Audra McDonald

2018 Recipient of the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT

Audra McDonald speaks at MIT with Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York. Photo: L. Barry Hetherington/MIT.

" helps us as a society to find common ground, to create dialogue, and to understand each other in new and meaningful ways."
— Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald speaks at MIT with Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York. Photo: L. Barry Hetherington/MIT.

“One of the most consummate performers there is...more comfortable on stage than most people are anywhere.”
Boston Globe

Audra McDonald joins Professor Martin for an exchange with students about her experiences on Broadway and beyond. Photo: HErickson/MIT.
Audra McDonald attends a rehearsal of the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Photo: HErickson/MIT.

About the Award

The Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT recognizes innovative talents and offers the recipient a $100,000 prize and a campus residency.

The Award

Established in 1974 by the Council for the Arts at MIT, the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT is bestowed upon individuals whose artistic trajectory and body of work indicate that they will achieve the highest distinction as leaders in their fields. One of the most generous arts honors in the US, the Award reflects MIT’s commitment to risk-taking, problem solving and to the idea of connecting creative minds across disciplines. The Award is considered an investment in the recipient’s future creative work, rather than a prize for a particular project or lifetime of achievement.

The Residency

A distinctive feature of the Award is a campus residency, which includes a celebratory event at which the Award is presented, a public presentation of the artist’s work and significant interactions with students, faculty and staff. The goal of the residency is to provide the recipient unparalleled access to the creative energy and cutting-edge research found in the MIT community and to have the recipient connect with departments, laboratories and research centers throughout the Institute in ways that will be mutually enlightening.

The Selection Process

The Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT may be given to an artist working in any field or cross-disciplinary activity, including architecture, creative writing, dance, design, filmmaking, media arts, music, theater and visual arts. Award nominees are identified by an Advisory Committee, which is composed of international leaders in arts and culture. An Award Committee, chosen by the Council for the Arts at MIT and comprised of arts leaders at MIT, then selects the recipient.

Eugene McDermott

The Award honors Eugene McDermott (1899-1973), cofounder of Texas Instruments and long-time friend and benefactor of MIT. The Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT was created by the Council for the Arts at MIT in 1974 and further endowed by Eugene’s wife, Margaret.

A geophysicist, Eugene McDermott was a member of the MIT Corporation from 1960 to 1973.  The scholarship funds he established at MIT reflect his commitment to education and the public art he donated a conviction, shared with his wife Margaret, that the physical environment of a campus has great influence upon the character of an institution.  They commissioned Eugene’s Stevens Tech classmate Alexander Calder to create The Great Sail, which was dedicated in 1966 on McDermott Court, facing the Green building.  In 1976, the McDermott family and other friends of MIT made a gift of Three Piece Reclining Figure, Draped, by Henry Moore, which graces Killian Court.

Public Events

Past Events

Performing the Present: Audra McDonald and Oskar Eustis in Conversation
Saturday, April 14, 2018 / 5:00pm
MIT Huntington Hall, Building 10-250
Cambridge, MA

Watch the full length recording of the event

Audra McDonald, the 2018 recipient of the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, shared timely stories from her career in a public presentation with Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York.

On the occasion of the McDermott Award, the conversation covered topics including McDonald’s most memorable and career-defining roles on Broadway; her current concert tour and television series, The Good Fight; and her off-stage social advocacy on behalf of underserved youth and the LGBTQ community. Eustis and McDonald also discussed how theatrical revivals—such as McDonald’s performances in A Raisin in the Sun, Ragtime, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and more recently, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill—reflect their times and the evolution of social attitudes and cultural experiences.

Eustis, who directed McDonald in the role of Olivia in the Public Theater’s 2009 production of Twelfth Night, likewise engages with issues of social import in his work, such as inclusion and access for both theater makers and audiences. For more than 60 years, the Public Theater has operated on the principles that theater is an essential cultural force and that art and culture belong to everyone.

