her childhood in singing "My Favorite Things" for Mother Abbess, which Mother Abbess asks her to do, then Mother Abbess can't help herself and she joins in. Also, it's obvious that they've had chats before - that Mother Abbess has allowed her to leave the abbey. You see that there's a bond there. She obviously has a bond with all the sisters, but she seems quite protective of Maria.

This is a unique amalgam of a Broadway musical and, essentially, a broadcast of a live film. What is the energy like in the room? Technically, can you compare it to your other work on stage or screen?
AM: At first we were in a regular rehearsal studio, rehearsing it like a regular Broadway show, but then it got difficult when we got to the sound stage. Normally, at this point, you're moving into a theatre and this is when you would go into tech. For this, we're moving into a sound stage that's the size of a football field. Then there are all these other departments, not just lighting and sound, but cameras. But if you want to get dressed, you have to leave the building to go get dressed. If you want to go to make-up, you have to run a touchdown to go do make-up [laughs] - the enormity of it all. But that being said, everybody that's involved in this production is just the cream of the crop. A lot of the cameramen are the cameramen who have done the Tony Awards or Live from Lincoln Center, so they're all wonderful. And Beth [McCarthy-Miller], you can't get a better television director than Beth, especially when it comes to live stuff. She makes you feel safe, and she keeps the atmosphere joyous. And Rob Ashford is the same, especially when we were in the rehearsal studios. They work together so beautifully. I said to Stephen Moyer last night, "You know what? I think I would want Beth to fly the plane I was on, even if she can't fly a plane!" [Laughs.]

Do you have a stand-out moment that is a particular favorite for you from The Sound of Music?
AM: For me, it's Captain Von Trapp reconnecting to his soul, his children and his family through music. Music brings him back to his family and his life. That gets me.

There's also talk that you'll be returning to Broadway shortly. Any chance you might share news of the project?
AM: I cannot tease you with anything. But the rumors are true!

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Jessica Molaskey as Sister Berthe, Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Christiane Noll as Sister Margaretta
Photo by Will Hart/NBC