Audra McDonald to Play Billie Holiday on Broadway

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald
 Mike Coppola/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- The diva competition at this year's Tony Awards just got stiffer.

Audra McDonald, one of Broadway's most beloved and honored performers, has signed up for a ten-week stint in the Billie Holiday bio-drama, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, by Lanie Robertson.

The late entry to the current theater season takes advantage of a sudden vacancy on the Broadway real estate map since the Yankees baseball play Bronx Bombers announced last week that it would close prematurely on March 2 at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

McDonald will begin preview performances there in Lady Day on March 25, with opening night set for April 13.

The play with songs will be staged by Lonny Price, who previously directed McDonald on Broadway in the 2007 musical revival, 110 in the Shade.

Constructed around a 1959 show at the intimate Philadelphia nightspot of the title near the end of Holiday's life, Robertson's play originally starred Lonette McKee Off Broadway in 1986 and has been widely produced around the country since then. The lead role was later assumed by Eartha Kitt, S. Epatha Merkerson, Loretta Devine and Jackee Harry. It depicts an ill-tempered heroin addict defined by her suffering yet able to convey both pain and joy through her soulful interpretations of the blues and jazz.

Holiday standards to be performed by McDonald in the play include "God Bless the Child," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Strange Fruit" and "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness." McDonald and Price have been developing this revival together for more than two years. The production will include onstage table seating, drawing audience members into the performance.

Known to television audiences for her role as a series regular on ABC's Private Practice, and as the Mother Abbess in NBC's smash television event The Sound of Music Live!, McDonald has collected five Tony Awards over the years.

She won best featured actress in a musical twice, in 1994 for Carousel and in 1998 for Ragtime. She also took honors for best featured actress in a play twice, in 1996 for Master Class and in 2004 for A Raisin in the Sun. McDonald finally won for lead actress in a musical in 2012 for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, which also won for best revival.

Lead producers on that show, Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, are also behind Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. The play is unrelated to another Billie Holiday biographical drama, titled Lady Day, which had an Off Broadway run starring Dee Dee Bridgewater last year.

While no deals have yet been confirmed, news surfaced earlier this month that Oprah Winfrey is in talks to make her Broadway acting debut, starring opposite McDonald in a revival of the Marsha Norman play 'night, Mother, to be directed by George C. Wolfe (Lucky Guy). That production is understood to be aiming for the 2015-16 season.

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