Actress and vocalist Audra McDonald is an exceptional five-time Tony Award-winning sensation. The trailblazing star, alongside Julie Harris, holds the record for being the youngest performer and first actress of color to earn that number of coveted trophies.
McDonald, a Juilliard graduate-turned-Broadway standout in Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy & Bess, garnered three of her Tony awards before she turned 30-years-old. Originally from Fresno, CA, the multi-talented, two-time, Grammy-winning soprano originally found musical theater as a way to deal with her hyperactivity. Her first opportunity was performing with the Good Company Players’ Junior Company.
“Singing and acting were my passions as a kid. I was itching to get on stage from an early age. They taught me that hard work and discipline are really important and just as important as staying true to and celebrating who you are,” says McDonald.
The stage, normally accompanied by choral ensembles and symphonies, is where a versatile yet elegant McDonald feels most comfortable. She has performed at Carnegie Hall a total 17 times and has hosted PBS’ Live From Lincoln Center. The former co-star of the now defunct ABC drama Private Practice decided to return to the recording studio and musical theater in New York during the show’s production, which was shot in California.
Last year, McDonald released her first album in seven years, Go Back Home. Like her shows, the album’s repertoire consists of American musical theater songbook and tunes she loves. Calling Go Back Home “incredibly personal,” she says in reference to the album’s title, “If someone were to write a Broadway show about my life, this album would be it. I wasn’t going to do an album until I had something to say. When I look back on that now, I realized it was because life was happening. I was living life,” she says.
When McDonald travels, the in-demand performer admits she never has time to really explore the places she visits. Instead, the Drama Desk Award winner and Emmy nominee spends a great deal of time preparing for performances. Go Back Home was a career defining moment that allowed McDonald to understand how recurring themes in her life intersect with her love for music. “Most of the songs on Go Back Home are songs I’ve been singing for a while and which have come together in an organic way. In choosing material for an album I don’t look at who has written it or where it has come from. I ask does the song move me, can I connect to it and can I sing it,” says McDonald.
Her tireless work ethic has paid off. She’s earned numerous roles throughout primetime television. McDonald even co-starred in NBC’s live adaptation of The Sound of Music. “It was a huge challenge and a really ambitious project, but it was a wonderful and wild experience. I had a lot of fun. While we performed on a soundstage and it was broadcast live, I approached it as if it were a staged right in the theater like a Broadway show. I wasn’t nervous,” says McDonald.
Though stage and screen have both enhanced McDonald’s success profile, her humanitarian work is what keeps her adrenaline going. She is a champion for marriage equality and works tirelessly with various organizations to ensure love has no boundaries. “It’s a cause I hold close to my heart. It’s the modern day version of civil rights. I am a beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement, and I want to do my part,” says McDonald.
Arts education is McDonald’s other passion. She taught a master class to theatre students at St. Mary’s College. This week, McDonald is the special guest performer for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s (ASO) Symphony Gala. The affair celebrates ASO’s 20th anniversary of its Talent Development Program (TDP). The initiative develops and prepares young musically gifted students of color for top music programs and career opportunities.
She hopes her vocal and dramatic license resonates with youth whether they decide to pursue the arts or not. “Through arts education, we learn to appreciate our differences. One of my main goals as a performer is to inspire youth to get involved in the performing arts. Music teaches children discipline and the art of collaboration. The performing arts teaches tolerance as we all have different views on what sounds or looks beautiful. These are tools that can be used in all different aspects of life no matter what profession they end up choosing,” says McDonald.
McDonald just signed on to play Billie Holliday on Broadway this spring in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. In the meantime, she’s focused on spending time with her family. McDonald is very appreciative of her extraordinary career across various mediums. She firmly believes each of her talents afford her the leverage to pursue others.
“Singing makes me a better actor and vice versa. I really like the variety, which is why I don’t limit myself to one particular genre. It’s what brings fulfillment on a human level. One nourishes and feeds the other,” says McDonald.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.