A force to be reckoned with on the Great White Way, Audra McDonald is one of the most celebrated Broadway performers of her generation. She just won a record sixth Tony, giving an emotional speech that moved the Tony-viewing audience to tears. The win also makes her a Tony recipient for all four major acting categories, a feat that is unmatched as well. If that isn’t enough, McDonald is also the recipient of two Grammy Awards and may have an Emmy Award coming her way for her role as Mother Abbess in NBC’s record-breaking television special “The Sound of Music Live.’ And she’s just 43.
With the recent extension of her latest Broadway masterpiece Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, the German-born, California-reared vocal powerhouse is showing no signs of slowing down. “Ah, there are so many shows I’d love to see come back to Broadway. I would love to do more Shakespeare,” says McDonald, who is rumored to join Oprah Winfrey for a revival of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play ‘night, Mother next year.
Below, the married mother of one (her husband Will Swenson is also a Broadway actor, currently playing Javert in the revival of Les Miserables) opens up about getting to know the true Billie Holiday, pre-show rituals, her guiltiest pleasure and why she doesn’t show off her numerous Tony Awards.
1. My “native tongue” is non-existent
I was born in Berlin, but my family moved to Fresno when I was just a few months old. I don’t speak German, but my sister does.
2. Fresno taught me about life
Growing up in Fresno taught me how to channel my hyperactivity as a child. As a child, I was lucky to have parents who were supportive and thought that theater would be a good place for me to channel my energy. Good Company director Dan Pessano and my mother both had a great impact on my career. Initially my parents introduced me to theater as an outlet for my energy, and I knew I wanted to be involved when I had my first chance to perform with the Good Company Players Junior Company. They taught me that hard work and discipline are so important, but just as important is to stay true to and celebrate who you are. It sounds cliché, but it’s true.
3. My Tony awards are places no one would expect
They are in different places in the house because I don’t like to prominently display them, but nothing is really displayed because the house is kind of a mess. What is prominently displayed are dog toys and Legos.
4. Talking about my suicide attempt is an act of defiance
As I mentioned in my interview with (CBS Sunday Morning’s) Mo Rocca, it is not something I am ashamed of or proud of. It is just a part of who I am. I’m really open about talking about that experience because it’s in my closet. If I pull it out and say ‘That was what happened’ no one can shock me with it later.
5. There’s a meaning behind my Twitter handle @AudraEqualityMc
That has to do with marriage equality. I’m a beneficiary of what the civil-rights era brought about in the ’60s, and I believe marriage equality is a civil right. I joined Twitter so I could help support the cause.
6. Learning about Lady Day didn’t shock me but did surprise me
Nothing really shocked me, but I was amazed to learn that through all her hardships Billie never pitied herself. She was a fighter, and believed in who she was an artist and refused to back down. I was on a North American concert tour during Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Lady Day show, so unfortunately was unable to see it.
7. Transforming into Billie Holiday is tough
The hardest part about doing Billie is making sure no part of my singing voice or speaking voice makes its way into the theater. The moment I get on stage it’s all Billie. When I am doing a Broadway show I try to stay quiet on Mondays when the theater is dark. You’re really not supposed to talk a lot. I don’t drink because that dries out your vocal chords. I also take a lot of voice lessons. You live a bit of a monastic life.
8. My before show ritual is sacred
My ritual is basically to be as quiet as I possibly can and by myself. I don’t like to chitchat before I get on stage. A lot of people think I am mad at them, but it’s just that I get quiet and inward. I am preparing myself to turn my soul inside out. I get really quiet, and am just conserving every last minute for myself.
9. Nothing was going to keep me from my husband’s latest gig
Les Miserables opened just a few days before previews for Lady Day started. I made sure I had no rehearsals scheduled for opening night of Les Miz. My daughter Zoe was my date for opening night, and it was an amazing experience seeing Will on stage as Javert.
10. Being kissed by Puffy became our thing offstage
Sean is such a gentleman and I always felt comfortable with him. We actually had a ritual before the start of every show. Sean would kiss me on the cheek before the start of every performance [of 2004’s A Raisin in the Sun]. He did it every night until the show closed.