Audra McDonald on Performing After Billie Holiday — and That 'Sound of Music Live'

Autumn de Wilde
Audra McDonald

The Broadway star and six-time Tony Award winner hits the Disney Concert Hall on Dec. 2

When Audra McDonald arrives at the Disney Concert Hall on Dec. 2, don't expect her to be singing from her latest Broadway show, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. She won a record sixth Tony Award for her take on Billie Holiday in the play with music that includes such classics as "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child," none of which will be included on her current 28-city tour.

"I only sing her as Billie, and I'm not quite ready to sing her as Audra yet," McDonald explains to The Hollywood Reporter. "It would feel like a novelty act and out of context. It feels like a parlor trick as opposed to paying homage to her in the right way."

In her stop at the L.A. Opera last year, she sang "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, as well as an encore that included "Summertime" and "Over the Rainbow." McDonald intends to provide new music in her current tour, as well as classics from the American songbook. "We have some more great songs from composers who are up-and-coming," she offers, trying not to give too much away about the playlist. "I won't be doing the exact same concert that I've done before, but you will hear some of the same songs that people come to hear me sing."

Read more 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill': Theater Review

Born in Berlin and raised in Fresno, Calif., McDonald studied acting from an early age and won her first Tony only a year after graduating Juilliard in 1993. At age 44, she now holds the most Tony wins for an individual performer with six. She took home statuettes in the 1990s for the revival of Carousel, as well as the original play Master Class and musical Ragtime; in 2005 she received the award for her dramatic work in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun.

In 2012, she starred in a Porgy and Bess revival that was criticized by some (including Stephen Sondheim), for straying too far from the original book by DuBose Heyward. But McDonald picked up her fifth statue — her first for lead actress in a musical — for the production, which had enough admirers to beat out Sondheim's Follies for a best musical revival Tony.

"He had an emotional reaction to what he felt and he believes," explains McDonald. "I have my personal relationship with Porgy and Bess, and he has his. It has not destroyed our relationship in any way, what relationship we have," she says of Sondheim, who called her voice "one of the glories of the American theater."

McDonald's sixth award came last spring for her indelible portrayal of Billie Holiday. To prepare for the role, she immersed herself in research about the daughter of a single mom who worked as a teenage prostitute in Harlem before becoming a jazz icon. With McDonald's own middle-class upbringing as the eldest daughter of a high school principal and a university administrator, she has little in common with the legendary jazz singer except for their approach to music.

"If she didn't have an emotional connection to a song, she wouldn't sing it," says McDonald of Holiday. "That's something I completely understand. I need to know why I'm singing the song, what the character's going through, what's happening, what do I want, what will singing the song bring me as a character, why am I singing."

Read more Audra McDonald Remembers Mike Nichols: "One Cannot Overstate His Brilliance"

One reason she sings is because audiences love to hear her. Not just acclaimed on Broadway, she has an Emmy nomination for the HBO adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, directed by Mike Nichols, whom she remembers as a "giant who touched so many."

Last year, she played Mother Abbess to Carrie Underwood's Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music Live!, a special that drew nearly 22 million viewers in total, surprising even the executives at NBC. "It was an event, and it got everybody focused on musical theater again for one night," notes McDonald. "It's not just American Idol and The Voice out there. We've got this too. And this came first."

"I think it was great for musical theater to get such a huge platform as a live event that we haven't seen in years," she continues. "I think it's just gotten into people's consciousness again. That in itself is a wonderful thing."

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