When Audra McDonald made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1998 with the San Francisco Symphony, she was already halfway to her record-setting sixth Tony Award. That performance was coincidentally in a suite from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, a work in which she would star 14 years later and earn a fifth Tony. In addition to Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun and Billie Holiday on Broadway (Tonys four and six, respectively), her portfolio of accomplishments includes a handful of critically acclaimed recordings, four seasons in the TV drama Private Practice, and a turn as Mother Superior in the live telecast of The Sound of Music. After a three-year hiatus, she returns to Carnegie Hall this month for her 19th appearance, along with a more seasoned perspective on her role as an entertainer and an enhanced appreciation of her place in history.
What can you share about your upcoming Carnegie Hall performance?
I'm looking forward to debuting a new program at Carnegie Hall: a wide-ranging collection of songs, many of which I've never sung before. It's been a rewarding challenge to sift through potential repertoire with my music director, Andy Einhorn, who's such a wonderful collaborator. He has great taste, impeccable musicianship, and he's very patient!
For you, how does the concert stage differ from Broadway?
In stage performances, you have the opportunity to live through your character's entire dramatic arc without significant interruption, and you have to calibrate your performance: and maintain your physical and emotional stamina: accordingly. For concerts, you are able to be yourself and interact with the audience. Whether on the concert or Broadway stage, there really is nothing quite like the experience of live performance: there's a visceral thrill that you can't get anywhere else. I'm most fulfilled when I feel like there's been a connection with the audience: something shared, something learned, something received. I want people to feel like they are in my living room and vice versa.
Throughout your Broadway career, you have had several classic, iconic roles: most recently Bess and Billie Holiday. Conversely, you have also championed new works by contemporary composers. Do you have a preference?
I'm someone who looks for challenges, whether they come from old or new works. I've been so fortunate that the right artistic project always seems to fall in my lap at the right time: when I need to learn something. When I'm looking for new material, it's important that the song or role speaks to me and, most importantly, that I can sing it. I'm constantly looking for things that scare me, that challenge me, and that help me grow as an artist.
One favorite from your recorded repertoire is "Stars and the Moon." When you perform the song now more than 15 years after you recorded it, is it more of a souvenir from your earlier career or does its meaning continue to evolve?
I was in my late 20s when I recorded Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon" from his show Songs for a New World for my first solo release on Nonesuch, Way Back to Paradise. I had just won my third Tony for Ragtime and I think I was just really beginning to process my career and success when I recorded it. One of the many special things about "Stars and the Moon" is its timeless message that no amount of money can buy happiness. Ultimately, it's our relationships that enrich us and keep us grounded. Whenever I perform it, I am constantly reminded how lucky and grateful I am for my amazing friends and family. As you grow older and life happens and happens to you, life becomes more precious, and people in your life become more precious. I find that I'm learning not to take things for granted as much as I used to and prioritizing what's most important.
Some recognize you from non- musical projects like Private Practice, in which you played Dr. Naomi Bennett. That same TV audience was stunned by your performance of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in the live broadcast of The Sound of Music. Do reactions like that surprise you?
Working on Private Practice was an amazing experience and definitely introduced me to a new audience. I'd go to the airport and people would call out, "Naomi, Naomi!" That is something I never experienced when I was on Broadway. It was a little jarring at first, but then I thought that if people recognize me from television and then follow my face to Carnegie Hall or Broadway and this inspires them to attend live performances on a more regular basis, then I've done my job.
With such a multifaceted career, can you pinpoint one creative outlet in which you are most comfortable, in which you are your most authentic self?
I actually really like the variety, which is why I don't limit myself to one particular genre. All of us have multiple interests: it's what brings us fulfillment on a human level. One nourishes and feeds into the other. When you're singing, you're also making acting choices, and when you're filming a scene for television, for example, you find an almost musical rhythm to your interactions with the other actors. Singing makes me a better actor and vice versa.
You have won more Tony Awards than any other person. There's so much talk about being the first woman to do this, the first minority to do that, and so on. Is being the first of anything an accomplishment in and of itself ?
It's not so much about being the first as it is about helping to pave the way Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, and Diahann Carroll. I think it's always great when women and minorities support each other and lean in, asking for what they want and deserve. I've learned over the years that achievement takes a village and does not come easy.
How does your childhood dream of performing compare to your reality today?
I knew that I wanted to perform on Broadway since I was nine years old. My dream was just to be in one Broadway show: no matter how small the role: so needless to say that what's happened since has surpassed all of my wildest expectations.