She’s won six Tonys, two Grammys and an Emmy for her work on stage and screen, but Audra McDonald still gets little flutters before stepping onstage. And that’s a good thing.
“I get the butterflies whether it’s a huge or small arena. It’s that quickening,” she said by phone, citing a term used by the late dance legend Martha Graham. “It’s the quickening of getting ready to go out there and open yourself and share and be open to that divine inspiration, whatever you think that might be.
“For me, it comes from whatever the hall is, or that theater space or cabaret space — we’ve all come in for a specific thing, and that’s to be open and be moved by something and to witness something. And I think the combined energy of the audience and the artist, and the anticipation of that, for me, is always going to create what some people call butterflies or quickening, whatever. That magic moment of here we all go, to experience something that’s going to be in the moment and here and now, and then it’ll be gone.
“It’s like my church — it’s my religion.”
Her congregation will be worshipping her at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Saturday night (9/14), as they gather to hear “Songs from the American Music Theater.” She’s bringing along her trio of Andy Einhorn on piano, Mark Vanderpoel on bass and Gene Lewin on drums.
“I’m going to sing a lot of songs,” she teases in a bubbly promo video on Hancher’s website, Hancher.uiowa.edu/2019-20/AudraMcDonald
While she doesn’t name any titles in that video, during her Hoopla interview, she said she’ll be singing something by musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim, most likely “The Glamorous Life” from “A Little Night Music”; “When Did I Fall in Love” from “Fiorello” by Jerry Bock; “Summertime” from her Tony-winning star turn in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”; and “Stars and the Moon” from “Songs for a New World” by Jason Robert Brown. “That’s one I’ll never let go of,” she said of the latter, which she included on her “Way Back to Paradise” album.
McDonald, 49, now of New York City, grew up in Fresno, Calif., where she got her start in theater. She went on to study classical voice at Juilliard, and just a year after graduating, she won a Tony Award as best featured actress in “Carousel.” Before she turned 30, she picked up two more Tonys as a featured actress in “Master Class” and “Ragtime.” Three more followed, for “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” breaking Broadway records.
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Among her film roles are Maureen in “Ricki and the Flash” and Madame Garderobe in Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” Her television credits include Dr. Naomi Bennett in “Private Practice” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Liz Lawrence in “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” and the Mother Abbess in the 2013 live telecast of “The Sound of Music.” Her Emmy came in 2015 for hosting the PBS broadcast of “Sweeney Todd (Live from Lincoln Center).”
While it would be easy to fly high on all the accolades, she keeps her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“It’s an incredible honor to be nominated, considering you don’t do anything to be nominated, other than what you’d be doing anyway, which is your job,” she said. “All you can do is your work. You can’t nominate yourself, you can’t vote for yourself, you can’t call your own name. All you can do is your work. So when your work is recognized in that way, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t negate the work, even if your work is not recognized in that way. The work is important. ... In the theater world, the next night you have to go back to work ... and you realize that’s why I did it in the first place. You don’t do it to win awards.”
Her varying career avenues are all rolled into how she expresses herself.
“For me, it’s all about telling the story, getting to the truth of the moment, whatever the character is,” she said.
Being a woman of color, and now approaching 50, she has felt the challenges of age, race and gender.
“I have felt limited but try not to limit myself,” she said. “The world is changing slowly, especially in film and television and Hollywood. There are people out there that are pushing the envelope: Shonda Rhimes ... Oprah has her own network. These are the women out there doing what they can to open the doors and let in the light and let in more stories being told about African-American women that don’t include slavery or domestic murders or the stereotypical roles we’ve been relegated to in the past. It’s still far and few between. Yes I have felt those limits, but I do not limit myself. If I feel that I’m right for a role, regardless of what’s on the page, I try and put myself out there. Whether I get the role or not is another question.”
WHAT: An Evening with Audra McDonald: Songs from the American Music Theater
WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (9/14)
TICKETS: $60 to $80 adults, $10 to $72 college students, $10 to $40 youths; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2019-20/AudraMcDonald
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Audramcdonald.com