Audra McDonald, recipient of the 2018 McDermott Award in the Arts, visited MIT campus on several occasions this spring, meeting with students and faculty. In February, she joined Martin Marks’s class, The Musical, for an intimate exchange with students about her experiences on Broadway and beyond. Marks led the discussion, which he titled, “The Show Business I Know,” an allusion to the Irving Berlin classic made famous by Ethel Merman. (He compared McDonald to Merman, calling her the “reigning diva today in the Broadway world.” And given her six Tonys, two Grammys and an Emmy, this claim is not hyperbolic.) After an overview of McDonald’s storied career in music and acting, Marks and MIT students asked questions on a wide range of topics pertaining to musical theater and performance. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When you look back over your list of credits, do you see a narrative, or do you see a series of lucky accidents?
I’m a firm believer in the old adage, work begets work. What I do see is how one project led to another. I guess that means it’s a narrative. Within that, it’s all lucky accidents. But definitely, one thing led to another.
There are those interesting links, like the fact that you started in Carousel. But before that was The Secret Garden. There is a connection there, right?
Yeah. I was doing the tour of The Secret Garden. I got an agent by doing that, who said I have an audition for Carousel. Wherever we were in the country, I had to fly in from the road to do my auditions for Carousel.
I ended up having five auditions for the role of Carrie in Carousel. After the show had been running for a while, I found out that they had cast me after the third audition. But they didn’t tell me, because it had to go through a certain hierarchy of people approving the casting decision; the Richard Rodgers estate, the Hammerstein estate, Lincoln Center all had to approve, not just Nicholas Hytner, the director. That’s why I had to keep being called in to audition.
We finished a show of The Secret Garden, and the only way I could get to my final audition on time was to call in sick to a matinee. Everybody at The Secret Garden knew that it was my final callback, so they all knew that I had to call in sick. I called in that morning, and I said, “Hi, I’m sick.” And they said, “I’m glad you’re sick. Break a leg.”
It’s a crazy story. I had a friend who was the star of The Secret Garden whose wife was a psychic. She had almost died when she was 17. And when she came out of a coma, she was psychic. She told me the night before, “I don’t know why I have to tell you this, but leave yourself extra time. For some reason, some forces are going to try and mess with you in terms of you getting the part.”
Sure enough, I called in, and said, “I’m sick.” And they said, “Go, go, go.” I went to the airport, and they said, “We have no recollection of your reservation. There’s no reservation for you to fly to New York.” I said, “No, no, no, no, no. I have a reservation.” They said, “No, you don’t.” There were no cell phones—I couldn’t show them anything like a confirmation email. I said, “I have the number.” They couldn’t find it anywhere. I said, “OK, can I buy a ticket then? They said, “The flight is full.” And I insisted, “I have to get on this plane.” They said, “Sorry, the flight’s full.” So I asked if anybody else was flying to New York. There was one other airline—Southwest or something.
So I ran to the other part of the airport, got to the counter. They said, “We have one ticket left. It’s $1,000.” I didn’t have that kind of money in those days, so I called and begged my dad to put it on his credit card. Got on the plane. Got there. Ran to the audition. In the middle of the song that I was singing for everybody—I passed out. So, the psychic was right.
So you do Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, and the next thing you’re in is a tribute to Oscar Hammerstein. Next you do Master Class, a Terrence McNally play. After that is Ragtime, with the book by Terrence McNally. That can’t have hurt.
No, it didn’t hurt. It helped, for sure. Well, for whatever it’s worth, in Carousel, the amazing diva who played Netty Fowler was the great Shirley Verrett, an incredible opera singer, who passed away a couple of years ago. We found out that they were having auditions for Master Class to be these opera students. It’s based on the famous masterclasses that Maria Callas gave at the Juilliard school in the ’70s. Having been a student at Juilliard, I thought I should audition.