McDonald, the winner of a record-breaking six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award, visited the campus during the semester to work with students in MIT’s music and theater arts classes and ensembles. Upon learning of her selection for the McDermott Award, McDonald commented that her “greatest hope is that art helps us as a society to find common ground, to create dialogue, and to understand each other in new and meaningful ways.”



Audra McDonald is unparalleled in the breadth and versatility of her artistry, as both a singer and an actress. The winner of a record-breaking six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, and an Emmy Award, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2015 and received a 2015 National Medal of Arts—America’s highest honor for achievement in the arts—from President Barack Obama. Blessed with a luminous soprano and an incomparable gift for dramatic truth-telling, she is as much at home on Broadway and opera stages as she is in roles on film and television. In addition to her theatrical work, she maintains a major career as a concert and recording artist, regularly appearing on the great stages of the world.

Born into a musical family, McDonald grew up in Fresno, California, and received her classical vocal training at the Juilliard School. A year after graduating, she won her first Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Carousel at Lincoln Center Theater. She received two additional Tony Awards in the featured actress category over the next four years for her performances in the Broadway premieres of Terrence McNally’s Master Class (1996) and Ragtime (1998), for an unprecedented total of three Tony Awards before the age of 30. In 2004 she won her fourth Tony, starring alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs in A Raisin in the Sun, and in 2012 she won her fifth—and her first in the leading actress category—for her role in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. In 2014 she made Broadway history and became the Tony Awards’ most decorated performer when she won her sixth award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill—the role which also served as the vehicle for her 2017 debut on London’s West End. In addition to setting the record for most competitive wins by an actor, she also became the first person to receive awards in all four acting categories. McDonald’s other theater credits include The Secret Garden (1993), Marie Christine (1999), Henry IV (2004), 110 in the Shade (2007), her Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park debut in Twelfth Night (2009), and Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (2016).

McDonald made her opera debut in 2006 at Houston Grand Opera, where she starred in a double bill: the monodrama La voix humaine by Francis Poulenc and the world premiere of Send by Michael John LaChiusa. She made her Los Angeles Opera debut in 2007 starring alongside Patti LuPone in John Doyle’s production of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The resulting recording won McDonald two Grammy Awards, for Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Album.

On the concert stage, McDonald has premiered music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams and sung with virtually every major American orchestra—including the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony—and under such conductors as Sir Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Leonard Slatkin. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1998 with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas in a season-opening concert that was broadcast live on PBS. Internationally, she has sung at the BBC Proms in London (where she was only the second American in more than 100 years invited to appear as a guest soloist at the Last Night of the Proms) and at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, as well as with the London Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic.

It was the Peabody Award-winning CBS program Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years that introduced McDonald to television audiences as a dramatic actress. She went on to co-star with Kathy Bates and Victor Garber in the lauded 1999 Disney/ABC television remake of Annie, and in 2000 she had a recurring role on NBC’s hit series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. After receiving her first Emmy nomination for her performance in the HBO film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, McDonald returned to network television in 2003 in the political drama Mister Sterling, produced by Emmy Award-winner Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. (The West Wing) and starring Josh Brolin. In early 2006 she joined the cast of the WB’s The Bedford Diaries, and over the next season she had a recurring role on NBC’s television series Kidnapped. In 2008 she reprised her Tony-winning role in A Raisin in the Sun in a made-for-television movie adaption, earning her a second Emmy Award nomination. From 2007 to 2011, she played Dr. Naomi Bennett on the hit ABC medical drama, Private Practice. In 2013, her critically acclaimed performance as the Mother Abbess in NBC’s live telecast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, opposite Carrie Underwood as Maria, was watched by an estimated 18.5 million people across America. McDonald has performed on numerous Tony Awards telecasts; in 2013, she closed the show by performing a rap duet with Neil Patrick Harris.

