by Patricia Grandjean
Apr 3, 2013
06:29 AMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: Audra McDonald
If there are any singers, actors, or opera stars out there possessed of more poise and good humor than Audra McDonald, 42, we have yet to talk to them. So far in her career she’s snagged seven Tony nominations and five statues (for her performances in Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess), a record that’s tied only by theater grande dames Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury. Offstage, she’s passionate about the cause of marriage equality; her prominent advocacy earned her PFLAG’s Straight for Equality Award in 2012. Fans of McDonald the singer can catch her April 6 at Stamford’s Palace Theatre, in a performance hosted by the Stamford Symphony Orchestra. For more info call (203) 325-4466 or visit stamfordcenterforthearts.org.
What are you planning to sing at your Stamford performance?
I’m going to do songs from my new album. The title is Go Back Home, and that’s a Kander and Ebb song from their last musical together, The Scottsboro Boys. I’ll also be doing some Jule Styne, some Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Piazza”), some Michael John LaChiusa (“The Wild Party”). It’ll be a mixture of the old and new. On my last album I stayed away from songs from musical theater, and this is quite literally going back home.
What drew you to the idea of featuring songs from The Scottsboro Boys?
It's a show I saw at the Vineyard Theater before it moved to Broadway. It absolutely knocked me out: the performances, the story, the music. The wonderful thing about Kander and Ebb is that we know them for their wonderful satirical work like Chicago and Cabaret and iconic songs like “New York, New York,” and those are certainly of a specific style, working off of a Kurt Weill influence. They also write incredibly lyrical, assuring songs as well. I’m doing two of them on my album as well as in concert: one from Steel Pier called “First, You Dream,” and the other being “Go Back Home.” And they’re just beautiful, lyric, soaring, aching—what we call “I Want” songs. Meaning there’s a major desire in them. I was drawn to that almost sentimental style . . . I don’t mean that in a negative way, because I think sometimes people will say, “It’s sentimental,” meaning it’s derivative. That’s not the case—they’re sentimental and soaring and old-fashioned and beautiful. A joyous thing.
I’m also doing some Sondheim. They’ll be some other songs that I’ve just started singing recently, and am not necessarily putting on the album. There’ll be some of my old favorites, too: Some Bock and Harnick, and some newer composers. There’s a very talented young man out there named Adam Gwon who done some beautiful songs for a musical revue called Ordinary Days; I’ll be singing one of those songs. Just a great eclectic mixture.
For you, what makes a song worth singing?
There’s no rhyme or reason. I get asked that question quite a bit and I wish I had a more scientific answer for you. It just always has to be a song I can get “inside” and tell the story. If I can’t find my way in through the story or something that I want to say, then I won’t want to sing it. That’s not necessarily a judgement on the song, it’s just knowing who I am as an artist, whether I can bring it to life. There are a bunch of songs that I think are fantastic, that I love listening to and hearing other people sing. But I just know for a fact that I could never pull them off.
Are there songs you just love to death but would never dare sing?
Yes. “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” that’s one. [laughs] It’s something I don’t think I could do well vocally. Yet I adore it, and I love singing along in the shower to Barbra Streisand. “Glitter and Be Gay,” I think that’s a fun song and I love listening to Barbara Cook sing it, but I don’t think it’s something I could do. On the other hand, someday I’d like to be like Patti Lupone and attempt to sing the soliloquy from “Carousel.” That’s something I feel I could do; it’d be kind of fun.
One of the surprising songs you've done, and I love the way you do it, is John Mayer's "My Stupid Mouth."
When I first heard that song—I’m not really hip to the pop world and I had no idea who John Mayer was, much to the chagrin of people around me—I could immediately identify with it.
You're a very chameleonic singer to me, someone who seems to emote through song in a variety of styles. Are you conscious of doing that?
