Woman Crush Wednesday: Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald has entered the Broadway Pantheon: succeeding from “Barbra,” “Julie,” “Bette,” and “Bernadette,” “Audra” is the Goddess of Broadway.
Do I exaggerate? Nope. Audra McDonald already has mountains of accolades heaped upon her. She has won an astonishing six Tony Awards, making her the winningest Broadway performer in history. Moreover, those six Tonys are distributed in every acting category, proving that she’s not just a luminous voice, but also a sophisticated, gifted actress. (Frankly, they should just redesign the Tony Award to be Audra McDonald in miniature.)
Her career spans both classic and contemporary theater, and she’s delivered more iconic performances than most actors can dream of in a lifetime: by killing the role of Carrie in the celebrated 1994 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel so hard, that no one has attempted a Broadway revival since; breaking the hearts of audiences as Sarah in the legendary Broadway production of Flaherty and Ahrens’ Ragtime in 1998; blurring the lines between opera and musical theater in Diane Paulus’ fearless The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess; resurrecting Billie Holiday in her master class, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill; and, most recently, redefining divas in her intelligent and pitch-perfect performance in the brilliant Shuffle Along. Her Juilliard-trained, classical vocal style adds class and luminous passion to every Broadway note she sings. She slips and slides around notes as effortlessly as she alternates between comedy and drama.
But we’re not here just to fangirl over Audra McDonald’s talent; that she is one of the most gifted performers of all time is indisputable. (In case you had any more doubts, she has Drama Desks, an Emmy, and a National Medal of Arts from President Obama to show for it.) Instead, we’re here to talk about what a marvelous human being Audra McDonald is, and how her work offstage is worthy of praise and admiration, as well.
Indeed, McDonald has devoted her time to numerous causes. Specifically, she’s a Board of Director member for Covenant House, a charity that helps homeless youth. Like many Broadway performers, she participates in the annual “Broadway Sleep Out” for Covenant House, and she actively fundraised for it during her run in Lady Day. McDonald’s activism is rooted in a sense of equality for groups who have been historically overlooked or pushed aside, and she is also a passionate ally to the LGBT community.
Arguably, part of McDonald’s compassion stems from the fact that she has had her own share of ups and downs. McDonald has candidly discussed that, although she was a student at one of the world’s most prestigious music conservatories, she felt creatively stifled and emotionally lost at Juilliard. So deep was her depression that she attempted suicide and was hospitalized for a month. McDonald has never tried to hide this chapter of her past; and her frankness about her mental health demonstrates that she is someone with a well of experiences that make her a compassionate, relatable human being. Millions of Broadway hopefuls—some of whom struggle with depression as they are barred from the ladder of success—or depressed youth might find comfort and camaraderie in the gentle reminder that one of the goddesses in the Broadway Pantheon struggled on her path to glory.
There is another element to McDonald’s success that needs discussing. As an African-American woman who has played Carrie in Carousel, the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music Live!, and the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, Audra McDonald has defied notions of race on the Great White Way long before Hamilton was a figment in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s imagination. Indeed, in an interview in July with the New York Times, McDonald stated:
I’ve spent my whole career trying to stay out of any box that anyone could put me in. ‘I’m going to do a play now.’ ‘Now I’ll do a musical.’ That was my instinct. So I don’t feel boxed in. But African-American woman is part of my identity. I don’t want to relinquish that—especially as a mother, helping my daughter find her identity. She’s biracial, so she’s just as much African-American as she is Caucasian. I want her to embrace herself in her entirety.
To that end, her turns in Ragtime, The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and Shuffle Along are exquisite, painful meditations on the lived history of race in an America that remains divided.
McDonald’s racial consciousness doesn’t just manifest itself in the projects she chooses onstage. Offstage, she has become increasingly outspoken about racial issues, especially within the last year. Appearing on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore this past spring, McDonald opened up about race:
I tell you what. I know this much. That if Trayvon had been a white child and George Zimmerman had been a Black man, and even if he had ended up being acquitted with the Stand Your Ground law, they would never in a million years have given him back the gun.
In July, she brilliantly lambasted Bill O’Reilly when he attempted to put a positive spin on the fact that slaves had built the White House. In August, McDonald appeared in the Broadway for Black Lives Matter concert at Columbia University, alongside Broadway powerhouses Cynthia Erivo, Billy Porter, and Joshua Henry. For her activism, we say this: Brava, Goddess.
Politics aside, we love Audra most of all because, at the end of the day, she just seems pretty damn cool. She’s endlessly lovely on Twitter, and frankly we’re jealous of her squad: she has fun with Jimmy Fallon, sings duets with Stephen Colbert, jams with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and gets into cars with super cool Broadway geeks.
What’s up next for McDonald? She’s leant that golden voice of hers to the audiobook narration of Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, which went on sale yesterday. Theater-wise, she’ll eventually bring Lady Day to London and mark her West End debut. But before that, she’s reprising a role: mother. McDonald is expecting her second child and first with husband actor Will Swenson. (Congrats, kids!) That’s one lucky baby: not only will he or she get the world’s best lullabies; he or she will also get a mother who models compassion, humanity, and hard work, all while reigning supreme as the Goddess of Broadway.
Photo Credit: ABC/Andrew Eccles from audramcdonald.net