Audra McDonald: ‘Awards don’t change your life the way you think they will’
There is a quote that adorn’s Audra McDonald’s press pack: “It is no exaggeration to say that I regard her as the greatest singer to be born in my lifetime.” I wrote that line myself for The Stage some years ago, so it is with a little rapture and awe that I sit beside the great Broadway actor and TV star, having coffee in the lounge of a central London hotel.
But she is instantly so charming and disarming that I’m not intimidated. She’s naturally unaffected, but also radiates a quiet confidence. Speaking of her extensive career as a stage actor and singer, she says: “That is where I was born, in terms of finding out who I was and feeling comfortable.”
She made her Broadway debut a quarter of a century ago, taking over a role in The Secret Garden, before starting to originate roles two years later and winning the first of her six Tony awards. That is an all-time record. Incidentally, she is also the first person to win in all four acting categories, for leading and supporting performances in plays as well as musicals.
Despite this incredible history of accomplishment, she is still only 46. But the wonders don’t stop there: with a daughter Zoe, who just turned 16 in February from her first marriage to musician Peter Donovan, she gave birth last October to a second daughter, Sally James, with her actor husband Will Swenson. We are meeting on a flying visit to London that she has made to promote the new live action film version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in which she plays Madame De Garderobe, the character who is transformed into the enchanted wardrobe. When we meet, Sally James is just four months old, but is already extremely well-travelled: “She’s already been to Miami, San Francisco and LA, so she’s a busy baby,” McDonald tells me.
She is also feeling a little bit of the strain, too, of travelling with such a young child. “Oh my goodness, you have to forgive me,” she says, as her coffee misses her mouth. “Our baby is jet-lagged so bad. She was up at 4am, again at 8am and she’s just woken up again now.” The baby’s arrival was entirely unexpected. “She was quite the surprise – I’m 46, and this is not how we are expecting this year to go. Of course we’re thrilled and it’s amazing, but you could have knocked me over with a feather when they gave me the news.”
In fact, this time last year McDonald was preparing to open on Broadway in new musical Shuffle Along, which told the backstory of the creation of a 1921 musical of the same name that made history for having not just a cast, but an entire creative team, that was black. She was also due to take a summer break from the production to reprise her last Tony-winning performance as Billie Holiday at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
But those plans were thrown off course by her pregnancy. As she said at the time: “Who knew that tap dancing during perimenopause could lead to pregnancy? Will and I are completely surprised – and elated – to be expecting a new addition to our family.”
The sad news was that Shuffle Along subsequently closed that July when she left, although she is now finally bringing Lady Day to Wyndham’s this summer.
It will mark her West End acting debut. Why has it taken so long?
“I don’t know. It’s not on my part, but there either hasn’t been the interest or the right show. But I have certainly worked here a lot – we filmed Wit here and also Beauty and the Beast, so I find myself here at least every other year, if not every year. But we’ve never quite gotten to the West End.”
She has also twice appeared at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall – in 1999 in a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in which she played Eileen; in 2002, when she sang songs by Richard Rodgers for the Last Night of the Proms, and again in 2005. She also appeared in London in solo concerts at the Donmar Warehouse (as part of its former Divas the Donmar season in 1999) and last year at Leicester Square Theatre.
Prior to Lady Day, she will also return to Leicester Square for four performances only from April 12-15, to appear in a show that is part-concert, part-talk show, hosted by Broadway musician and personality Seth Rudetsky. This time around she will be joined by her husband Swenson – “we will do a couple of duets, but it’s the interview aspect of it that is a lot of fun. With Seth it is so easy – though you never know what he is going to talk about.”
In the summer of 2014, I saw McDonald and Rudetsky do a version of this impromptu show in a tiny cinema-turned-theatre in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a primarily gay holiday destination; I went to two out of their three shows and they were almost entirely different. I tell her I was there, and she replies with heartfelt words: “P-town is so lovely – I have fallen in love with it, it’s beautiful and so colourful, and the kids can run about and do whatever they want so you know they’re okay and it’s safe.”