I wasn’t really into singing arias anymore. And the aria that the character was supposed to sing was Lady M’s in the Verdi opera of the “Scottish Play”—this isn’t a theater. This is a classroom, right? Well, let’s leave it at that.
I didn’t know Lady Macbeth’s aria, and Shirley Verrett had played the role. I didn’t even know that when I told Shirley. I just went into her dressing room one night. Kiri Te Kanawa had come to see Shirley, so the two of them were just hanging out in the dressing room.
And so I said, “There’s this audition, but it’s this aria.” Shirley said, “Ooph. Oh, honey, you’ve got to have, not only an A, you’ve got to have a C. Do you have a C?” I said, “I don’t think so.” She said, “No, I bet you do. I’ll help you.” And so Shirley Verrett coached me. I think that’s what helped me get the part. That only happened because I was working with her on Carousel. So work begets work.
How do you prepare for your television appearances versus theater? Do you prefer one medium over the other?
I don’t prefer one medium over the other. I find that when I’m steeped in one, I miss the others. That’s why I’m a bit hyperactive in my creative box. In the end, I’m looking for an ultimate artistic truth in anything that I’m doing, whether it is singing a concert, or playing a role on Broadway or doing a role for television. How you go about doing that differs for each piece.
Preparing for television, you have to learn how to bring everything in, because the camera is the conduit. I can’t be as big as I would on stage in front of a camera, because it just would look grotesque. Whereas, if I were to be as small as I am on television on the Broadway stage, half of the people wouldn’t be able to tell what I am doing, which is why some television and film actors who try to come to Broadway fail—because they don’t know how to get big enough. The same way Broadway people will sometimes fail on television—because they are too big and people just want them to sit down. You know what I mean? The goal is always the same—the artistic truth, the truth of the moment, the character, whatever I’m trying to convey—but you have to use different techniques to convey it.
Following up on that, does doing one ever affect your ability to do another?
In a positive way, I’ve found. Sometimes in a negative way, in terms of fatigue. Because right now, we’re doing the television show and I’m touring as well, with concerts all over the country. I’m quite fatigued.
Right now, I’m doing this television show called The Good Fight. I’m playing a lawyer. And I have to use a lot of legalese words that I wouldn’t necessarily be saying in my everyday life. But I have to act like I know what I’m talking about, and act like I know what I’m doing in this whole other profession; that is training my mind in a way that, when I’m going back to learning music for these concerts that I’m doing, I’m finding the retention is better.
Because my brain is already set to memorize a lot of lines. With a series, you have to learn a whole set of lines every week, or sometimes within 24 hours. They’ll throw a whole new set of words or a whole scene at you, and say, oh, we’re filming that tomorrow, or we’re filming that next.
Also, the fact that I have to bring something in so small for it to work on camera that my specificity with what my character’s thinking and wanting has to be so fine and so well sharpened, or focused, that, when I then go to the stage, I’m really hyper-aware of what the most minute object, and want, and desire is. Because those muscles are being trained.
Or having big emotion, and realizing, I’ve got this big emotion. I know what this feels like and the biggest possible way that a big Broadway house can see it. Now, I just have to pack it in so that it can be seen on television. They all kind of inform each other. I find it very helpful, which is probably why I like to hop around.
You are famously versatile, and are adept at comedy as well as drama. Listening to you sing comic songs like Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler’s “Baltimore,” you make it seem effortless when it’s not, of course. Why is comedy so hard?
There’s a story about Brian Bedford, a famous British actor. He was working with Maggie Smith, and they were doing a production of Molièr, I believe. Brian would always get a huge laugh at a certain moment in the play when he asked for tea. And then all of a sudden, he started to not get the laugh. And he was like, “But I always get a huge laugh on this line. Why am I not getting a laugh?” So he asked Maggie Smith, if she could sneak, and watch, and see what it is. And she watched. And she came backstage, and she said, “Darling you’re no longer asking for the tea. You’re asking for the laugh.”
