Monday, March 11, 2024

A conversation with Audra McDonald, who is appearing with Seth Rudetsky at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on March 23

Audra McDonald

by Gil Benbrook

Audra McDonald is a consummate performer. With an incredibly clear soprano voice, an intense emotional connection to every song she sings, as well as a down to earth personal perspective, it is no wonder she has won a half dozen Tonys for her various Broadway appearances. 

McDonald appears in concert on Saturday, March 23rd at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts with Sirius/XM "On Broadway" host Seth Rudetsky for an evening where anything can happen as Rudetsky accompanies McDonald and interviews her between songs. It promises to be an intriguing and insightful night featuring plenty of songs from the many Broadway shows she has starred in along with backstage stories, an in-depth discussion of her past and her experience working on many TV shows and films interspersed between the songs.

This is the second concert in the "Seth Rudetksy Concert Series" this season at Scottsdale Arts which feature Rudetsky accompanying and interviewing a different performer. McDonald has appeared twice before in this series at Scottsdale Arts, including one time that featured McDonald with her husband, Broadway performer Will Swenson.

Before she gets to Scottsdale and interviewed by Rudetsky during the upcoming concert, McDonald took a few moments to sit down to answer a few of our questions.

Your stage repertoire spans various genres from classic musical theater to contemporary dramas, how do you approach the unique challenges of each genre? And do you have a preference?

Audra McDonald: "I approach everything the same way, and that's trying to find the truth within the piece, whether it be a piece of music, a play, a musical, or a song. Whatever it is, I'm looking for the truth and how best to express that. The truth of the character, the truth within the story, getting down to that part of performance which is most human."

In your illustrious stage career, you've won a record-breaking six Tony Awards for both lead and supporting roles, and in both plays and musicals. How does it feel to be recognized by your peers in such a profound way? What do these accolades mean to you? And my favorite part of the question, where do you display your Tonys and other awards?

"It has been an incredible honor to receive such recognition from my peers. It has exceeded my wildest dreams, the dreams I had growing up in Fresno, California, of wanting to become a Broadway star. So to have received such recognition from my peers is incredible. It's not why I do it; I do it for the work. Performing fulfills me, and it feels like it's my calling. So the awards are amazing, but that's not why I do it in the end.

And as far as where I keep my Tonys, we have them on top of a bookshelf in my living room, but we have them all kind of toppled over in different directions to make it look like modern art, so that even though they are displayed in my home, I don't take myself too seriously, which is hard to do in a house with four kids that have never taken me seriously anyway!"

You've originated many roles in musical theater, have also taken on several iconic parts such as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and Bess in Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess. What was it like stepping into such classic musical theater roles and how did you make them your own?

"Stepping into classic music theater roles can be quite daunting because everybody already has an expectation of how they are to be done and who should be doing them. And I've had quite a few instances in my career where I've been able to take on roles that people wouldn't necessarily have thought me right for.

So I make them my own by excavating every last bit of information about the character that I possibly can. I research the heck out of each one of them, the time in which they lived, the social norms and mores of the day, etc. The I can delve into what makes them tick, what makes them human, what makes them interesting, what journey they are going on. From there I can start the work of trying to incorporate who I am as a human being, as a person, and hopefully somewhere along the way the two will meet in my performance. I do my best to try not to emulate any other performance I've seen, but to make it my own."

In addition to your acting and singing talents, you're also a passionate activist and philanthropist. Can you tell us about some of the causes that are closest to your heart and why they are important to you?

"I'm on the International Board of Directors of the Covenant House, which is an organization that houses at-risk and homeless youth in three different countries and that work is very important to me. I feel like it's a way of giving back and putting good into the world, recognizing that everyone deserves an opportunity to live their best life.

I'm also one of the founders of Black Theater United which is an organization that’s objective is to protect Black lives, Black bodies and Black talent in theater and in the world in general, and to make sure that we are promoting as much diversity within the theatrical community, both on stage and off, as we possibly can.

And of course, I've been involved with issues of LGBTQIA+ equality and treatment, just for their rights and civil rights, as well. That's very important to me."

What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing the theater industry today and how can we work towards a more equitable future?

