Interview: Audra McDonald on Creating a Gala for an Empty Theatre, Remembering Terrence McNally, and More

Interview   Interview: Audra McDonald on Creating a Gala for an Empty Theatre, Remembering Terrence McNally, and More
 
The six-time Tony winner, currently nominated for McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, headlines New York City Center's digital concert event.
Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald Christopher Duggan

Audra McDonald jokes that the fast patter of Frank Loesser's "Can't Stop Talking" (from the movie Let's Dance) is the most exercise she's had in months, but that's not to say she hasn't kept busy during quarantine. The six-time Tony winner takes the City Center stage in a digital concert of some of her staples (like Stephen Sondheim's "The Glamorous Life" and the high-speed "Can't Stop Talking"), new additions to her repertoire (Audra Levi, born Gallagher?), and newfound mantras ("I Happen to Like New York").

The gala, available to stream through January 3, 2021, was filmed at the midtown mainstay with Michael Urie serving as host. Take a look below as McDonald, currently Tony-nominated for Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, shares more about crafting the concert, working with Terrence McNally, and the causes the keep her climbing ev'ry mountain.

What was your approach to compiling the set list for this concert?
We wanted the concert to reflect on where we are right now. We are very aware that these are not normal times. We are all going through something, and we all have shared trauma, which is one of the reasons we wanted to start with “In My Solitude” by Duke Ellington. We also decided to do “I Happen to Like New York,” just because it’s such a valentine to the city and reflects how I feel about my city. I know that it looks like we’re down right now—especially with the theatre being dark—but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. “May You Always” is another song that we chose because I wanted to let the audience know what my wishes for them were during this time, and always, and our hope and aspirations that next year will be a better one for everybody.

With some of the songs on the set list that we maybe haven’t heard from you before—were there any that you felt were especially important to add to your repertoire now?
I’ve added “Before the Parade Passes By” to my repertoire, and I feel like I’m of a certain age now and there’s a defiance and a sense of claiming a renewal in this song that I wanted to explore. Certainly, everyone can identify with that given where we are right now in the world, and that’s why I wanted to add that one. I didn’t feel like I was old enough to sing it before now; but now that I’m 50, I feel like, “Yeah, I can sing that song!” Maybe I can’t sing it well, but I certainly can identify with it. [Editor’s note: She absolutely can sing it well.]

A belated congratulations on your Frankie and Johnny Tony nomination!
Thank you. I’m very surprised, but very grateful.

I can imagine it’s not exactly the first thing on your mind. That being said, what would you say is the reason to still have a Tony Awards during such a difficult time?
Because we need to continue to celebrate theatre, celebrate our industry, and celebrate our art form. My favorite thing about the Tonys is the chance to get to see all the different performances and shows that are happening; and so if there’s some way they can make that happen this year—to remind folks at home that as soon as it’s safe to do so, theatre will be back and to keep theatre in the hearts and minds of people who are missing it so desperately— I think that that’s a good thing, and the Tonys are a way of celebrating that.

Frankie_and_Johnny_in_the_Clair_de_Lune_Broadway_Opening_Night_Photos_2019_HR
Audra McDonald and Terrence McNally Joseph Marzullo/WENN

I know Terrence McNally was an important figure in your life and career, and his death earlier this year was a devastating loss for the community. Would you be willing to share a memory from that final collaboration with him that you’ll hold onto?
I think my favorite memory about Terrence during the Frankie and Johnny time was us sitting around the table in the first couple of weeks of rehearsal and, as one normally does, you discuss the play and the characters. When Terrence would start to go off on a tangent of a story about something that happened in the past—whether it was about the production or another moment in his life that sort of led to the creation of this play and the writing of this play—[co-star] Michael [Shannon], [director] Arin [Arbus], and I would let him—and beg him—to tell these stories. At the time, I just wanted to hear Terrence talk as much as I could, because these are moments in a legend’s life and experiences that I know I can learn from—experiences that meant a lot to him, and experiences that are important to record and remember. My other favorite moment was my first preview. Terrence was sitting in the audience and at the end, we gestured to him, and he stood up, and everybody applauded him, and that was very moving for us, for me. I miss him terribly.

READ: The Theatre Community Remembers Terrence McNally on Social Media

What role have the arts played for you while trying to maintain some sense of mental and emotional stamina?
I’ve been very blessed to have a few opportunities during lockdown. Participating in various Zoom activities to benefit different arts or charitable organizations and feeling like I can do my part to help support people and organizations during this time has been good for my emotional stamina. It makes me feel like I’m at least doing something.

Seth Rudetsky and Audra McDonald
Seth Rudetsky and Audra McDonald Sachyn Mital

Are there any theatrical moments you’ve witnessed over the past nine moments—not necessarily as a participant—that have offered a glimmer of light while theatres are dark?
There have been many. I have to say, I so admire what Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley have been doing every night with Stars in the House. They make us feel like we’re all still together while raising so much money for causes including The Actors Fund, raising awareness, and keeping us all together as a family. They are old friends to me, but for anyone who loves theatre, you can just hop on a Stars in the House live stream any night of the week and feel like you’re hanging with theatre folks—and you are hanging with theatre folks—and getting performances, stories, and fellowship. That has meant a lot to me during this time.

Playbill has admired and appreciated the work you have done as a co-founder of Black Theatre United. How can we expect to see the group’s mission take shape and evolve in 2021?
Thank you for that. Black Theatre United is continuing to do work to make sure that theatre becomes a more diverse, equitable, and anti-racist space. On the national level, after our work on the 2020 census and election, we’re looking toward the runoff in Georgia as well as other efforts to protect Black lives and talent. As the issues and progress within our community evolve, so must our organization.

Digital access to An Evening With Audra McDonald, featuring musical direction by Andy Einhorn, is available to purchase at NYCityCenter.org.

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