Six time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald may be Broadway royalty but she has yet to bestow her incredible gift on a full West End production. Her list of credits already reads like a dream for any performer, mixing challenging new work by some of musical theatre's most celebrated up-and-coming composers to classic roles from the Great American canon. On Broadway, she really can do no wrong – picking up award nominations left right and centre, with a record breaking total of six Tony wins, making her the first performer to receive Tony Awards in all of the performance categories.
Awards aside, she is a true champion of the industry and one of the most hard-working stars imaginable. Last year she starred in a brand new musical based on one of the first American musicals to be written by an African-American writing team, Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which enjoyed a long preview period, with writer and director George C Woolf working tirelessly behind the scenes with the cast and creative team to hone an entirely new concept of musical. Early reports had the show clocking in close to four hours – and just as the musical finally opened officially on Broadway to excellent reviews it was announced that it would be closing due to McDonald leaving the show in order to have a baby.
Despite a cast of similarly awarded performers such as Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, producers decided that the show couldn't go on without McDonald's box office draw. Her pregnancy not only meant that Shuffle Along... closed on Broadway, but also the previously announced London run of Lady Day... was to be put on hold.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is not only a perfect star vehicle for McDonald, who brings to life the spirit of Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson's 1986 play but is also a delight for audiences and fans of Holiday's music. More comfortably described as a biopic-performance, the play is set in Philadelphia in March 1959, some four months before Holiday's death. During this iconic concert evening where she is accompanied by Jimmy Powers on the piano, Holiday recounts stories about her life and a gripping musical drama unfolds.
The play originally opened off-Broadway in 1986 in a production that starred Lonette McKee, and went on to be staged all around America with different stars in the terribly demanding role. This new production, which is directed by Lonny Price, opened on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre on 13 April 13 2014. McDonald starred as Lady Day alongside Shelton Becton as pianist Jimmy Powers. The production was initially scheduled for a limited 10-week run, but this was extended numerous times, finally closing on 5 October 2014.
McDonald's star power attracted a wide circle of audiences, many who were familiar with Holiday's story, along with those coming to it for the first time. Much of the delight in the production came from McDonald's transcendent delivery of the troubled central character – rather than feeling like an impression, she was able to fully embody the character and present a wholly unique and satisfying staging. The reviews for the production were a set of love letters to the established star, and helped build momentum and sell out the show night after night: “Expectations are upended and exceeded the moment Audra McDonald opens her mouth” (NY Daily News); “McDonald gives a performance as technical as anything she’s ever done” (NY Post); “it’s her extraordinary sensitivity as an actor that makes McDonald’s interpretation memorable." (Variety).
The production was so successful that a film version was made and screened on HBO in 2016, having been filmed at the Cafe Brasil in New Orleans. Once again McDonald displayed her sensitive yet hard-hitting approach to the role, delighting fans in yet another medium.
London audiences got a taste for McDonald at the start of 2016 when she performed two sell-out concerts at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre. Her glorious voice was on full display, as was her affable energy and fantastic humour, which makes her a uniquely talented performer. Whilst Lady Day may be her first step into a full West End production, we can only hope that it's the first of many, and we're delighted that the production has been scheduled to open in the West End in June 2017.
Carousel: Lincoln Center, 1994, (Carrie Pipperidge)
Master Class: Broadway, 1995, (Sharon)
Ragtime: Broadway, 1998, (Sarah)
Marie Christine: Lincoln Center, 1999 (Marie)
A Raisin in the Sun: Broadway, 2004 (Ruth Younger)
110 in the Shade: Broadway, 2007 (Lizzie)
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: Broadway, 2012 (Bess)
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill: Broadway, 2014 (Billie Holiday)