Winner of a record six Tony awards, Audra McDonald brings her dulcet soprano voice to the Music Center for one performance only, Sunday, May 20, at 3 p.m., with topical and playful new songs written for her, as well as show tunes and selections from the American Songbook.
New to her repertoire are Kate Miller-Heidke’s hilarious “Are You Fucking Kidding Me,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “Flying Home” and a song by Tony-winning composer Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), from his musical-in-progress Millions. A medley of Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” (from Into the Woods) and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (from South Pacific), a forward-looking song about casual racism and sexism, is a highlight in this, her sixth stop on a tour begun earlier this year. You can hear it on Swing Happy, currently on digital and on CD May 25, an album recorded live earlier this month in front of the New York Philharmonic.
A 1993 Juilliard graduate, McDonald arrived on the scene fully formed, winning her first Tony a year later and three more by the time she turned 28. Called “the most talented person” on the planet by The New York Times, it wasn’t until 2008 that she won the first of two Emmys, adding a Grammy in 2013.
Television fans might know her as attorney Liz Reddick-Lawrence on The Good Fight, a role that is only a few steps removed from her real-life activism on behalf of causes like marriage equality. As a board member at Covenant House International, McDonald advocates for homeless and at-risk youth.
McDonald sat down with L.A. Weekly to talk about adding classics to her repertoire, diversity on Broadway and the fissures threatening our country.
L.A. Weekly: What are the criteria for adding songs to your repertoire?
Audra McDonald: For me, songs that really spoke to me, my heart, my soul, where I am as an artist and where I think I am in my heart, in terms of what’s happening in the country and life as a mother. I try to draw upon my own experiences to bring life to the music.
Is it daunting taking on a song that we’ve all heard before?
It’s intimidating. A lot of these songs are songs that have been made famous by brilliant artists; the songs in and of themselves are brilliant. So you can feel that shadow hanging over you. But you have to sing it with your own voice. Don’t try to sound like anybody else, don’t try to interpret it like anybody else has done. Interpret it for yourself. That’s the only way to find your truth in it.
How do you know when you’ve married yourself to the song?
It’s not tangible. I’ve been doing concerts for 20 years now. And some nights you’re so connected to the songs and other nights it’s like, “Ugh, I hit a clam with that note. I was thinking of pasta instead of the lyrics,” so I went up on the lyrics. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. You try every single time, obviously.
A recent study showed a rise of up to 33 percent of people of color in Broadway plays. Is the needle moving?
I think the needle fluctuates. I think Hamilton was the same year we were doing Shuffle Along, and The Color Purple happened, it was the same year. There was a lot of representation. And then there’s some years where there’s not. I think what’s changed, lately I find that the years where there’s not a lot of representation, it’s noticed in a way where no one would have years ago. Now, people go, “Oh, there wasn’t a lot of minority representation on Broadway.” People are aware of that. So that’s how the needle has moved permanently.
You mentioned earlier “what’s happening in our country.” Could you elaborate?
I think we’re becoming more and more divided as a country and I think a lot of divisions have erupted in the past forever, but right now it seems to be really coming to the surface. I think we’re all forgetting that we’re all human and we all have much more in common than not. And I think that’s what’s going to move us forward, instead of all these battlelines that are being drawn.