A familiar face on PBS, McDonald has headlined telecasts including an American Songbook season-opening concert, a presentation of Sondheim’s Passion, a Rodgers and Hammerstein tribute concert titled Something Wonderful, and five galas with the New York Philharmonic: a New Year’s Eve performance in 2006, a concert celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday, Carnegie Hall’s 120th anniversary concert, One Singular Sensation! Celebrating Marvin Hamlisch, and, most recently, Sweeney Todd. She was also featured in the PBS television specials A Broadway Celebration: In Performance at the White House and A Celebration of American Creativity, singing at the request of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. McDonald has appeared three times on the Kennedy Center Honors; been profiled by 60 Minutes, Today, PBS NewsHour, and CBS Sunday Morning; been a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Colbert Report, Charlie Rose, CBS This Morning, NewsNation with Tamron Hall, PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, Iron Chef America, The Megan Mullally Show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Tavis Smiley Show, The Wendy Williams Show, and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore; and has guest co-hosted on The View with Barbara Walters. In 2012, McDonald was named the new official host of the PBS series Live From Lincoln Center, and she won her first Primetime Emmy Award for hosting the Creative Arts Special Program in 2015, having previously been nominated in 2013. In 2016, she received her fifth Emmy nomination for her role in HBO’s film version of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. In 2018, she joins the cast of The Good Fight for the second season of the CBS All Access original drama series.

McDonald launched her film career with Seven Servants in 1996; her list of credits has since grown to include The Object of My Affection (1998), Cradle Will Rock (1999), It Runs in the Family (2003), The Best Thief in the World (2004), She Got Problems (2009)—a mockumentary movie musical written, starring, and directed by her sister, Alison McDonald—and Rampart (2012). She recently appeared opposite Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash (2015), and played Madame de Garderobe in Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast (2017). She appears in the upcoming movie-musical Hello Again.

As an exclusive Nonesuch recording artist, McDonald released her most recent album, Go Back Home, in 2013. She has released four previous solo albums on the label, interpreting songs from the classic (Gershwin, Arlen, and Bernstein) to the contemporary (Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, and Ricky Ian Gordon). The New York Times named her first Nonesuch album, 1998’s Way Back to Paradise, as Adult Record of the Year. Following the bestselling How Glory Goes in 2000 and Happy Songs in 2002, she released the 2006 album Build a Bridge, which saw the singer stretch her repertoire to include songs by the likes of Randy Newman, Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach, Rufus Wainwright, and Nellie McKay. Her ensemble recordings include the acclaimed EMI version of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, the New York Philharmonic release of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and Dreamgirls in concert, as well as the first recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro and Broadway cast albums of Carousel, Ragtime, Marie Christine, 110 in the Shade, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. She is also featured on a number of audiovisual recordings available on DVD and Blu-ray, including Sondheim! The Birthday Concert; Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square; Weill—Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny; Bernstein—Wonderful Town; Audra McDonald: Live at the Donmar, London; and My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies.

McDonald’s other accolades include five Drama Desk Awards, five Outer Critics Circle Awards, four NAACP Image Awards nominations, an Ovation Award, a Theatre World Award, the Drama League’s 2000 Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre and 2012 Distinguished Performance Award, a 2015 Rockefeller Award for Creativity, and Roundabout Theatre’s 2016 Jason Robards Award for Excellence in Theatre. In 2015, she was named to the Time 100—Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world—and in 2017, honored as one of Variety Magazine’s Power of Women alongside Chelsea Clinton, Blake Lively, and Gayle King. In 2013, she was honored as Musical America’s “Musician of the Year,” joining the esteemed company of previous winners such as Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, and Yo-Yo Ma, and in 2017 she was inducted into Lincoln Center’s Hall of Fame as a member of the inaugural class, which included Ma, Price, Placido Domingo, Louis Armstrong, and Harold Prince. Besides her six Tony wins, she has received nominations for her performances in Marie Christine and 110 in the Shade. In 2016, McDonald received an honorary doctorate from Yale University.