Q&A: Audra McDonald
What was your first job? I was in the junior company for a dinner theatre that did a little cabaret before the main musical each night.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t worry – you’re on your path.
Who or what was your biggest influence? It has changed over the years, but now it is my children. Every decision I make is influenced by them.
What’s your best advice for auditions? A friend of mine who has taught me and coached me a lot said: “Go in and be the answer to their problem.” That’s how you hold on to your power – you have to tell them: “You need to cast this part, and I can help you out.”
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I don’t know if I could have done anything else. I’ve always been interested in politics, so maybe something to do with that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I believe in not whistling backstage, and not saying the name of the Scottish play. Rituals depend on the show – I have rituals for each character. When I was doing A Raisin in the Sun with Sean Combs, we began in bed and he would give me 10 kisses and an 11th for luck before the play began.
Activism and depression
As well as her own biological children Zoe and new arrival Sally James, she is also referring to Swenson’s two teenage sons Sawyer and Bridger. But she’s also fond of P-town for its connections to the gay community, which is very close to her heart. “That’s my family,” she says, matter-of-factly. She was a prominent activist for marriage equality (her Twitter handle is @audraequalitymc), and she has served on the advisory board for Broadway Impact, a marriage equality advocacy organisation.
She cites her children today as her biggest influences. “Every decision I make, artistically too, is influenced by them.” And it seems that Zoe has inherited her mother’s activist credentials, as well as her musical ones. “She’s interested in everything. She’s an activist too, which I love. Her dad is a bass player and she plays the bass brilliantly and sings and writes her own songs. She’s going to save the world.”
McDonald has spoken openly in the past about her own struggles with depression. In a 2014 television interview, she revealed: “When I was at Juilliard School, I had a suicide attempt. I tried to slit my wrist.” But she is very grateful for the help she received. “When someone is suicidal, one of the first things you have to do is to protect them from themselves. [Juilliard] had a mental health facilitator there, a therapist there and they checked me into a mental health hospital where I was for a month and got me the help I needed.”
Today, as we talk about our shared history of depression, she says: “We’re like a survivors’ club – it’s like alcoholism, it’s a daily battle – even if one is through the big bumps in the road.” And she admits that the struggle is intensified right now: “In this era of Trump, everyone is already a bit freaked out, but if you have a propensity towards depression, it’s worse.” Coming to London for a few days has been a welcome break from the overpowering negativity of life under Trump, though she’s not entirely downcast. “The pendulum may have swung all the way back, but looking at the Town Hall meetings gives me hope – people are out there protesting.” She reveals that she proudly took part in the Women’s March in New York the day after Trump’s inauguration.
Escapism on stage
Work provides another welcome escape: inhabiting another character “is our own special form of escapism”. Though playing Billie Holiday, as she’s soon going to do again in London, has required her to portray a person with even more demons. How did she come to play this?
“Lonny Price [the director] approached me – he said I was right for it. I said: ‘You’re smoking crack, there’s no possible way I could be right for this, I can’t sing like Billie Holiday.’ But he thought it was something I could do, and I’ve learned now with my 17-year relationship with him just to listen to him and in the end he’s always right. We cut to the chase much quicker now.”
A particular challenge, of course, was embodying a real-life person: “There’s a lot of traps you can fall into when you are playing someone who existed. If it comes out just as impersonation, that’s bad; it has to be an embodiment. You have to live it, not just sound and look like it. That was the challenge with her.”
But it is one she triumphantly met: as Charles Isherwood described her performance in his review for the New York Times: “By burrowing into the music and channeling Holiday’s distinctive sound, she has forged a connection with the great, doomed artist she is portraying that feels truthful and moves well beyond impersonation into intimate identification. When she sings, there appears before us the ghostly image of an artist who could only find equilibrium in her life when she lost herself in her music.”
The role earned her yet another Tony, but when I talk of her phenomenal record of wins, she replies: “You know Mark, I always feel like it happened to someone else. I’m still me. I still don’t get enough sleep and I could afford to lose about 10 pounds. It doesn’t change your life the way you think it is going to. As incredible as it is, I don’t feel it has changed who I am.”
