How Audra McDonald Handled a Ringing Cell Phone in Character As Billie Holiday

Seth Rudetsky   How Audra McDonald Handled a Ringing Cell Phone in Character As Billie Holiday
Seth returns home from London laden with stories about Audra at the Oliviers and excitement for the April 18 Concert for America in NYC.
After the concert. Seth Rudetsky

allo from my London to JFK plane flight. Only seven hours to go. We had a great week in London and we’re now in the last-minute throes of getting ready for our next Concert for America, which happens 8 PM, April 18 at The Town Hall in New York. We now have Chita Rivera, Adrienne Warren, Michael Urie, Oskar Eustis, Lisa Lampanelli, Kaytie O’Hara, Caroline Rhea, Anika Larsen, Vanessa Williams, and Barry Manilow(!). Barry is doing so many songs in the concert I’m flipping out. And there were so many hits I wanted to hear but I was depressed because the concert is only two hours and I knew we couldn’t do them all. Well, turns out, one of his numbers is literally a hit medley so he is going to do them all! Get tix (or watch the live stream) at

I was in London last week doing four shows with Audra McDonald and Will Swenson. We began performances on Wednesday and on the Sunday before, Audra sang during the “In Memoriam” section of the Olivier Awards. I asked her the difference between the Oliviers and the Tonys and, for her, the difference was that she didn’t have the normal adrenaline and stress of being at the Tony Awards when she’s part of a show that’s nominated. It was calming for her not to have a “horse in the race.” That is…until she actually started singing. Audra said that she began “Over the Rainbow” and suddenly got nervous about all the people there and all the people watching. Very nervous. Now, if you know Audra’s history you know that when she gets really nervous she passes out. Literally. Well, she felt that she was headed that way and while she was singing she told herself, “Audra, if you pass out during the In Memoriam section, you will be the worst person in the world.” Can you imagine? She was basically there to provide vocal accompaniment while people looked at loving photos of those who have died. She knew that falling on her face would be the ultimate in upstaging. The audience would be like, “Yes, I feel bad for the legends who passed away, but I’m now much more concerned with that poor girl who hit the stage with such force!” She basically yelled in her head, “Audra! Get it together now!” and snapped out of her nervousness.

Disney then vs. now Seth Rudetsky

Juli and Audra’s daughter Zoe are the same age and, weirdly, on the day we all met up, Facebook posted one of the “memories” photos that had us all together seven years ago at Disneyworld! We tried to recreate the Disneyworld pose in the Leicester Square dressing room. Look.

I knew that Audra named Zoe after Zoe Caldwell (with whom she did Master Class) but I didn’t know the story of Zoe’s middle name; Audra had done a TV pilot with Madeline Kahn and really bonded with her. Audra was fascinated hearing stories about Madeline and her debut film What’s Up, Doc?. Turns out, Madeline thought she was bombing all throughout filming and was certain her performance was a dud. Turns out, it was hilarious and Audra was fascinated that Madeline had any insecurity about her performance. Madeline passed away in 2000 and the day Audra sang at her memorial was the same day she found out she was carrying a daughter, hence Zoe’s middle name: Madeline. Watch her brilliance below.

PS: I’m also obsessed with her in Paper Moon. Watch her trip right near the beginning!

Audra’s getting ready to do Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in London and we spoke about how there’s no fourth wall during the show. The show is a Billie Holliday concert where she interacts with the audience. That has sometimes led her to ad-libbing. Once, during the most emotional scene in the show, someone’s cell phone went off in the audience. And it didn’t stop. Since the play takes place way before cell phones ever existed, Audra knew Billie would have not known where the sound was coming from. Audra also felt she had to acknowledge it because it was so relentless but she had to speak as Billie, who is a lot more direct than Audra. I asked Audra to recreate what she said when the cell phone wouldn’t stop and she came center stage and showed us: It was basically her turning around in a circle over and over again and, in that distinctive Billie Holliday voice, yelling, “Whadda f***is that? Whadda f*** is that!? WHADDA F*** IS THAT!!!?”

On the final night of the show, we did a Ragtime section; Audra sang “Your Daddy’s Son” for the first time in many, many years. She thinks she hadn’t sung it since the show was on Broadway! Cut to: She sounded amazing. And Will got sick that morning so James stepped in for a duet and he and Audra hauled out “Wheels of A Dream.” Yes, he’s not the right “look” for Coalhouse, but they sounded great together. And, speaking of the right look, Audra closed with “Climb Every Mountain” and admitted she doesn’t look like other ladies who have played Mother Abbes from Sound of Music. She claims it’s because her character is from the “sunny side of the alps.” Here’s a video of James and Audra of the last time they sang “Wheels of a Dream”:

Naturally, I hauled out my signature British accent while in London but didn’t quite receive the responses I imagined. AKA no one said, “Wow! A native! Where in London did you grow up?” Instead, a typical encounter was like the one I had with my cab driver. He told me I sounded like:
A. In timbre, a woman
B. In accent, Dick Van Dyke

Apparently, no one in Great Britain approved of Dick Van Dyke’s cockney lilt as Bert in Mary Poppins. Almost every time I hauled out an “allo”! or a “Cor blimey,” I was referred to as “Dick Van Dyke.” And not just an on-the-nose reference either. Sometimes I’d get something creative like “The Mary Poppins auditions are around the corner and you’re 50 years too late.” Hmph. I think he’s amazing. It’s Julie’s accent that needs work! Where’s she from? Paramus?

Disaster! has been licensed by MTI and it’s being done all over the place. I’m loving all the cool locations it’s at…like here’s the ad from Hamburg, Germany!

Disaster! in Hamburg, Germany
Disaster! in Hamburg, Germany

And I love the different artwork some theatres are doing. This is tip of the hat to Poseidon Adventure and Jaws! Love it!

Disaster! art

I’ll leave with some photos from when we went to the Willy Wonka-themed afternoon tea at One Aldwych Hotel. Delish!

Afternoon tea! Seth Rudetsky
More tea. Seth Rudetsky

Don’t forget to watch Concert For America tomorrow night at 8PM EST. Peace out!

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