Interview: Audra McDonald talks about AN EVENING WITH AUDRA MCDONALD, her role in 'Rustin' and more

Celebrity Series of Boston presents Tony Award-winner at Symphony Hall on February 27

By: Feb. 23, 2024
Interview: Audra McDonald talks about AN EVENING WITH AUDRA MCDONALD, her role in 'Rustin' and more
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Interview: Audra McDonald talks about AN EVENING WITH AUDRA MCDONALD, her role in 'Rustin' and more

When it comes to concerts, Audra McDonald says she’s learned to choose a song list that really appeals to her. And she’s done just that for her current tour, which will bring her to Symphony Hall for her eighth appearance with the Celebrity Series of Boston, this time with an orchestra of local musicians, on February 27.

“The songs either make me happy or speak truth to where we are in the world today, or both. Theater is my first language so they’ll almost all be from the Broadway songbook by people like George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, and others,” explained McDonald by telephone recently from her home outside New York City.

“My music director, Andy Einhorn, and I worked very hard to curate this program,” she says. “Because I wanted to serve up a whole meal.”

As part of that meal, the singer has moved up a song long on the back burner.

“I do Jerry Herman’s ‘Before the Parade Passes By’ because I finally feel ready for it. It’s like putting on a pair of shoes I can wear now. I’ve done music from ‘Hello, Dolly!’ previously, but not this song. It didn’t feel right before, but, at 53, it does now,” says the performer with palpable enthusiasm. “I’m also doing something very familiar by John Kander and Fred Ebb for the first time. I’m not going to name it now, though, because I want it to be a surprise.”                                                                                                                                                           

Broadway audiences are always ready for McDonald—a 2015 Emmy winner as host of “Live from Lincoln Center,” and a two-time Grammy winner in 2008 for Best Classical Album and Best Opera Recording for “Weill: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”— who won the first of a record six Tony Awards as Carrie Pipperidge in the 1994 Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel.”

The West Berlin-born, Juilliard-trained performer has since picked up Broadway’s highest honor for 1996’s “Master Class,” 1998’s “Ragtime,” the 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the 2011 revival  “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which was directed by Diane Paulus and originated at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, and 2014’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” She is the only person ever to win in all four acting categories.

McDonald was also honored with the National Medal of Arts in 2016, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2017.

McDonald’s legion of loyal fans know that the luminous soprano will perform a program of time-tested show tunes and American Songbook standards, likely including “Make Someone Happy,” with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which appears on her 2013 CD “Go Back Home” and which she calls her “mantra,” from the 1960 musical “Do Re Mi,” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” the Harold Arlen ballad with lyrics by Yip Harburg from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I never leave home without those two,” she says with a laugh.

“I used to believe that my concert music had to be different on each tour, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I know that when people come to see me, they expect to hear certain songs. One of those is ‘Summertime,’ which I love to do,” she says of the Gershwin aria, with lyrics by DuBose Heyward, from 1935’s “Porgy and Bess.”

And while there will be a healthy serving of familiar favorites, contemporary music will also be on the menu.

“My daughter Zoe introduced me to R&B singer Emily King. She said, ‘Mom, you have to hear her music, it’s great,’” recalls McDonald. “Zoe was right. She is terrific and so is her music, including the song I’m doing, “I Love Today,” which was written by her talented mother Kim Kalesti. It’s a song about being grateful for the moment – perfect for what Andy and I are doing with this show.”

These days, McDonald is not only giving concerts, she’s also busy with film and television projects – with featured roles in Ava DuVernay’s new film, “Origin,” the 2023 movie “Down Low,” and the HBO series “The Gilded Age.” McDonald can also be seen as Ella Baker, a human rights activist often described as the most influential woman in the Civil Rights Movement, in “Rustin,” an autobiographical feature about Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights activist who, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

“I had heard of Ella Baker, of course, but from working on ‘Rustin,’ I learned so much more about the way she did her work – empowering communities to organize and find their own voices,” says McDonald. “While preparing to play her, I spoke with many former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members, who were youngsters in the 1960s and were inspired by Miss Baker to tap into themselves.”

McDonald also credits Baker as being among those who inspired her own activism. Since its founding in 2020, the performer has been a leader in Black Theatre United, an organization that seeks to inspire reform and combat systematic racism within the theatre community and beyond. For the past decade, McDonald has also been a board member of Covenant House International, which oversees programs for homeless youth in the U.S. and six other countries.

In 2012, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) honored McDonald and her husband, fellow Broadway actor Will Swenson (“A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical”), both longtime allies of the LGBTQ+ community, with the Straight for Equality in Entertainment Award.

Married since October 2012, McDonald and Swenson have a family which includes their seven-year-old daughter Sally James McDonald-Swenson, McDonald’s older daughter Zoe Madeline, from her first marriage, and Swenson’s two sons, Bridger and Sawyer, from his first marriage.

Eight months into a concert tour which, in May, will take her to Australia, the versatile performer is sanguine when asked if she is missing Broadway.

“Yes and no. I’m never away from it that long. I feel like I just finished ‘Ohio State Murders,’” she says of the Adrienne Kennedy drama that had a limited run at the James Earl Jones Theatre in late 2022 through early 2023 and earned her a 2023 Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play.

While no formal announcement has yet been made, the star is reportedly set to play Momma Rose in a revival of “Gypsy” in the 2024–25 season, so McDonald may not be missing Broadway for long.

Photos of Audra McDonald by Allison Michael Orenstein.




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