Tonys: Audra McDonald Wins Best Lead Actress in a Play, Breaks Record

Audra McDonald

The star of "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill" portrays Billie Holiday in the play.

Audra McDonald won the Tony for lead actress in a play on Sunday for her starring role in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

The win is the sixth for the 43-year-old actress. It also marks a record, making her the first performer in history to win Tony honors in all four acting categories. She previously won best featured actress in a musical in 1994 for Carousel and 1998 for Ragtime; featured actress in a play in 1996 for Master Class and 2004 for A Raisin in the Sun; and lead actress in a musical in 2012 for Porgy and Bess.

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In Lanie Robertson's Lady Day, a confessional bio-drama staged as a woozy late-night concert, McDonald portrays Billie Holiday toward the end of the legendary jazz singer's life. McDonald also won Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for her performance.

She previously told The Hollywood Reporter that she changed her vocal approach to portray Holiday. "Vocally, we could not be more different," McDonald said. Her jumping-off point for recreating the singer's tone comes from her grandmother’s speaking voice, which reminds her of Holiday’s. "I’ve been researching how to do her voice, and how her voice fits in my voice, for the past year and a half. I go to bed every night with her singing to me in my earphones, and wake up with her voice in my ears. I’m always surprised when people react to me as Billie ... I am not even sure how I capture her voice."

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McDonald also admitted that she was scared of Holiday when she was young, but wants people to see the Holiday beyond the drugs and alcohol that led to her death. "Every night before I go on stage, I tell myself, 'You are Billie Holiday’s defender. Go out there and tell the truth,'" she told THR. "For me, I feel like I am going out there and telling it like it is. We are telling stories about the hard times, as well as the joys."

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Lady Day also bagged a win for sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy. The limited-engagement production opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre in April, earning stellar reviews for McDonald. It has been playing to steady business, grossing $5 million to date, with McDonald's win now sure to boost box office through its scheduled closing date on Aug. 10.