After much ‘Practice’ McDonald returns to stage
By Naila Francis
It was a bittersweet goodbye, but after four seasons of playing Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC’s hit series “Private Practice,” Audra McDonald is back in her element.
The singer and actress launches a North American concert tour Saturday with her performance at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts helping to kick off the venue’s 10th anniversary season. She also will appear Thursday at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
The tour, her first since joining “Private Practice” four years ago, is a showcase for her signature mix of musical theater tunes, film classics and originals written expressly for her by prominent contemporary composers.
“When I’m not singing for a long time, it always feels like there’s a part of me that’s missing,” says McDonald, whose lauded career spans opera and Broadway, concert appearances with a wide range of ensembles, from solo piano to orchestra, several dramatic roles in film and television and four solo recordings. “When I start to sing again, it’s, like, ‘Now I know who I am.’ I’m excited to get back out there. I enjoy concerts quite a bit and enjoy having that immediate interaction with the audience.”
Her 20-city run will include favorites such as “Edelweiss” — “My dad played it for me for my first audition when I was 9 years old. That song is very special,” she says — and “When Did I Fall In Love?” from “Fiorello!” alongside works by composers like Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter and David Yazbek, artists whose catalogs she’s previously traversed sparingly if at all.
“It’s going to be an eclectic mix, which is just sort of what I do, who I am,” says McDonald.
Such versatility, which often has her flitting seamlessly from medium to medium, is her hallmark.
McDonald is beginning her tour just as she’s ending her run in the American Repertory Theater’s new production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass. The work, an ambitious re-invention of the 1935 opera adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, with direction by Diane Paulus, is slated to open in previews on Broadway come December and has already earned McDonald, who will reprise as Bess, raves for her portrayal.
“It’s a role I always wanted to play and it came around at the right time when I was old enough to play it,” says the 41-year-old New Yorker, who last appeared on Broadway in the 2007 revival of “110 in the Shade.” “The idea of coming back to Broadway was very enticing to me. To work with Diane Paulus and the (George and Ira) Gershwin and (DuBose) Heyward estates, which gave her their blessing for this assignment with this charge to be bold — that was enticing ….
“Bess, she’s very much a mystery. It’s the hardest role I’ve ever had to play and I don’t know that I’ll ever completely figure her out. It’s been a big journey for me getting to know this character.”
Yet McDonald has built her repertoire embracing such challenges and defying expectation. She was fresh out of Juilliard’s classical voice program when she was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in the 1994 revival of “Carousel,” earning her first Tony Award, for Featured Actress in a Musical.
But her Broadway debut came even before that, in a replacement role in the “The Secret Garden,” while she was still in school.
Though she never studied acting formally, she’d been well primed for the stage from age 9, working at a dinner theater in Fresno, Calif., where, at 16, she landed the title role in “Evita.” And so she arrived at Juilliard well-versed in the musical theater canon.
“I auditioned with no real intention of heading toward a classical career but wanting to go to Juilliard because it was the top institution in the country and they accepted me,” says the soprano. “I had a classical voice and I fought against it, but I’ve learned to embrace it.”
She would go on to chart an impressive, multi-faceted career, earning two more Tonys before she turned 30 — for her performances in Terrence McNally’s play “Master Class” and the musical “Ragtime” — and a fourth in 2004, starring as Ruth, alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs, in “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“One doesn’t set out to win Tony Awards,” says McDonald, who’s amassed plenty of other accolades, including two Grammys, for the recording of “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” the Kurt Weill opera in which she starred with Patti LuPone, and an Emmy nomination for her role in “Wit,” the HBO film adaption of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
“You set out for the love of what you do. Being in the theater is a very difficult business. It’s not stable. You never know if you’ll have your job tomorrow or anything like that. You have to do it for a real love of the art and the craft. It’s an honor to have received those Tonys and I try not to think about them too much because there’s still work to be done.”
Her other theater credits include “Marie Christine,” which was written for her by composer Michael John LaChiusa, and “Henry IV,” while her onscreen credits include “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” “The Bedford Diaries,” “The Object of My Affection” and the upcoming Woody Harrelson film “Rampart.” Yet she was still a bit camera-shy when she auditioned for “Private Practice.”
“You certainly gain a muscle for learning lines really quickly, and I learned how to get comfortable and communicate in front of a camera,” says McDonald. “It’s interesting playing the same character for a very, very long time but in different circumstances. I spent four years with Naomi. I got to know her. In the end, I realized I don’t have a lot in common with her. She’s very conservative. She’s a mom, she’s divorced, we’ve got that in common, but a lot of her views I didn’t share at all. … It was a big challenge to play her and convey the truth of her conviction with those views.”
She wasn’t ready to leave prime time — “I love that show. I loved working with that group of people. I miss them terribly,” she says — but commuting between Los Angeles and New York and being away from her daughter, Zoe, for such long stretches was taking its toll.
For despite her many accomplishments, motherhood, she says, remains her greatest role.
“You have to become a bit of a deeper person once you have a child just because of the depth of your soul that has now been filled with love in parts that you didn’t even know existed,” says McDonald. “You also learn to live more in the moment with motherhood because children live in the moment.”
She also takes seriously her unintentional role as a groundbreaking performer, having found no shortage of opportunities to break the glass ceiling so many black female artists still complain about.
“If I am (opening doors), that would be a great honor because I would be carrying on in a great tradition started by the Ethel Waters, Lena Hornes, Diahann Carrolls and Ruby Dees of this world for me,” she says. “It probably should be a charge because to not pursue that would be a disservice to all those greats who came before me.”
– The Intelligencer, Bucks County Courier Times and Burlington County Times