Concert Spotlight: Interview with Audra McDonald

One Night Only Before Her West End Debut

She’s the winningest performer ever by the Tony Awards – six times total for her roles in musicals and plays Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, Porgy and Bess, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, surpassing Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris. But she’s also an accomplished recording artist and opera singer with five albums, not to mention actress of film and TV including this year’s Beauty and the Beast, HBO’s Wit and ABC’s Private Practice.
McDonald is wrapping up her solo tour tonight, May 27 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center before heading to London this summer where she will debut in Lady Day as jazz singer Billie Holiday, the same role which earned Audra her sixth Tony in 2014. Audra’s solo musical show has numerous surprises, with too many highlights to single anything out, though “Summertime” is quite tempting given the launch of a new season.
A new mom to a baby girl Sally, Audra McDonald spoke with about how being a mother has added range to her Lady Day character, she talked about memories of summer as well as the preparation that went into becoming Billie Holiday…

You are playing Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on May 27. It’s the kick-off to Memorial Day Weekend and the summer. With your newly-expanded family, what are you most looking forward to this summer?

I’m going to be in London with my family. I’ll be there to make my West End debut. When I’m not doing the play, we’re looking forward to exploring more of London and Europe.

What kind of prestige comes with a West End debut for you compared to Broadway, where you have been celebrated the most by any performer?

It’s of course a huge honor to be making this debut, and something I’ve wanted for so long. I’m curious to experience London audiences with this play. After doing Lady Day on Broadway, I knew what to expect from a New York/American audience since it’s a very intimate show. It’s going to be a new experience for all of us.

Portraying not only a living person but a musical legend has its natural pressures. What kind of preparation and research went into your role playing Billie Holiday and what might be slightly different with the upcoming run in London about your performance now that it’s a few years later?

When I was preparing the role a few years back, I wanted to learn everything I could about her: I read books and interviews on her and listened to her recordings and even rehearsal tapes. Finding her voice was a big challenge, but it actually reminded me of my Nana’s. I would start imitating my grandmother and then Billie’s voice would unfold out of that. As for something different this time around, I knew that Billie always wanted to be a mom—she wanted a baby more than anything. Since I just had a baby six months ago, I think this aspect of the play will be much more poignant for me now.

The Hamptons is one of the most popular getaways in the country, “Summertime” is one of the classics that you usually cover. During your visits to The Hamptons over the years, are there any memories that stand out or is there something particularly relaxing or culturally-fulfilling that you’ve done?

One summer, I got to watch the sunset on the beach with my family. We roasted marshmallows over a bonfire. It was a really simple, but special moment.

Do you have a favorite past-time story about the summer, growing up or with family or friends, or maybe some wonderful day at the beach when you were younger that sticks with you?

Growing up, I remember my cousins coming to visit us in Fresno. We’d spend the summer days swimming in the pool in our backyard. As I got older, I usually spent the summer working.

You have recorded with and shared the stage with the best, the list is just too long to name. What are a couple songs appearing on your current tour that you maybe don’t get to sing all the time that fans should listen up for?

Almost every concert is different—I sing an assortment of pieces ranging from the Great American Songbook, Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, as well as some new up-and-coming musical theater composers.