Refining her voice
What did change her, for the better ultimately, she says, was going to Juilliard. She had discovered her gift for singing as a teenager, when she was in a junior company for a dinner theatre in California. “We used to do a little cabaret before the main musical each night, and I would be the one who would step out and belt a tune. No one believes this about me, but my voice used to be very belt-y, because I didn’t know how to do anything else. One of the moms of one of the other kids said that if I wasn’t careful I was going to wreck my voice by the time I was 18 or 19. That really stuck with me, and my mother enrolled me in voice lessons, which helped me to sort of find my ‘head voice’ enough so I could audition for Juilliard.
“I just wanted to go to New York and be on Broadway, but then I was accepted by Juilliard, where they trained me in classical voice. It was great in the end, but at the time I thought: ‘What am I doing here? This is not my path.’ But it was absolutely my path and where I was meant to be. I discovered a whole part of my voice that I didn’t know I had. I don’t think I would have ever discovered it and my voice would have been a different thing if it wasn’t for that.”
Audra McDonald’s top tips
• Get on stage, anywhere and everywhere you can. It doesn’t have to be West End for it to be valuable. The interaction between the audience and performer is the same no matter where it is.
• See everything you possibly can.
• Don’t try to be anyone else – it’s a cliche but it is incredibly true.
Her shimmering operatic soprano came into its own in such Broadway roles as Carrie Pipperidge in the transfer of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in 1994, then playing a young opera singer in Terrence McNally’s 1995 play Master Class, originating the role of Sarah in the 1998 musical Ragtime and starring in Porgy and Bess on Broadway in 2012, winning Tonys on every occasion. Today she admits that Porgy and Bess was a particular challenge: “It was a role that wasn’t meant to be sung eight times a week. I didn’t end up making it – it’s just impossible. The other thing that happens on Broadway is that they don’t put your own voice in the fallbacks – the monitors – so you don’t hear the impact that you’re making in the house and you push yourself more than you need to. When we got into vocal trouble we had to beg and plead to get our voices into the monitors to protect ourselves, and once they did that, we got healthier.”
As well as her extensive stage career, she’s also had a parallel concert career and acted a lot on TV, including a long stint on the series Private Practice. We touch briefly on the issue of diversity, and it’s chastening to hear her describe how she still faces some challenges today, even with her track record.
In 1994, she remembers: “Some people were after me [critical] for being in Carousel – but the show had a man who comes down from heaven with a bright ball of fire who gave it to his daughter. We’ve already suspended our disbelief.” More recently, she says that when she played Mother Superior in a live TV version of The Sound of Music: “My father-in-law heard a presenter on a sports station the day after complaining about my casting. He was so upset, he wrote them a letter telling them he would never listen to it again.”
Such narrow-mindedness on casting is the loss only of those who can’t see past her colour to the warm, witty, wonderful actor that she is. And as London will discover for itself twice over in the months to come: first as herself in concert, then as Billie Holiday.
CV: Audra McDonald
Born: 1970, Berlin, Germany
Training: Juilliard School, classical vocal training, graduated 1993
Landmark productions: Carousel, Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York (1994), Master Class, John Golden Theatre, New York (1995), Ragtime, Ford Center for the Performing Arts, New York (1998), Marie Christine, Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York (1999), A Raisin the Sun, Royale Theatre, New York (2004), 110 in the Shade, Studio 54, New York (2007), Porgy and Bess, Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York (2012), Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Circle in the Square Theatre, New York (2014), Shuffle Along, Music Box Theatre, New York (2016)
Awards: Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical for Carousel (1994), Tony for best actress in a featured role in a play for Master Class (1996), Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical for Ragtime (1998), Tony for best actress in a featured role in a play for A Raisin in the Sun (2004), Tony for best actress in a musical for Porgy and Bess (2012), Tony for best actress in a play for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (2014), National Medal of Arts, the highest American honour for achievement in the arts, presented by Barack Obama (2015)
Agent: David Kalodner and Scott Henderson at WME Entertainment
Audra McDonald is at the Leicester Square Theatre, London, from April 12-15
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, from June 17-September 9