Audra McDonald is renowned for her soaring, operatic soprano and perfect diction, which can bring audiences to tears when she’s singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” or win laughs when she and Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon sing the answers to inane Yahoo questions.
In her latest Broadway star turn, the five-time Tony Award winner puts a new spin on her immense vocal gifts as Billie Holiday in the Broadway premiere of Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Taking the stage in a strapless white gown at Circle in the Square Theatre, which has been transformed into a 1950s nightclub, McDonald captures Holiday’s charismatic stage presence and quirky, sometimes guttural enunciation. Backed by a jazz trio, she performs 14 songs and seduces the audience with tales from the iconic singer’s life and career. It’s a mammoth role, made even more fascinating by the need for McDonald to leave all traces of herself at the stage door.
“I’ve had to throw my voice completely out the window,” she affirms with a rueful laugh. “If I’m speaking like Billie Holiday and then start to sing like Audra, it doesn’t make sense. There’s the Baltimore accent [to master] as well as her vocal stylings. Ditching my own speaking and singing voice on a nightly basis — as well as being the only person talking for an hour and a half — is the biggest challenge I’ve ever had.”
Though she recalls listening to Holiday’s records as a child with her late father, McDonald admits she didn’t always feel an affinity for the tragic figure behind the music. Among the revelations in Lady Day: Born to a teenage mother and an absent father, Billie Holiday was raped at 10, jailed for prostitution at 13, fell in love with a series of abusive men, jailed again in 1947 for heroin possession, and died of cirrhosis and heart disease at age 44 in 1959, four months after the play is set.
“I remember being afraid of her,” McDonald says of Holiday. “I don’t want to say I was judgmental, but I vaguely understood that she was a lady who did drugs, got beat up a lot, and died young. Once I got this role I really started to study her, and now I love her. She was such a complicated and misunderstood woman, so deep and flawed and beautiful. Embodying her every night, I feel like I get to be her defender.”
Given Holiday’s Dickensian early life, it’s a wonder she achieved as much as she did, from introducing the still-astonishing antilynching anthem “Strange Fruit” and touring the South with Artie Shaw’s band to her indelible recordings and sold-out 1947 Carnegie Hall concert. Frank Sinatra cited her as his single greatest musical influence. Notes McDonald, “For her to have ascended to the heights that she did is no small miracle.”
The 43-year-old actress is tackling Lady Day at a particularly busy time for her family. Her husband, actor Will Swenson, recently opened to critical acclaim as Inspector Javert in the latest Broadway revival of Les Misérables. The couple met in 2007 when they shared the Broadway stage in 110 in the Shade, married in October 2012, and live in New York’s Westchester County with her 13-year-old daughter, Zoe (named after McDonald’s Master Class costar Zoe Caldwell), and his sons, 13-year-old Bridger and 10-year-old Sawyer.
“My life is always crazy,” McDonald says with a laugh, noting that the three children, whom she lovingly dubbed “my wee posse” in her most recent Tony acceptance speech, attend different schools and juggle tons of activities. “When we’ve got the kids, we’re up before 6 a.m.,” she says. “For Will and me, a perfect night when we are alone and not working is to take a nap. Anytime we can go to sleep, it’s like a party.”
Both McDonald and Swenson may find themselves in contention at the 2014 Tony Awards, when the actress could take home a record-breaking sixth prize in the one acting category she hasn’t yet won, best actress in a play. Her award shelf already holds Tonys for best featured actress in a musical (Carousel and Ragtime), best featured actress in a play (Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun), and best actress in a musical (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess). Past productions of Lady Day have referred to it as “a play with music,” but the Tony Administration Committee will have final say on how the show is classified.
“I understand people’s interest [in the Tonys], but it’s nothing I have any control over,” says McDonald, who is currently tied with Angela Lansbury and the late Julie Harris as Broadway’s most honored star. “I’m a person who does shows, and [awards] have nothing to do with me, in an odd way. I’m just grateful this role has come my way.”
It’s been 20 years since the Juilliard graduate burst onto the Broadway scene as Carrie Pipperidge in Lincoln Center Theatre’s revival of Carousel, an inspired bit of casting she now characterizes as a fluke. “In the same time period, I had auditioned to be in the ensemble of Beauty and the Beast,” she recalls. “I just wanted to be on Broadway; that’s all I cared about. Everything that has happened since has been mind-blowing.”
McDonald’s success has been an inspiration for African American actresses who long to play roles like Olivia in Twelfth Night (which McDonald did in Central Park opposite Anne Hathaway) or Lizzie Curry in 110 in the Shade. Her advice to young women who long to be the next Audra: “If you think you are right for a role, don’t ever say, ‘They won’t cast me because I’m black, so I shouldn’t even try.’ If there’s an open call to play Maria in The Sound of Music and you’ve got those notes, go in. You might change somebody’s mind.”
After her limited engagement in Lady Day, McDonald is reportedly prepping a Broadway revival of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning ’night, Mother, in which she’ll play the suicidal daughter of Oprah Winfrey. “I can’t comment on that,” she says cheerfully, but the in-demand star will make her 18th appearance at Carnegie Hall on December 12.
For now, her focus is on Billie Holiday, with whom she shares a deep emotional connection to every song. “She was a singular artist in the way she interpreted music, and that’s incredibly inspirational to me,” McDonald says. “I just want to do Billie justice.”