She won three Tony Awards before she’d turned 30, and then a few years later scored another one. But Audra McDonald – who also has a pair of Grammys – has a restless nature. She’s not a laurel-rester.
That’s why one of Broadway’s hottest musical theater stars took a gig on the TV series Private Practice. “I’d done some television before,” McDonald says by phone from her home in New York City, “but never a long–running series. I always thought it would be interesting, at some point in my life, to really get to know what it’s like to get comfortable in front of a camera.”
She played Dr. Naomi Bennett on the ABC drama, a spinoff of Grey’s Anatomy, for four years. Season Five is airing now, but McDonald has left the cast.
“It had more to do with the fact that I was just doing too much commuting,” she explains. “My daughter lives in New York; I didn’t move her out to California. Because you never know, from one season to the next. The numbers can dive for no particular reason, and all of a sudden you don’t have good ratings and the network pulls you. There was too much uncertainty for me to bring her out.
“So in the end, the commute got to be way too much. Too much time in the air, and not enough with my feet on the ground, with my family.”
The tour that brings McDonald to the Trustees Theater Nov. 9 will end long before December, when she’ll be back on Broadway in a revival of Porgy and Bess. The show was in previews during September in Cambridge, Mass. Director Diane Paulus has revised some of the Gershwins’ libretto, and from all accounts the show – which also features Norm Lewis as Porgy – is riveting.
Could there be a fifth Tony in McDonald’s near future? Like all performers, she thinks it’s bad luck to predict whether something will be a success or not.
“I can’t speak for other actors,” she says, “but more often that not I think ‘Boy, I hope this isn’t the time I fall on my face.’ It’s scary.”
Playing the emotionally–ravaged Bess, she explains, is a challenge. “It’s the pinnacle. It’s huge. It’s the hardest role I’ve ever played. She’s such a complicated character – if I were an outsider looking in, I’d say she was just a big ol’ bag of contradictions.
“So it’s a great journey, to teach me to understand all the different parts of who she is.”
McDonald won her first three Tonys for the 1994 revival of Carousel, the drama Master Class (1996) and the revival of Ragtime in 1998.
Her fourth came in 2004, with A Raisin the Sun, which later became a highly–rated TV movie.
She made her operatic debut in 2006, and three years later came the Grammys – for Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Album – for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Patti LuPone and the Los Angeles Opera.
Two weeks ago, she sang at Carnegie Hall. Stephen Holden in the New York Times praised her “aura of almost uncontainable enthusiasm” and called her a “one–of–a–kind musical super–talent.”
She hadn’t been on the New York stage since taking the TV series in 2007. So it was something of a comeback.
McDonald says the concert was, well, emotional.
“I love singing at Carnegie. I think it was my 16th or 17th time performing there. And it feels like home, it feels like, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do in Carnegie Hall. You’re supposed to make music and just feel the reverberations of all the other music that has played in there before you. And the ghosts of incredible artists. You just feel like you’re adding to it, and soaking it all in. And the audience was so generous and loving – for me, it was just like a fun party.”
The Savannah show will feature McDonald accompanied by piano, bass and drums. She calls it “a journey through all the different generations of great musical theater composers.”
For all the aspiring musical theater performers in Savannah, McDonald has this advice: “There’s a tremendous amount of luck involved. Having someone cast you in a show, and then that show becomes a hit, there’s a lot of things that have to happen. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.
“I think the most important thing is to continue to work on your craft. Always, always, always, whether that’s voice lessons, acting lessons, piano lessons, dance lessons. Getting into your community theater – getting onstage whenever you possibly can.
“It also involves seeing theater, too, and just exposing yourself to as much of it as you possibly can. Immersing yourself in theater.”
Even with all those trophies, she’s still taking voice and acting lessons. “Just because you’ve achieved a degree of success doesn’t mean you stop working on your craft,” McDonald explains. “It’s a constant evolution. You’re constantly going to school.”
Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
When: At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9