6 Stories Behind These Iconic Audra McDonald Performances

Seth Rudetsky   6 Stories Behind These Iconic Audra McDonald Performances
Ahead of the November 12 Town Hall concert starring the six-time Tony winner, Seth Rudetsky shares backstage secrets.
Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald Autumn de Wilde

On Monday night, I’ll be starting my Broadway concert series at Town Hall in NYC. The series began in Provincetown and now plays in San Francisco, Ft. Lauderdale, New Orleans, Scottsdale, and London. My concerts have tons of music and, between the songs, I interview the guests to get as much spontaneous insides scoop as I can. Since my first guest in NYC will be Audra McDonald, I thought I’d show you all why Audra is such a mega-star, as well as give you some of the scoop I’ve gotten from her during our previous concerts. Come this Monday to hear that stunning voice and hear some never-before-heard Broadway stories! Click here for tickets!

Audra played Grace in the 1999 TV movie of Annie directed by Rob Marshall and it must have been extremely satisfying for her to be in it considering the Annie devastation she suffered as youth. She told me that when she was growing up in Fresno, the local theatre got the rights to Annie. Like every singing kid in the early ’80s, she was obsessed with the show. Well, not only did Audra not get the title role (it went future [title of show] star…the fabulous Heidi Blickenstaff), Audra wasn’t even cast as one of the orphans! And, to make it even more devastating, her younger sister was!

Well, revenge is a dish best served cold and here it is!

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald Catherine Ashmore

Back in 1995, Audra was over at my apartment when I told her I had had an audition for a new Broadway show called Master Class. I was in for the role of the pianist who plays for students singing for Maria Callas, the fictional opera singer leading hte titular session. I told her she had to get an audition because she was perfect for it! Well, she got the audition, got cast and won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. And I had a callback. Period. Anyhoo, after that Terrence McNally play, she got cast in a Terrence McNally musical called Ragtime. She played Sarah and won her third Tony Award. But let me say that even though her role was tragic, there were a lot of laughs at the theatre. At the end of Act 1 (spoiler alert!) Sarah dies. Audra remembers one night when they picked up her limp body as usual, but this time her wig got caught in a cast members button. Well, the wig was no match for the pressure being exerted on it and when they fully lifted up her body, her wig fell to the floor! Audra said she could feel the audience thinking “Poor Sarah! She’s dead. And she’s bald!” Here’s her stunning duet with Brian Stokes Mitchell.

I mentioned in my latest Playbill column that I met Audra at an audition I was playing in the early ’90s. We wound up performing together a lot: doing volunteer work at an AIDS prison ward for “Hearts and Voices” and I accompanied her at various fun things like her Juilliard recital, her act at the Russian Tea Room, and on the Charles Grodin Show. We both were/are obsessed with Barbra Streisand so we knew the song “Down With Love” from the second Barbra Streisand album by heart. She wanted to do it, but we wanted to sass up the section where Barbra sings snippets of various love songs. We decided that Audra would sing snippets of various love songs originated by Barbra! I put together a sassy arrangement and added a tip o’ the hat to Audra’s Carousel song and we were asked to perform at the Carnegie Hall “My Favorite Broadway: Leading Ladies Concert.” It was amazing night with Elaine Stritch, Jennifer Holliday, Faith Prince, Andrea McArdle, Priscilla Lopez, and more! Here’s our performance followed by my deconstruction of the Audra and Barbra version!

“Down With Love”

My Deconstruction

Audra’s first time being part of an original Broadway cast came with the 1994 Lincoln Center Theater revival of Carousel where she played Carrie Pipperidge. However, it almost wasn’t to be. She had auditioned for another Broadway show that same season and, if she had been cast, she wouldn’t have been available to play Carrie in the acclaimed revival. Yes, after singing and dancing, the powers-that-be thought she wasn’t quite right to be in the ensemble of Beauty And The Beast. So, instead of being in rehearsal for “Be Our Guest” she was unemployed and available to audition for Carousel…and win the Tony Award! Here’s her big song, “Mister Snow.”

Carousel_Broadway_Production_Photo_1993_Eddie-Korbich & Audra Ann-McDonald_HR.jpg
Eddie Korbich and Audra McDonald in Carousel Joan Marcus

I’m sure you and your friends have signature expressions you say to each other that you’ve said for years. Here’s one between me and Audra: One day back in the ’90s, when she was coming to my apartment to rehearse, she walked in mortified/laughing. She had just put some sassy product in her hair to make it look good. I loved the way it smelled but apparently somebody else did not. On the elevator up to my apartment, Audra was standing with a teenage girl and boy. The girl looked at her friend, and said full volume, really slowly, referring to Audra’s hair, “Somebody stank!” We’re obsessed with it because it wasn’t conjugated as “Somebody stinks,” the orator decided to use the past participle. And “Somebody stank” implies it happened in the past, yet she is obviously referring to Audra’s hair in the present moment. Anyhoo, to this day, we still say “Somebody stank!” I was trying to remember what we were rehearsing that day. Maybe it was this Steve Marzullo song that we did on The Rosie O’Donnell Show as well as during one the Family Vacations we did. Here she is singing “Some Days.”

And finally, if you didn’t see my regular Monday column earlier this week, I wrote that what I love about these concert series is we don’t plan all the music. In this clip, Audra sings “I Could Have Danced All Night” and I decide to add a last-minute modulation…making her on the song on a high C#! Watch it here!

Come to our show this Monday to see what else I’ll haul out! Don’t forget to grab your tickets.

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