And that’s why it’s not coming. Comedy is rooted in truth. Once again, it is all about truth. And the truth of whatever the person wants in the moment is what makes the moment funny, not here comes a funny moment. The audience can read that immediately.
So the reason why Zina and Marcy’s song usually does well—except in Baltimore where it doesn’t—and why they wrote this song, is because they had had these experiences and they understood them. And so it’s a woman who absolutely has lived through these experiences. She’s not intending to be funny. She’s saying, this really happened to me. Don’t believe this. Don’t fall for that. That’s why it becomes funny, not because I’m trying to sing it funny to you. It really happened.
I wanted to ask about characterization, especially in revivals when the character has already been established by a previous actor. Do you try to build off of the roles that they established? Or do you have a method for diverging from that, making it your own role?
You have to make it yours. I’ve played a few roles, like Ruth in Raisin in the Sun that Ruby Dee played before me, or Bess in Porgy and Bess, or even in Carousel—the original lady in Carousel was not a black girl from Fresno.
I absolutely honor what’s been done beforehand. But I know if I try to do what was done beforehand, I am destined to fail, because it’s not coming from an organic place. So I will honor it. I will research what was done, especially when it’s whoever had the original role because they were closest to whoever wrote it.
Terrence McNally has a quote from Masterclass that “the composer is god.” So in terms of just finding out, as much as you can, what the original intent was, I agree with that. But that’s about as far as I’ll let anything be the same.
From there, I have to go to who is the character, what does the character want, not how did Ruby Dee do this or how did Barbara Streisand get this laugh, or whatever. For me, I don’t want to speak to everybody else’s artistic methodology. It doesn’t work.
Is that method just a bit of trial and error, just seeing what works?
Seeing what works. Seeing what fits with the character. It’s a constant collaboration between you, and the director and the other actors in the part, unless it’s just a one-person show. I’ve done those too, where it’s just you and the director. Then your final collaborator is the audience. The audience always lets you know whether it’s working or not.
What brought you to Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill? And how did you portray Billie Holiday without just losing yourself completely? I’m just astonished at the authenticity of this and the beauty of it.
Oh, thank you. A friend of mine, one of my gurus whom I trust with all my acting, had started doing a lot of directing. And he said, “There’s this play that was done in the ’80s that I think you should do. It’s about Billie Holiday. It’s a one-woman show.” So I was like, “No.” Then he said, “It’s Billie Holiday. It’s just her at one of the concerts she did about four months before she died.”
The writer’s boyfriend had been at this concert. He said there were only about eight people in the audience. And she was really, really drunk and had gotten drunker as the night went on. She shot up, brought her dog out. And then she just tripped and fell of the stage, and just wandered off the stage. It was horrifyingly sad to see this incredible legend in such decline. And he said, “You have to sound like Billie Holiday.” And I said, “Oh, no. I can’t do that. You know what I sound like. I can’t do that.” And he said, “I think you can.” And I said, “I think you’re wrong.”
So he said, “Let’s just find a place somewhere in the city, and let’s just work on it a little bit at a time.” So we worked on it for two years, just little bits at a time. And meanwhile, I would study everything I could about her. We interviewed everybody I could get a hold of who knew her or worked with her. I listened to every recording—not only her singing recordings, but lots of recordings of her talking. A lot of interviews. A lot of rehearsals where she was drunk just with her band in someone’s apartment. I would listen to those over and over again. I just did this in London this past summer on the West End, and every night before the show, I had to listen to recordings of her talking and singing, every night, right up until the moment I walked on stage, so I could be completely immersed in her.
She drank gin and 7-Up towards the end of her life. She wasn’t eating. She was basically just drinking. I put gin under my tongue, and behind my ears, and on the top of my mouth, and on my chest and my arms, so I would smell like it before I walked out on stage every night. I had to have all these track marks. Obviously, I didn’t do heroine. I wouldn’t do that.
