Actress-singer Audra McDonald speaks with her hands. “I’m a little bit crazed right now, edgy,” she says, her hands fluttering around her face. “But I’m trying to remain as focused as possible.” It’s early May, one month before McDonald will add a third Tony—for best featured actress in the musical Ragtime—to her collection. However, right now she’s just another nominee, up against High Society‘s Anna Kendrick, Lion King‘s Tsidii Le Loka and Cabaret‘s Mary Louise Wilson. Still, to hear her calm voice and to see her relaxed demeanor mere hours before a Friday evening performance, one would never guess that this Tony-winning performer had anything to worry about—the only clues are those gesturing hands.
“Sit in the Archie Bunker chair,” she says, pointing to the overstuffed recliner in the corner of her spare dressing room. There are two photographs of a large, black dog taped to the mirror. “My dog, Bailey,” McDonald proclaims, like a proud parent. “She was a rescue, so she’s really afraid of people. She’s a wuss. But she’s great.”
McDonald’s dressing room is tucked within the maze of brightly lit corridors that form the underground backstage area of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the newly restored 42nd Street theatre. It is here that she is currently wowing audiences and critics alike as the tragic and guileless Sarah in Ragtime, the stage version of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel adapted by playwright Terrence McNally (with whom McDonald worked in Master Class two seasons ago) and composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens.
To meet McDonald face to face is something of a surprise. She looks more petite in person (she seemed to tower over the wisp that is Zoe Caldwell in Master Class) and far less tragic than her Ragtime character. At 27, McDonald is already a Broadway veteran, yet she can still get the jitters, the whirl of her hands betraying her calm.
By her own admission, McDonald is a drama queen. “I’m completely overly dramatic and completely hyper-sensitive to everything,” she says, only half-jokingly. But who could fault her tendency toward the dramatic? As a girl growing up in Fresno, Calif., there was always music playing throughout the McDonald household. Both of her parents were pianists and singers, and five of her paternal aunts toured the West Coast as the singing McDonald Sisters in the 1970s. By the time McDonald herself was nine years old, she was performing “in parts, big and small” at Roger Rocka’s, the local dinner theatre. As a high school student, she was a standout at the Roosevelt School of the Performing Arts. But even then, the ambitious California native had her eyes on New York.
“I remember putting on the cassette of Funny Girl and acting out all of the parts in the living room when I came home from school,” she recalls. “I’ve always wanted to be on Broadway.” It wouldn’t be long before McDonald would go from lip-synching Streisand to singing with her own voice. During her senior year at Roosevelt, McDonald was accepted to New York University and the American Conservatory Theater School for acting, but chose the Juilliard School instead to continue her vocal training. “Singing,” she says, “that’s my first love.”
It was during McDonald’s final year at Juilliard in 1992, while she was taking a year-long sabbatical “for some mental time off,” that she was offered a role in the national tour of The Secret Garden. After Garden, McDonald returned to Juilliard to finish her degree, but good notices led to an audition with British director Nicholas Hytner, who was casting the Lincoln Center Theatre revival of Carousel in 1993. “I had a series of five or six auditions before they cast me.” McDonald won her first Tony for her performance in Carousel, then two years later she won her second award for Master Class.
“She’s incredible,” says Tony spokesman Kevin Rehac. “She’s a member of a very select group of women who have won more than one Tony award.” (Broadway’s multiple award-winning leading ladies include Julie Harris, Angela Lansbury, Gwen Verdon, Mary Martin, and McDonald’s mentor, Zoe Caldwell.)
“Oh, my god,” McDonald effuses at the mention of Caldwell’s name. “She is just it for me. She’s such a force of nature, on and off stage. She is like my touchstone. A ruby-red gem I touch and I get my energy. I learned so much from Zoe during Master Class.”
Nowadays, McDonald seems to have mastered the art of simultaneously juggling multiple projects in her ever-burgeoning career. Aside from a small cameo role as the wedding singer in Hytner’s movie The Object of My Affection (“a favor for Nick”) and having recently put the finishing touches on her yet untitled debut album, “music from a bunch of up-and-coming musical theatre artists” due in August from Nonesuch records, McDonald is now contemplating a return to Fresno to attend her 10-year high-school reunion. “I’m starting to feel so old!” she screams, self-mockingly. “I didn’t feel that way a year and half ago.” And while there may be another potential Broadway project bubbling for McDonald next year, she’s happy to be exactly where she is, for now, and insists that film or television projects will have to be “right” for her to pursue them.
“I couldn’t see myself doing Booty Call,” she says. “No offense to the people who made the movie, but it’s not what I do. I know it sounds lofty, but I’m not saying everybody should be like me. Besides,” she says, folding her hands calmly into her lap, “I don’t think they would cast me in Booty Call anyway.”
Kipp Cheng is a 1997-98 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation.
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