In addition to her professional obligations, McDonald is a passionate advocate for equal rights, LGBTQ causes, and underprivileged youth. In 2014, she joined the Covenant House International Board of Directors, which oversees programs for homeless young people in 27 cities in six countries across the United States, Canada, and Latin America. McDonald’s outspoken activism for marriage equality helped put the issue on the national agenda. In 2009, she joined Twitter to promote the cause, using the Twitter handle @AudraEqualityMc, and in 2011 she joined Mario Batali and other pro-equality marchers in Albany to lobby New York state senators in the days leading up their groundbreaking vote for legalization. McDonald was featured in marriage equality and anti-bullying campaigns for Freedom to Marry, NOH8, and PFLAG NYC. In 2012, she and her now husband, actor Will Swenson, received PFLAG National’s Straight for Equality Award. A dog lover, she has two canine companions, Butler and Georgia, adopted from Eleventh Hour Rescue, a volunteer-based, non-profit organization that saves dogs from death row. Of all her many roles, her favorites are the ones performed offstage: passionate advocate for equal rights and homeless youth, wife to actor Will Swenson, and mother to her children.

Visit the artist’s website: Audra McDonald


“McDonald exudes both vulnerability and toughness, glamour and earthiness.”

New Yorker

“She is probably the most talented person on this planet.”

The New York Times

“One of the most consummate performers there is, effortlessly intimate, casually masterly, seemingly more comfortable on stage than most people are anywhere.”

Boston Globe

“Through all her stylistic tangents, what stabilizes Ms. McDonald is the steady current of dramatic lyricism that informs everything she does.”

The New York Times

MIT News: Audra McDonald Receives the 2018 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT

Press Release: Audra McDonald Announced as the 2018 Recipient of the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT (pdf)

Broadway World, VIDEO: Watch Audra McDonald and Oskar Eustis in Conversation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), May 23, 2018

The Bay State Banner, Audra McDonald Honored by MIT, April 19, 2018

The Boston Globe, Audra McDonald Appears at MIT Discussion, Gala, April 16, 2018

Gatehouse Media (Cambridge Chronicle + other Wicked Local Newspapers), Audra McDonald Honored with Artist Residency at MIT, April 5, 2018

Boston Magazine, Free Things to Do: Performing the Present: Audra McDonald and Oskar Eustis in Conversation, April 2018 Issue (Online March 30, 2018)

The Boston Globe, Audra McDonald receives MIT’s Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts, February 16, 2018

Classical SourceAudra McDonald Honored by MIT, October 28, 2017

Nonesuch, Audra McDonald to Receive 2018 McDermott Award from MIT, October 27, 2017

Musical America Worldwide, Audra McDonald Honored by MIT, October 27, 2017

Playbill, Audra McDonald Named Recipient of MIT’s 2018 Eugene McDermott Award, October 27, 2017 

American Theatre, Audra McDonald Receives MIT’s 2018 Eugene McDermott Award, October 26, 2017

Boston Globe, Audra McDonald receives prestigious arts award from MIT, October 26, 2017

The Broadway Blog, Audra McDonald receives 2018 McDermott Award, October 26, 2017

Broadway World, Audra McDonald Awarded 2018 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, October 26, 2017

MIT Campus News, Audra McDonald receives 2018 McDermott Award, October 26, 2017

The Times UK, Broadway superstar Audra McDonald talks about her journey to the West End in the role that won her a sixth Tony award, October 16, 2017

Variety Magazine, Audra McDonald Spends Nights on the Sidewalk to Help Homeless Teens, April 18, 2017

Variety Magazine, Audra McDonald on Diversity, Marriage Equality and How to Be Meryl Streep, April 19, 2017

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Audra McDonald Got Some Flack From President Obama, March 21, 2017

New York Magazine, Audra McDonald, Broadway’s greatest voice, is back, March 7, 2016

The New York Times, In ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten,’ Audra McDonald Is Front and Center, August 2015

Time Magazine, Audra McDonald by Carrie Underwood, April 15, 2015

The Virginian-Pilot, Review | What’s great about Audra McDonald? Everything, May 2015

Limelight, Review: An Evening with Audra McDonald, November 2015