When singer and actress Audra McDonald takes the stage at Mesa Arts Center on Friday night, she won't have her awards with her. But make no mistake: She's one of the most decorated performers of our generation.
McDonald holds the record for Tony Awards for performing (she's got six). She's earned two Grammy Awards, an Emmy and has a list a mile long of other recognitions, including a National Medal of Arts — America’s highest honor for achievement in the field — from President Barack Obama and her 2017 induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Born in West Berlin, West Germany, and raised in Fresno, California, by musical parents, she eventually moved east and
graduated from The Juilliard School in 1993.
She won her first Tony Award a year out of Juilliard as Best Featured Actress in a Musical in "Carousel"; over the next decade she won five more for "Master Class" (Best Featured Actress in a Play, 1996), "Ragtime" (Best Featured Actress in a Musical, 1998), "A Raisin in the Sun" (Best Featured Actress in a Play, 2004), "Porgy and Bess" (Best Actress in a Musical, 2012) and "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" (Best Actress in a Play, 2014).
In addition to her theater career, McDonald is an opera singer, a TV and film actress, a recording artist and a founder and board member of various charities — not to mention a wife to actor Will Swenson, a mother and a stepmother.
Phoenix New Times caught up with McDonald by phone from her home in New York a few weeks before her “An Evening with Audra McDonald” performance celebrating the Great American Songbook at Mesa Arts Center’s Ikeda Theater. Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Phoenix New Times: Do you get tired of people acknowledging your inimitable talents and accomplishments? How hard is it to not take your talent for granted?
Audra McDonald: I guess that’s the wonderful and difficult, challenging and fulfilling and scary part of my performance. It’s all so ephemeral, and then it happens, and it is gone, and you’re only as good as your next performance. You win a Tony Award, and that’s amazing, and an incredible honor, but then the next night you have still have to get out there and do that show, and you have to do it well. I think, especially in theater and in concert, there’s no time for resting on your laurels, literally. And I’m still obsessed with evolution as an artist, and as a human being for that matter.
What music did your parents play at home while you were growing up that has stayed with you all these years?
Both my grandmothers were piano teachers. My dad was a music high school teacher. My mother sang and played the piano. All of my dad’s sisters sang. There was always music. There was classical, jazz, there was gospel, there was theater, there was — at the time, we weren’t calling it yacht rock yet — but there was certainly yacht rock playing in the house, in the '70s and '80s. There was disco, there was Earth, Wind and Fire. I was taking piano lessons and I was in this theater troupe, and I remember my parents would have "Biggest Hits of the '80s" songbook, so I would learn how to play “Fame,” or I remember learning how to play “Killing Me Softly with His Song” or “Time in a Bottle.” It was that constant exposure.
As your upcoming show in Mesa covers the Great American Songbook, could you pick a song from your current 17-song setlist that best exemplifies who Audra McDonald is and means the most to you?
"Bein' Green" by Jerry Raposo, the song I obviously learned as a kid. I’m sure you learned it as a kid. You didn’t really think about it back then [except that] Kermit’s singing it. So yeah, it must be hard being green. And then to grow up in this world being ... in some ways a marginalized member being that I am a minority, both female and Black. I thought about how other people can be othered or marginalized in society or a community, and how to find self-love and self-acceptance.
What does someone like Andy Einhorn, who is your personal conductor, director, touring pianist and best buddy, do to inspire you night after night?
Andy is remarkable because he is not only a remarkable conductor, arranger, a vocal coach, pianist, musician — he’s a remarkable person. He’s a very old soul and he keeps me calm, and that’s what I need more than anything because I have fire-like energy that’s flitting and floating everywhere at all times, whether that’s good or bad, anxious or excited. Andy brings down my temperature and gets me into a calm place, and then he has this wonderful sense of humor. He knows how to make me laugh, usually seconds before we walk out onto stage. He just puts it all in perspective for me.
Life on the road is not easy for any entertainer. How do you stay rested, keep your vocal cords healthy and limber, stay passionate about performing and deal with the tour?
It's a monastic life you have to live. People say, "Oh, you’re visiting all these amazing cities." Yeah, they’re amazing, and I get to see the airport, see the hotel, see the car that takes me to the backstage, see the backstage and see the audience, and then do all that in reverse. So, it’s not a glamorous life at all. And any second I can, when I’m not on the road, I’m trying to get back home for my family. So it means I don’t drink, I don’t go out and party. I’m in my hotel unless I’m in the theater. I wear masks.
It’s funny: The other day somebody went after me on Instagram because I posted a picture of me with a mask on an airplane, and they’re like, "Oh God ... whatever, COVID, blah, blah, blah," and I was like, "Dude, I’m a singer. I don’t want to get sick at all, and all I do is get on airplanes. And also, I don’t have to explain to you why I wear a mask, for my own safety. And if I get sick, I can’t work.” My voice is my paycheck.
What are the key elements of performing the Great American Songbook that are the most important to you and make you so passionate about them and able to stay passionate about night in and night out about them?
I can’t really connect with what I’m doing unless it’s on an emotional level. There’s a phrase that Billie Holiday used to say, ‘If I can’t feel it, I can’t sing it’, and that resonates with me. So, I make sure what my objectives are with every song I’m singing, what the character’s journey, for stage, and if I’m doing a concert, then it’s my connection to me and my journey as I sing it. There has to be a why behind everything I do on stage, otherwise, I don’t feel the impetus to do it.
While this book is an integral part of your singing career, are there any songs you feel should be a part of it that are not, and should the Great American Songbook be limited to music from the 1920s to the '60s?
Some of the greatest Sondheim works were written after the '60s. There are some incredible composers out there now, there’s [Jeanine] Tesori, [Adam] Guettel; Kirsten Childs's work is beautiful, that’s out there right now. That is just as glorious as what was going on in the '60s. Perhaps not as iconic, but I think to the generation that is coming up within the musical theater now, they’re gonna look back on it as iconic.
Musically, what is the next big thing for Audra McDonald?
We recently did a live performance with an orchestra in London that at some point will be available because it was recorded. Also, I know that I do want to get back onstage in another musical. I can’t ever stay away from the stage too long. It’s good to trade off because my husband is onstage right now. So, it’s good to have at least one of us at home at night.