"I think one of the biggest issues is not having enough diverse people in the rooms, and not necessarily just in the rooms as performers, but in the rooms where the creation of these pieces is happening so that they get to be storytellers as well. I think that's a big issue. And then, making sure that we do everything we can to invite a more diverse audience into the theater. And finally, in all of it, there needs to be safety for all people within the theater community to be able to create and tell stories a diverse array of stories. That's one thing that I find very important and necessary to do, and we start by awareness, conversation, and then, action.

In your concerts, you've often told humorous stories about how your children don't like to hear you sing. As they've gotten older, please, tell us that this has changed. 

"Yes! For my older kids, yes, it has changed. Of course, they're living their own lives now. Three of the four kids spend most of their time outside of the home now and are grownups now and, yes, they're very appreciative of what we do for a living now, my husband being a performer as well. The younger one is very into performing now. She loves it and has an amazing voice, but she still has a hard time going to our shows because it still freaks her out a little bit, because 'that's mom up on stage and that's dad up on stage and what are they doing? Why aren't they waving at me, or she's singing too loud.' So, the younger one still has a little bit of an issue with it, but the older ones are all good. I guess, they're converts now!"

What can audiences expect from your upcoming concert with Seth Rudetsky at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts?

"The great thing about the concerts with Seth Rudetsky is that while I could tell you what the audience can expect, I myself as a performer, don't know what to expect, because Seth is really good at keeping me on my toes. He has access to basically everything I've ever sung, and he picks and chooses in the moment what he wants me to sing. And I rarely know about it until, usually, about four seconds before he's saying, 'Let’s do this one!' So, it's very spontaneous. Seth and I have been friends for about 32 years. so, it'll be a lot of fun, with a lot of banter, conversation and singing. I hope he sticks to repertoire of songs I've sung within the past 15 years!"

You recently revisited Ragtime in the 25th anniversary concert last year. Are there any other roles you've played that you'd be interested to return to?

"That's an interesting question. I think a concert version for revisiting roles is the way to go, because, obviously, there is no such thing as a 53-year-old Sarah in Ragtime. But yes, I would love to revisit Lady Day at some point, and I think I would love to revisit the role of Suzanne Alexander in Ohio State Murders. I would've liked to have had more time to live in that role."

For the past two years, you've also had a supporting role on the TV series, The Gilded Age. How important was it for you to be a part of this series that even though it's set in the late 1800s, has a black main character, and depicts a wealthy class of black people of which your character is one, and doesn't just relegate the black actors to play members of the house staff of the wealthy white families. 

"Even in the 1880s, yes, there were Black people of all different types in all different classes! It's important for all those histories to be brought to the forefront and that's why it was important for me to be a part of this. Before I read the scripts, I was very leery of it, and I thought, oh, gosh, what servant do they want me to play? And then, when I read it and said, oh my goodness, they're actually going to look at black people in this very three-dimensional way, instead of just as the quiet servant in the background observing white life. So, I was very excited to be able to bring that history to television audiences, and, hopefully, give a bit of education about a part of American history that is not taught."

What was the best piece of career advice you were ever given, and what advice would you give to a young performer today who was looking to go into musical theater?

"The advice I would give a young performer is always 'Be your own champion.' Never say no to yourself. If you believe that you are right for something, do all the work to make sure that you are prepared for when that opportunity comes.

Don't say, 'Well, no one will ever see me as that role, and therefore, I won't even try.' Let the world say no to you, don't say no to yourself. That's the advice I would give to a young performer.

The best advice I ever got about character work was from Zoe Caldwell when she came to see me in Marie Christine, which was a musical version of Medea set in New Orleans. Zoe was an acting great and one of the greatest interpreters of the role of Medea. She came backstage and she said, 'Stop trying to get the audience to like you. That is not your job. Your job is to tell your character's story with the most truth that you possibly can. Don't try to get them to like you.'

And that was so empowering and freeing in that moment, to stop worrying about whether they liked me. But she said, 'Get the audience to understand why you do what you do. Not to like you.' And that's everything.

Looking ahead, are there any dream roles or projects that you've yet to tackle but hope to in the future?


Ha! Great and very vague response! 

What do you hope audiences will take away from your upcoming concert in Scottsdale?

I’m hoping they will feel that they know me a little better. By the time the concert's over, they'll know a bit of who I am as a fellow soul on this planet, and that they will have a good time and feel like it was just a fun evening of song and conversation with them, Seth and myself.

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