Interview with Lady Day star Audra McDonald
Six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald is as close as you can get to Broadway royalty. Having performed in countless musicals and plays in New York including Tony-winning turns in The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Carousel, Masterclass and A Raisin in the Sun she is preparing to make her West End debut in the role of Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Having already performed the role in a sold out run at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, her performance was immortalised on screen in an HBO TV version of the play which captures an intimate 90 minutes in the presence of an unmistakable music icon.
McDonald was scheduled to make her West End debut at the Wyndham's Theatre last summer but postponed the production after finding out she was expecting a baby. A year later, she has returned to London to once again step into the challenging role. “I'm a little late!” she laughs during a press interview at the Delfont Mackintosh Room ahead of rehearsals for the play. “I was quite surprised to be pregnant at 46, it wasn't exactly how I was planning to spend last summer.” McDonald's pregnancy also saw the premature end of the new musical Shuffle Along... which opened on Broadway last spring and had already factored her London debut into its schedule. “I was planning to run off to Paris on my days off” she commented, in conversation at the press event, “now I'll run off to Paris on my days off with the baby and my husband.”
McDonald's remarkable gift came as no surprise to her family who consider her to be one of the quietest members of the family. “I was born in Berlin. My mum and my dad were there for two years, my mom and I came back to the States and my dad went to Vietnam, I'm a gypsy!” she laughs. “I grew up in a very musical family – both of my grandmothers were piano teachers, my grandmother was one of the first African American women to get a Masters of Music in the 30s. All of my father's sisters sang well, in fact my voice is considered the cute little voice in my family – they all think my voice is cute. I was diagnosed as a hyperactive child. Ritalin had just become available and a doctor recommended to my parents that they put me on it. My parents went to a dinner theatre performance one night in California and they saw this production, this junior troupe of kids who performed before hand and they thought maybe that's something that Audra could do, and we would help her. So they talked to me about it, I auditioned and I got in and I didn't have to take the medical route. It worked for me, it may not work for everybody but that's what worked for me.”
Despite coming to music as a sort of coping mechanism the rich musical history that she completes is not lost on her, especially within the wider context of African American performers. “As an African American female in theatre, the women whose shoulders I stand on - without Billie Holiday going through what she went through, without Lena Horne having to deal with the racism she had to deal with, Ella Fitzgerald, Diahann Carroll - they all blew and busted down doors to make it easier for people like me to walk through. If they hadn't done the hard work I wouldn't be where I am today, and I'm aware of that”.
No stranger to a challenging role, playing the real life Billie Holiday in such an intimate musical drama was one challenge that McDonald originally ran from.
“My friend Lonny Price who is a great director, he and I have been friends for a very long time. He said 'I think you should take a serious look at this play' and I said no – because it's Billie Holiday. I don't sound like her at all I said, I'm a soprano and I don't think I could do it, it's a one woman show – it's just her on that stage. He said 'let's just work on it', and with the help of Jeffrey Richards he gave us the space to sit in rehearsal venues for a year and a half to just explore. At the end of that year and a half I did a read-through performance for Jeffrey and some of his friends and some of the other possible producers. As soon as I walked off I thought 'that's that – it's not going to happen'. Then Jeffrey walked backstage and said 'we've got it - you're going'.”
Convincing herself as well as a set of producers however was just the beginning of the epic journey, and getting into Holiday's skin and unique style of performance came with a lot of hard work and dedication.
“It really was a very long journey, a lot of research and a lot of time spent with every recording – not just her singing, recordings of her speaking and her rehearsals. Interviewing everybody that I could who was still alive. I even called up Maya Angelou and I spoke to everyone to try and come up with something that felt true. I think that's why it took a year and a half to take her on at little bits at a time, because it was such a heavy life that she led. Billie Holiday is famous for saying 'if I don't feel it then I don't sing it', so there would be times when her accompanist would start playing a song and she'd say no, then he'd try again and she'd say no – I'm not singing that, I don't feel it. Everything was organic with her, that's what I want to do – she lived her life that fully, and as we all know to the detriment of her well being.”
As well as being an inimitable performer, McDonald is a strong advocate for civil rights and equality and uses her status to inspire others to instigate change and speak out. Whilst some are quick to say that artists should simply perform and stay out of politics, this isn't something that she thinks is possible.
“I don't see how one can, especially where we are, especially the state of the world now, I don't see how one can. Maybe it's because my uncle was a teenager in his early 20s during the civil rights movement and my parents were always very involved with civil rights – I was raised that you have to speak out and look out for your fellow man, woman and child.” Asked about the state of Trump's America, she's careful in her criticisms. “It's interesting that I last did Lady Day... in 2014 and here I am three years later it feels like I've gone 50 years back” she explains. “It's turbulent. It's an interesting place to be. I have to say I'm enjoying a little bit of a rest being here for a minute. Some days I don't recognise my country, some days I see people being vocal and passionate and I say 'there's my country'. It's rough going right now, I'm not gonna lie.”
Those less accustomed to McDonald's Broadway career may have recently enjoyed her performance in Disney's live action remake of 'Beauty and the Beast' in which she played the role of the Wardrobe Garderobe, a role written specifically for her talents. “Oh it was a joy just to be with that incredible cast” she explains, talking about the filming experience. “Being in a Disney film is exactly what you think it is, anything your childhood mind can come up with, that's what it was like. Every flower was real, the flickering lights were all real flames, my costume was so enormous I couldn't even sit down in it. Here I am on set chit-chatting with Ian McKellen – I thought how is that my life?”
In a life of incredible highs you may be forgiven for thinking that McDonald enjoys a uniquely glamorous lifestyle as one of Broadway's most revered performers.
“My life is chaos but for me if someone says what am I doing on Friday I have no idea” she laughs honestly. “I've accepted that's my life. The theatre is my quiet time. My Tonys are around but there's also Lego and bones and diapers. Here's the thing and it's the honest truth. What I do the theatre is my life's work. The accolades as nice as they are, none of it feels real until I go home and I'm with my family, that's when all of it makes sense. They're lovely.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill tickets are on sale to 9 September 2017