BWW Interviews: A Touring Soprano: Audra McDonald Serenades America This Fall
How do you follow up a Tony Award? Good question. How do you follow up a record-setting fifth Tony Award? Better question.
If you're performer Audra McDonald, your answer would be, by spending an entire season traversing the country in concert; by preparing for the live holiday-season broadcast of THE SOUND OF MUSIC from producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron; and by "work-shopping a new Broadway show that will be announced shortly," as McDonald said in a recent interview. "Needless to say, by the time the holidays arrive, I'll be ready for a vacation!"
By now, of course, McDonald has amassed a store of signing and acting accolades that place her in a rare pantheon. Certainly, there is the record she tied this past June for most Tony Awards for acting, alongside Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury. Add to this a raft of Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle Awards, as well as two Grammy Awards.
There is also her substantial explorations into the world of film and television acting, for which she's most well-known as a principal player in the TV drama "Private Practice" from 2007 to 2011 (more about that later).
And then there are her five solo recordings on the Nonesuch label, the most recent, GO BACK HOME, being her first in seven years. Currently on tour in support of this latest effort, McDonald's appearances are spanning every region of the country in several dozen dates from San Francisco to South Florida.
GO BACK HOME's plaintive, haunting title track was culled from the Kander and Ebb musical THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, a Vineyard Playhouse production McDonald talked about seeing in 2010:
"The show just knocked me out. I was just so moved by the way Kander and Ebb told this story through the use of a minstrel show, but taking it and turning it on its ear. It put a mirror up to show the ugliness of racism during that time in history.
"When I heard 'Go Back Home', I just thought this song speaks so much to what I've been through-my hopes and the things I was thinking about when I was laying in bed in California while shooting 'Private Practice' and wishing I was back home in New York."
As this last quote attests, and as anyone who knows Los Angeles can tell you, Hollywood can be a lonely place; but it's also the world capitol of a great art form, and as such, it's a place where McDonald admits she grew as a performer. For her, the transition away the artifice of a stage performance to the more natural gesture of a filmed medium during her Private Practice years was an informative one:
"I've always been afraid of the camera, and I thought that doing (a) TV show would be a good way to learn how to get over that fear. I wanted to be as comfortable in front of a camera as I am on stage, even though they're completely different muscles...Of course, it was difficult, but that's why I did it."
Indeed, she nails the role of "Private Practice"'s Dr. Naomi Bennett, and her scenes playing against Taye Diggs are especially good. Her chemistry with the former is perfectly calibrated, helped by the complete mastery of the small, intimate gesture both share. Watching her and Diggs spar turns out to be one of the more engrossing parts of the show.
California also happens to be the place McDonald grew up. She's a Central Valley girl from Fresno, where she was directed toward the performing arts early on: "I grew up in a musical family...Musical theater certainly helped me channel my excessive energy as a child...My dad was a pianist and actually played for me at my first audition when I was nine years old, which was for a dinner theater in my hometown of Fresno.
"Growing up in Fresno, I was exposed to both classical music and theater very early on and loved listening to both." This makes California the place she begin amassing her trove of American songbook repertory.
"As I mentioned, I joined a Fresno dinner theater group when I was nine years old and performed with them throughout my childhood. I was learning about 15 to 20 songs per cabaret, so just amassed an incredible library, to the point where I look back on it now and a song will come up from a show I was never in, but I'll know all the words just due to the fact that I was just being exposed to so much of it."