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Actress and Singer Audra McDonald Feels at Home in Whirlwind of New Challenges

June 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald has just released her first solo album in seven years. Jeffrey Brown sits down with McDonald to discuss her career, her upbringing and her aptly named record, "Go Back Home."
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: a leading lady of musical theater and much more.

When Audra McDonald sings of going back home in a song by John Kander and Fred Ebb, she means it.

New York is her home, but she spent much of the last four years in Los Angeles playing the dramatic role of a doctor in the television series “Private Practice.”

ACTOR: You don’t like me?

AUDRA MCDONALD, Singer/Actress: No. No, I don’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was just the latest in what’s become a whirlwind career of new challenges that includes work in films and opera and now serving as host in “Live From Lincoln Center” on PBS.

AUDRA MCDONALD: Good evening. And welcome to the best seat in the house.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then there’s her true artistic home, musical theater. At just 42, McDonald is already among the most honored performers in Broadway history.

AUDRA MCDONALD: I found the theater and I found my home. I love you. Thank you so very much. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The winner of five Tony Awards, including for “Carousel” in 1994, and “A Raisin in the Sun” 10 years later.

And last year, she won for her acclaimed role as Bess in a new production of the Gershwin’ “Porgy and Bess.” We talked recently at Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C., as she just released her first solo album in seven years. Titled “Go Back Home,” it celebrates her love of musical theater.

AUDRA MCDONALD: I feel most at home on stage, since I was a little girl, since I started in the dinner theater in Fresno, Calif., and there was something about, you know — look, performers are needy. We’re needy beasts. So, you know, there’s what you get from the audience.

And for me, it’s the rush of being forced to be so in the present.

JEFFREY BROWN: McDonald has long been known as a champion of contemporary songwriters and what most often attracts her to a particular song is the story it tells.

One example on the new album, the song “Baltimore” by the songwriting team of Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler.

AUDRA MCDONALD: The song talks about certain — one shouldn’t fall for men from Baltimore.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

AUDRA MCDONALD: And while I have not had any experience with men in Baltimore, I certainly can …

JEFFREY BROWN: No knock on Baltimore.

AUDRA MCDONALD: No, no, no, no, but I certainly can relate to the type of men that the song describes. And so for me, I had an immediate reaction. I thought, well, I know that story. I can sing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the liner notes for the album, McDonald explains the presence of the song “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music.”

At age nine, she writes, she needed a song for her first audition with a professional theater group in Fresno. She performed it with her father, who died six years ago and clearly had a huge influence on her life.

AUDRA MCDONALD: I practiced it with my dad playing the piano. And so we went down to the theater not realizing that they would have an accompanist there. But I didn’t know that accompanist. I didn’t know that person, so my dad, my huge, hulking dad, got down and sat down on the piano and played it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re telling the story as though you remember it extremely well.

AUDRA MCDONALD: I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do?

AUDRA MCDONALD: I do, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

AUDRA MCDONALD: Every bit of it. I remember — my dad was 6’6”, this strapping, huge guy. He had humongous hands.

And he would just put his hands down on the piano to play and you could hardly see the rest of the keys. And he was so big. And I just felt very safe, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: You also describe yourself in those notes a young girl with a little potbelly, hyperactive and overly dramatic.

AUDRA MCDONALD: Yes. Yes, yes, and yes.

I was all of those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

AUDRA MCDONALD: I’m some of them still today.

JEFFREY BROWN: I won’t ask which ones.

But the theater was the outlet for that. I’m thinking of the overdramatic part.

AUDRA MCDONALD: Absolutely, the hyperactivity and the overdramatic part.

I was very insecure and had been diagnosed as hyperactive, and was a drama queen. And, you know, I was sort of famous in my family, not just my immediate family, but the rest of my family, too. My aunts use to say, oh, that one. Everybody knew that I was this child. Well, we’re having a thunderstorm. We’re all going to die. You’re nine. Don’t think about those things. It’s your problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Somebody said, put this girl on a stage.

AUDRA MCDONALD: So, literally, it was like let’s channel this energy before we kill her. It was something just before she drives us crazy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I was wondering if this hyperactivity explains all the different things you do.

AUDRA MCDONALD: Hopping back and forth?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

AUDRA MCDONALD: Probably. Probably.

It’s interesting now, because my hyperactivity — I think what the theater did for me in terms of channeling all that energy is that it doesn’t feel like hyperactivity to me now. It just feels like, I have got this to do and I have got this to do. And, oh, I need to do more concerts, and, oh, but I’m curious about being on television or I want to learn about being — acting in front of the camera. Or maybe I should work on an opera. Or it’s time to do some more Shakespeare. So …

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the conversation in your head all the time?

AUDRA MCDONALD: All the time, and laundry and the kids and someone needs to feed the dogs. Those are the other things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do any of these different forms scare you at this point?

AUDRA MCDONALD: All of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All of them?

AUDRA MCDONALD: Every single day, they all still scare me, you know?

I think I read somewhere that Barbra Streisand started to develop — to develop more and more stage fright as the years went by. And I understand that. They all still scare me very much, because I’m afraid I’m going to fail, and so that’s why.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

AUDRA MCDONALD: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So what do you do?

AUDRA MCDONALD: I stay hyperactive and go back out there, and maybe I fail at times.

But there’s — I have to say there is a drive that just — that’s in there somewhere that says, get back out there, get back out there every time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Audra McDonald will get out there this summer performing in concerts throughout the country.

My conversation with Audra McDonald continues online, where she talks about the stamina required and the stress involved in her recent acclaimed role in “Porgy and Bess.”