It’s a bit too method?
Yeah. That’s too far. But I did just as much as I could to immerse myself into her world. And it was hard not to fall deep down into the bottommost pit of her despair. It was a huge commitment. It was a total body and soul commitment that had to happen every single night. I did a run on Broadway for six months, and then I did the run on the West End for three months, and then we filmed the HBO special.
I don’t know if we want to get into questions about race right now, and if that’s on your mind with the roles that you’ve played—Bess, Billie Holiday, Ragtime, Raisin in the Sun, Shuffle Along, as opposed to being Lady Percy in Henry IV.
Well, I just feel like if I’m right for a role, I want to go out for it. And I don’t necessarily see that as only being if I’m the right color for the role. It’s if I identify with who that person is, and what they want, and what they’re trying to say.
And I say this to all the students I’ve talked to—it goes for any aspect of your life—don’t you be the one to say no to yourself. You got to say yes. If someone else has more power, and they say no, that’s fine. But at least you said yes to yourself. Even if I had never gotten a chance to play these roles, I studied for them and went out and auditioned for them as if I was going to play these roles.
The other bit of advice that was given to me in terms of feeling less than, or thinking, oh, this person who is going to cast me has all the power, is to remind yourself that, “I’m not a plumber. I’m not walking into this audition, and they are saying, can you change the sink faucet for me. No. I’m a singer. I’m a performer. This is what I do. I have the tools to do this. I know who I am as an artist. I have the emotional ability to do this. I have the soul to play this part.” Go in with the understanding and the belief that you have the tools that are necessary. And then let them be the judge. But you go in having done your work, doing what you do, being who you are.
And that has helped me a lot, and especially with certain roles. When I did Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, for instance, people wrote in and were very angry that they had some black woman playing Mother Abbess.
And my father-in-law won’t listen to this one radio station– these sportscasters on some radio station were making fun of me the next day, saying, “Oh, come on. That wouldn’t happen. Why was she black? I don’t care how good she sang. It wouldn’t happen.” So he wrote in, and said, “You used to be my favorite show—I’m not listening to you anymore.” But it doesn’t matter. I said yes to myself, and played the role because I felt that I was right for the role.
I would say that, 98% of the time, people whose defining criteria for Broadway musicals is realism to life are way off base.
I don’t think right before they ran to the Alps, Maria was singing. I think they just ran.
Do you think Broadway needs some kind of Me Too movement? Or are there other issues, like fair representation, that are the priority, especially recently, when there are revivals like The Color Purple or Once On This Island?
I think there’s an awareness that wasn’t there, certainly when I started out on Broadway, or not nearly the way that it is now. Lots of things have brought that to the forefront.
Obviously, there’s the Me Too movement. But also, things like Hamilton. There’s certain things you can’t deny anymore. There’s the world before Hamilton, and there’s the world after Hamilton.
And that story is still being told in the most authentic way possible with people who look nothing like the people they are portraying. It doesn’t matter if the spirit of what they are portraying and who those people were is absolutely being celebrated night after night.
We’re in a place where we can’t go, to quote Ragtime, “back to before.” We can’t go back to before. How far ahead we will go, I think, depends on this next generation coming up to continue to say, “Oh, no, no, no, no. We don’t go through that door anymore. We go this way.” I honestly think that’s up to the younger generation. We can’t unsee. We’re in an awareness now that I’ve not experienced in my 30 years of performing.
And there’s been some extraordinarily creative revivals of things like The King and I, which was progressive in its time, but today, has to be rewritten.
It has to be. Every time they revive South Pacific, there has to be even more awareness. Carousel is getting ready to be redone again, with a black actor playing the lead, Billy Bigelow. With issues of domestic violence and all that, every time these shows get redone, you can’t go back to that way you did it before, or if you do, you have to shine a light on how blind people were at that time. I think we’re a lot better off than we were, say, 30 years ago.