Getting to Know Audra McDonald
Getting to Know Audra McDonald

Getting to Know… Audra McDonald

Getting to Know… is a new series that will highlight visionary creatives in the theater industry as told by the opinions of their friends and peers. 

How would you describe the vocal powerhouse that is Audra McDonald? If you only had a few minutes to convince a stranger that she was the greatest living performer, what is the one song that would you tell them to listen to?

Broadway Direct asked a collection of artists and theater professionals to try and do just that: talk about the song that made them fall in love with Audra McDonald, six-time Tony Award winner and founding member of Black Theatre United.

After many complaints of “how can I choose just one song?!” and “how long do we have to talk,” here’s what they came up with. 

Cody Renard Richard
Stage manager (Freestyle Love Supreme, Hamilton) and founder of the Cody Renard Richard Scholarship that encourages more Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals to pursue degrees in the theatrical management and artistic fields. 

Can you imagine working with royalty? THAT’S what it’s like working with Audra. It’s the combination of it all. In an interview with The New Yorker, Audra said “You need to do what you can to make more space. Every time that we are able to get into the room, I think it’s your job to create more space. I can’t tell you how many young African-American women, students, or whatnot, come up to me and say, “I watched you as a kid, and I remember thinking, if she’s doing Broadway, then I can do it. And I can do it as a soprano. I don’t have to do it in the way that society would mainly see me—a sassy beltress.” And it’s exactly that. She means so much to so many people. The doors she’s knocked down and the path she’s cleared for so many of us by just being herself and sharing her gift is what makes her so loved.

How can you pick one? I’ll have to go with a song that she sang for the gala performance we did together, which was a mashup of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” and Sondheim’s “Some Other Time.” She performs “Somewhere” frequently, but I hadn’t heard her do the two together before. I think given the time that we are in during the pandemic and my missing the theatre made this mash-up hit home so hard. Listening to her voice soar in a nearly empty theatre singing “We’ll find a new way of living. We’ll find a way of forgiving. Somewhere. There’s a place for us, a time and place for us. Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there. Somehow, someday, somewhere!” Agh, GOOSEBUMPS.

(Editor’s note: City Center’s Gala was a paid fundraiser for the theater and the footage is unable to stream. However, enjoy Audra performing “Somewhere” from West Side Story at the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors.)

Lynn Ahrens
Tony Award and Drama Desk Award-winning lyricist (Ragtime, Once on this Island, Seussical)

The first time I heard Audra sing was in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Carousel in 1995. I remember sitting up, leaning forward, and silently slapping my cheek in that “gobsmacked” way and thinking, “Who’s that!!?” And then I went into a stunned brain space as I absorbed her extraordinary voice and presence. At that moment, I knew I would try my best to work with her. It had to happen. What’s not to love about Audra? Her one-of-a-kind musicality. Her astonishing artistry. Her absence of attitude. The truthfulness you sense in every note. Her fearless risk-taking. Her political engagement. Her sense of humor. Her modesty. Her intelligence. I could go on and on.

Whatever she’s singing at the moment is my favorite. But I am extremely fond of her rendition of “Come Down From the Tree,” which is a cut song from Once On This Island. The song has been interpreted in a number of different ways, but her rendition is very tender. It sounds like a loving life lesson to someone very young. I’m moved by it every time.

Shereen Pimentel
Broadway performer (Maria in the current revival of West Side Story, The Lion King)

Audra is able to take anything in any medium, it doesn’t matter what it is, and it’s always good. She’ll do a musical, a play, a tv show… it doesn’t matter. It’s phenomenal and you will never be disappointed. She is such a giving performer. When Au performs, you see so much of the person within her. She’s giving to the audience all of the time. Truly, she is my idol. I just want to be the kind of person she is, like that kind of light. I don’t know if I’d be the same person or performer that I am now had I not known her.

“I’ll Be Here.” I was floored. Audra performed this at this concert that I watched and, first of all, I was sobbing. The story itself is just so beautiful. During the concert, she just pulled out a stool, sat down, and sang the song what felt like directly to you, as if you’re the only person in the room. It’s something that I think can be so rare when you see someone perform, the ability to make the song truly their own and make it touch every single person in the audience. It’s beautiful.

Will Swenson 
Tony-nominated Broadway performer (Hair, Les Miserables, 110 in the Shade) and husband of Audra McDonald

Audra is a freight train. If you’re not ready to show up with about 8,000% of your energy and guts, you should probably just get out of the room. I was the understudy for Starbuck [in 110 in the Shade], and when I got to go on and play opposite her, I’ve never been more simultaneously intimidated, and enthralled. She’s that perfect unicorn combination of hard work,  and the perfect sound, coupled with honest, raw, and real emotion. It’s instantly moving and accessible, an extension of who she is as a person. I believe that it’s that kind of need to help, her endless ability to sacrifice, and her dedication to humanity that informs her truth and magnetism on stage.

I guess from a technical standpoint, I love to hear her sing “Make Someone Happy.” It’s just so perfect and pure and soaring. And the message is just… everything. But personally, I’d say “Edelweiss.” Her father used to sing it to her, and my mother used to sing it to me. I also played the guitar part for it on her album, so it’s super personal.