Audra McDonald In Oz

Audra McDonald In Oz

Self-confessed fangirl Coral Drouyn speaks to six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, on her way for an Australian concert tour in May.

ICON: - “A person or thing that is revered - someone or something regarded as embodying the essential  characteristics of an era, group, etc.”

Audra McDonald is an Icon, the quintessential Broadway star of musical theatre, concerts, drama, opera, recordings, television and film. Perhaps the only other living Broadway Icon is her male counterpart, Mandy Patinkin (if you haven’t heard them together singing “Tonight” from West Side Story, put it on your bucket list). They are special people, imbued with something beyond talent, great though that is.

Both have the power to evoke deep emotion, and to change the way we react, feel, and even think. Both are touched by gifts most of us can barely imagine. They are transcendent. And both are aware of the responsibility those gifts bring; they are activists in the most positive ways, constantly putting themselves on the line for what they believe in, in the hope of effecting change in the world around us. They are also, though it’s of little consequence, my two favourite stage performers in the entire world.

And that’s enough about Mandy – until his next tour. Audra McDonald is a tour de force on her own – and we have the chance to see her live in all our capital cities this May, only a matter of weeks away. I, for one, can’t wait.

So, what is it about Ms McDonald that sets her apart?

Well, obviously there’s the voice, a soaring lyric soprano that is as pure as the finest rain, and as soft as silk. Amazingly it can embrace opera, musicals and even jazz standards.

That would be enough for most artistes, but it’s complemented by astonishingly good looks and grace, and a large dose of “sass” which gives her a charismatic presence whenever she sets foot on stage. Somehow, she manages to transcend the limitations of racial ethnicity or type casting in a role and because she is so committed to what she does, she convinces us that every character she plays is real.

Audra comes from a musical family and was performing standards by the age of ten. She fondly remembers singing “The White Cliffs of Dover” in cabaret as a child. It’s hard to get your head around any similarity between Vera Lynn and Audra. The mind boggles.

Her early training came from being a member of the Good Company Players, a dinner theatre version of our community theatres and she has said in the past, “Everything I know about theatre, I first learned there. I honed it, maybe, as the years went on, but it was all learned at the Good Company Players.”

Although she studied classical singing at Juilliard, it was always Broadway that held the most attraction for her. That was her aim, and she made it, winning her first Tony Award when she was only 23, just a year after graduating from Juilliard.

And yet there was a time when she might have taken a different path altogether, especially had it not been for those young performances in her hometown of Fresno. I asked her if there was ever a time when she might have chosen another career.

“I had a dream of being an architect. I was so into Legos and building houses with my Legos and blocks and stuff as a kid, all the way up into my teens. That was a sort of secret idea of a career that I thought about as a kid, and it's no wonder because I so enjoy renovating houses and things like that now that it makes sense,” Audra told me.

I’m happy she decided on theatre instead. Good architects are hard to find, but great artistes are priceless. Fortunately, Audra keeps the dream alive whenever there’s a new home to decorate. “That bug is still in there, but not a career.”

At 53 she is the most awarded performer to ever set foot on a stage anywhere, with a staggering 80 nominations resulting in 26 wins. On her mantlepiece are six Tony awards (nominated 10 times) – three of them before she turned 28, plus two Emmys and a Grammy, along with a slew of other awards, yet she somehow manages to stay grounded.

Only last year she told the NY Times, after being nominated for yet another award, “The real joy is in the work.” I’m pretty sure that being inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2017 wouldn’t have turned her head either. And why would it? When you’ve played everything from Gershwin to Shakespeare, there are no limitations.

There’s even an Australian connection in Audra’s life. Her second Tony award was for Best Supporting Actress in Master Class which starred the great Australian actress Zoe Caldwell, who took home the Best Actress Tony for the same play. The two bonded closely and Audra’s daughter is named Zoe.

And yet, in the strange world we live in, Broadway isn’t enough to make you a household name. Most of the world’s population will never see a Broadway show, but just about everybody on earth watches television. It’s doubtful that many of the audience of Private Practise on “the box” realised that Dr Naomi Bennett was in fact a national theatrical treasure. It’s one of those strange paradoxes in the world of entertainment. Television can make you a household name, a superstar, while theatre is still considered elitist by so many people.

For many of us, the combination of Audra and Christine Baranski in the quirky and satirical The Good Fight became compulsive viewing, giving us hope that popular television could be as cerebral and satisfying as live theatre.

Then there’s a Screen Actors Guild nomination for The Gilded Age – a fabulous series that manages to make Downton Abbey look pallid…and two new movies on release, Rustin (which features in this year’s Oscars) and Origin, which she has been actively promoting. It seems she never stops working.

But for Audra, no matter what the medium, she makes a huge impact, so I asked her what her favourite platform was.

Not surprisingly she told me, “I love them all, but my first language is live theatre.”

There really is nothing like the immediacy of walking on a stage and feeling that wave of love from an audience. Every performer cherishes that above all else.

And that’s why we will get to see her take to the concert stage in May after a whirlwind concert tour of the USA.  It’s seven years since she has performed here, and only Melbourne and Sydney got to see her on that trip – but Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane have been added on this occasion.

Then it’s back home for a break, and a chance to hang out with her rescue dogs. Not even Audra can be an Icon 365 days a year. I asked her if there is a role, regardless of age or gender, that she would dearly love to play. Her answer? “I would love to be Sweeney in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.”

Why am I not surprised! Erasing gender boundaries would be a breeze for the lady who once said we should “pay attention to the talent, not the colour”.

Dates for Australia

Perth – May 4, 2024 at the Crown Theatre Perth.

Adelaide – May 8, 2024 at Her Majesty's Theatre.

Sydney – May 11, 2024 at the Sydney Opera House.

Brisbane – May 15, 2024 at QPAC Concert Hall.

Melbourne – May 17, 2024 at Hamer Hall.

Subscribe to our E-Newsletter, buy our latest print edition or find a Performing Arts book at Book Nook.