No, I think I’m just trying to serve the song and the genre as best I can, whatever that is, and still be me. I think maybe it’s because I’ve had so many different educations: I studied classical singing at Juilliard for five years; before that I had done nothing but musical theater. You sort of meld the two. And I grew up hearing gospel and jazz in my house—you get that hybrid of sounds in your ear and your body.
You started performing very young, and I understand that one of the reasons that you got started was because you were diagnosed as hyperactive.
Yes, performing was medicinal, as it were. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, I absolutely did. But they were just trying to channel all my really hyperactive energy, while not wanting to go toward medication. I come from a very musical family, and so I started with piano lessons, and then dance lessons. Then it was decided that I would audition for this little dinner theater in my hometown, and I ended up doing shows there from age 9, till I graduated from high school.
What was the first show you did?
I was a little princess in The King and I. Colorblind casting, even at the age of 9.
When did you realize that this would be your life?
Right from the beginning. I just wasn’t good at anything else. I just loved it—it was so immediate and I felt alive and accepted.
You certainly have developed a career in all realms: theater, TV, movies, opera. What gives you the most satisfaction?
All of it; there's not one that I love more than the others. There are some that I am more comfortable with than others—certainly, live theater is the one I’m most comfortable with because that’s where I started. I enjoy doing plays, the few dalliances into opera that I’ve had, and I enjoy film and television work as well. It’s all very challenging to me. That’s what I’m looking for, just to be challenged. I’m trying to get better.
What has the experience that has "developed" you most as an actress?
The year I spent working with Zoe Caldwell in Master Class. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to call her friend and mentor, and she has given me advice on other projects I’ve done. She’s helped me with the two Shakespearian plays I’ve been a part of; she absolutely coached me on those. I have other friends who’ve done the same; I have really good friends who I’ve turned to for coaching and whatnot, and they have helped me develop.
What about her style as a mentor works for you?
There’s nothing sycophantic about her; you know when she’s telling you the truth. And she tells you the truth for the sole purpose of you growing as an artist. This is a woman who believes in mentoring; in passing on knowledge and helping people to grow. And who believes in the craft. Every night on stage with her was like being on stage with a hurricane; you had to absolutely try and stand your ground and keep up. You know, if somebody puts you on a tennis court with Venus Williams, either you run away from the ball or you try to hit it back. And even though I could never match her level of skill, I would certainly learn something by being out on that tennis court with her. And that’s absolutely how I felt working with Zoe Caldwell on a nightly basis.
You've said you don't like to watch yourself act on screen.
I don’t. I don’t like to watch videos of me singing or doing anything that I do. I can’t imagine there are many people who do. I read an article that said that Maggie Smith has never watched one episode of "Downton Abbey." Watching myself is what I call “fresh hell"; I’m just not interested.
You starred in the ABC TV series "Private Practice" for four years. Why did you decide to do that?
It was a very difficult time in my life, and I thought that maybe making a change and doing something very different would be good for me. I also wanted to learn a little bit about being in front of a camera, and try to get more comfortable with that. Up until that point I’d always been very uncomfortable and nervous.
I would think being in front of a camera would seem very artificial, as opposed to being on stage where you have a live, responsive audience. ON TV or film, you're really in front of a lot of technical guys.
That's true, but at the same time, film works to make your environment much more realistic than theater does. On “Private Practice,” we weren’t actually operating on people, but we had to learn to sew stitches, learn where the heart was located, learn what kind of ultrasounds we were doing. We had all real equipment there. So, in some ways, because it’s so up close, you have to work harder to make your environment much more realistic on film, so it looks realistic to the audience. I think it’s six of one, half dozen of another in terms of suspension of disbelief.
So you got a little bit of medical education from doing the show?
Very little. I can maybe stitch up a little teeny tiny superficial wound. Or fix a hangnail, something like that.
The latest news I've seen is that now, you're going to be acting in a pilot for a potential CBS series, a legal drama called "The Ordained."
Yes; though that news came out a little bit premature.We are in negotiations for me to be a part of that show.
