Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.
The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.
McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.
Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.
Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.
But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.
McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.
As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.
These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.
But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.
And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.
Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.
When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.
She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.
Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.
She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.
McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?
Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.
McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?
As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.
After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.
Originally published on PopBytes