TV star, vocal phenom, movie actress, and Broadway legend: Audra McDonald does it all. Her latest venture is the May 11 release of Sing Happy, a live recording of McDonald’s May 1 performance with the New York Philharmonic at the orchestra’s spring gala. The six-time Tony Award winner comes to The Granada Theatre on May 15 for a concert featuring classic show tunes and music from the silver screen, along with original pieces written specifically for her soprano styling. I recently spoke over the phone with McDonald about her upcoming performance, auditioning for roles, and the changing landscape regarding diversity awareness.
First things first. You were on my favorite show of all time recently, RuPaul’s Drag Race. What’s the most difficult part of judging a competition like that? How did you get that gig? I know Ru, and he and his team asked if I’d be interested in doing this, and I said, “Of course I want to do that.” It was so much fun! The most difficult part is knowing how hard everyone is working, and that it means everything to them … [and] that you’re going to break somebody’s heart that night. Everyone is so talented and so dedicated, and you want everybody to win, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Someone has to go home.
Congratulations on your new album coming out! Tell me about Sing Happy. Thank you! We did a concert with the New York Philharmonic — it’s music I’ve always wanted to sing, and of course it’s the most incredible orchestra on the planet. We were offered the opportunity to film it, and I’ve always wanted to do something that is live, in recording, so it was very exciting to memorialize a concert in that way. It’s a dream come true to get the opportunity to do a concert with the New York Philharmonic — and to have someone record it for posterity.
What are you excited about in terms of your performance here at the Granada? What can we look forward to? There will be some of the repertoire from this new album coming out. I’m excited about the new material — for years I’ve been championing the works of young musical theater composers because I believe in nurturing the art form that is musical theater, but I’ve lately been going back to some of the classics. There’re so many great old tunes out there … some great Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jule Styne, and Sondheim, always Sondheim.
In the past when you had to audition — I imagine you don’t have to anymore — what was your audition song? I do have to audition from time to time … that never really goes away. I sang “Meadowlark” [from The Baker’s Wife] to audition for getting an agent years ago. I [also] sang “One Night Only” from Dreamgirls.
You’ve done so much in your career—what else would you like to do? I’d really like to do more Shakespeare. I feel like there’s more to learn for me as far as Shakespeare is concerned, and I’ve only wet my whistle twice, and I would love to get another opportunity to play a role. [I’d like to play] Lady Macbeth. I find her fascinating, cold, and passionate.
What do you think about the Tony nominees this year? Have you seen any of the shows? I haven’t seen anything this season yet! I have an 18-month-old child, I’ve been filming a television show all day every day, and when I haven’t been doing that or being with the baby, I’ve been on tour with the concert. I’ve literally had three full-time jobs: motherhood, the TV show, and the concert tour, so I haven’t seen anything this year; I’m so behind. When the show is done filming for the summer, and when I get back from California, my plan is to get my butt into the theater and see some shows. I want to see it all! I want to see Once on This Island; I want to see Carousel … everything.
How do you balance career and family? A good friend of mine once said: “You don’t slice the whole roast beef at once. You do one thin slice at a time.” The same way that the only way you can climb a mountain is by taking the first step. Just put one foot in front of the other. Me and my husband, with four kids between the two of us and our jobs and whatnot, it’s like, “Okay, how do we work out today.” We don’t go past the next four or five hours. It’s air traffic control around here. One moment at a time.
There’s a lot of talk about getting better and more roles for both people of color in the performing arts, and also women over the age of 30. Do you have any ideas of how we can progress in a positive way in this area? I think awareness is a huge part of it. We’re in a period right now where a lack of diversity — which used to be the norm — has become more and more glaring with each passing year. The awareness of that and the calling out of the lack of diversity is important. To quote Ragtime, “We can never go back to before.” It does feel like … if we were to go into a Broadway season with no people of color or great roles for women over the age of 30, I think people would be up in arms about it, whereas years ago, no one would have blinked an eye. I think there has been progress through the simple fact that there is awareness and people who will call it out in a way that didn’t happen before.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Audra McDonald, who will perform new and classic songs with a trio of musicians, Tuesday, May 15, 7 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.