I think people mistakenly assume that that means a series is definite.
No, no, it never means a series. It’s a pretty great group of people, though—Frank Marshall is producing it, which is always a good sign, because he’s an incredible producer— he’s the man who produced E.T. and Lincoln with Kathleen Kennedy, for Stephen Spielberg. He’s a pretty brilliant guy. So, you know, I’ve got high hopes for it, but one never knows with TV what will happen.
What part do they want you for?
I'd play a senior litigator in a law firm who’s hired the young son of a Kennedyesque family, who used to be in the priesthood and left the priesthood to become a lawyer.
There's also a film that your name is attached to—and you can tell me how solid this is—called I Fought the Law.
Oh yeah! They’re trying to get all the money together, but that’s a really interesting project—it’s in preproduction, they’ve already done a little bit of work on it. It’s based a book called The Dead Circus, and it’s about a man who’s looking into the death of Bobby Fuller. He's looking into whether Fuller was actually murdered or not, whether it was a suicide. It takes place in the ‘70s, and I play one of the people who knew Fuller.
That is one of the great rock 'n' roll stories, and it hasn't really been touched . . .
No, not at all, and the book is fascinating. It is very suspect; why would someone kill themselves in that way? It seems more like a homicide.
You're very involved in working for marriage equality. Why is that an important goal?
It’s a civil rights issue. It affects many people in my life; I have many gay friends, some of whom I refer to as family. I also have family members who are gay, and in loving, committed relationships, but who cannot marry because of the state they live in. It’s heartbreaking to me, and it literally is a civil rights issue, in that these people have tax burdens that they wouldn’t have if they could be declared legally married. It just isn’t fair, and I’m an absolute beneficiary of the Civil Rights movement. People marched and fought for civil rights for African-Americans so we would have equality, and I just think it’s the right thing to do. There are a lot of battles to fight—I went out there and campaigned for Obama; went down to the Montgomery, Ala., board of elections and tried to keep people's spirits up even though they were standing in ridiculously long lines to vote. I feel at least if I’m making noise, out there doing something, my head won’t explode. And I’m trying to set a good example for my kids, too.
Here's a very important question— I understand you're a sucker for chocolate and peanut butter.
I just ate a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup while we were talking. So there you go.
Milk or dark chocolate?
It doesn't matter. As long as there’s peanut butter involved, I’m happy.
I also wanted to ask you about your rescue dogs.
Oh, yes! We have two ridiculously crazy, maniacal dogs that have destroyed our house, but we love ’em. Our youngest, Georgia, is a shepard-husky mix, 13 months old. Butler is our 4-year-old, we think he’s a mastiff-pit bull. He looks like he was shot by a shrink ray. He’s only 60 or 65 pounds. Georgia’s actually much bigger. They’re both sweethearts. But she's a handful, a lot of energy, and a lot of smart energy. You have to keep her entertained, or she gets bored and eats your couch . . . or the wall, or the door.
Is it true you sent her off to be trained by monks?
[Laughs] She got accepted by the New Skete monks training program in New York, and we had everything signed and were going to send her off, and then she started to get much better—and we thought, “Okay, well maybe we’ll cancel.” She had a good week. When we canceled she got worse again, so now she’s back on the waiting list. We've sent her to other places, and they've sent her back and said, "Oh, well, we can't do anything," and given us back our money. We're hoping she’ll shed the puppy and do better, every single day. The thing is, we couldn’t live without her, either.
Your daughter Zoe is now 12, is she showing any signs of wanting to perform?
Yeah, she's into all of it. We haven’t pushed any of it on her, it's all what she wants to do. She’s playing lots of instruments, like her dad, taking dance lessons and doing school plays. Right now our input is just, “Whatever you want to do, we support you.”
Well, I hope all goes well for you and your plans. You've got a lot on your plate.
[Laughs] I have good problems, though; they’re all good problems. I’m a lucky person. Very lucky.Front Row Q&A: Audra McDonald