Audra McDonald started performing at her local dinner theater in Fresno, Calif., at the age of 9. By the time she was 16, she had memorized hundreds of songs and was performing daily in cabarets and musical theater. After graduating from the Juilliard School, where she studied classical voice, McDonald quickly became a blockbuster star on Broadway.
McDonald won Tony Awards for her first three featured roles in “Carousel,” “Master Class” and “Ragtime,” only the fourth actress to accomplish that feat inside of five years. She won her fourth Tony in 2004 for “A Raisin in the Sun,” and with another nomination for this year’s “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” McDonald is set to make Tony Award history. If she wins on Sunday, McDonald will be the first African-American actress to win five Tony Awards and will be tied with Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury for most wins by an actress.
Art Beat had a chance to talk with McDonald about her accomplishments, her arts education, the differences between performing on television versus live theater, and singing at the first same-sex marriage in New York.
You’re a four-time Tony Award-winning actress and could win your fifth Tony on Sunday. Are you nervous to be on the verge of making history?
It’s an incredible honor, but it’s not something I can think about a lot. It’s not why you do it. I didn’t set out to win a Tony Award. I just wanted to be on Broadway. That’s what I wanted. I said, “I want to be on Broadway, and then once I got to Broadway I want to be a better actress than I am. I want to be a better singer, I want to explore different roles, I want to learn how to access deep emotion and get into the psyche of different characters.”
I hope I’m not at the peak. It’s all about continuing to grow as an artist, so my goal is to keep on growing and discovering as an artist and improving. Discovery is what’s most important to me, so I just I want to keep going. I want to do more Shakespeare, I want to do more traditional plays, and I just want to keep growing.
You’re currently reprising your role as Bess in “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway. How is this production different or unique from the production you did at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge?
The main difference is we’re working on the ending a little bit, but it’s not terribly different. I think the main thing is you get to know these characters, spend more time with them. The sets are slightly different, and we’ve been able to add some more musicians to our orchestra pit, so our orchestra has grown in size. We’ve just worked hard at getting deeper and deeper into the characters, which we are still doing on a nightly basis, which is what any actor or singer does when they are working on a role. You try to discover something new and go deeper with the character every night. It’s just part of the journey and the process.
You’ve played several incredible heroines throughout your career. Are there any characters that are especially close to your heart or challenged your acting talents?
Well, I would say Bess is certainly one of them. I’ve been so fortunate to play — really portray amazing ladies. I got to do a musical version of “Medea” called “Mary Christine.” Talk about getting into a character and trying to understand why someone makes the choices that they make as horrific as they are. Trying to not judge and just understand and get to the truth — that’s certainly one, Medea is certainly one.
Playing Ruth in “A Raisin in the Sun,” just because it’s such an iconic character and such an iconic piece in theater history, especially in African-American theater history. I’m in love with all the characters I’ve played. They’re like children; it’s hard to have a favorite. You love them all. You love them all differently, but love them all equally.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I think pretty much from a very early age. I started performing when I was about 9 years old in a dinner theater in my hometown of Fresno, Calif. I knew basically then the thing I enjoyed doing and felt happy I was doing it and fulfilled. I knew that at an early age, so I pursued it from an early age on.
How did having an arts education background at either the Roosevelt School of the Arts High School or Juilliard help shape your career?
Well, it’s an education and the exposure, the nurturing within the arts that you get from a very early age. I learned so much about the American music theater canon by the time I was 15 or 16. I had been in many musicals already in my hometown and was doing a cabaret every night prior to the big musicals that were done at the dinner theaters I grew up in. I was learning about 15 to 20 songs per cabaret, and so you just amass kind of an incredible knowledge as a result. These were all musical theater songs. I just amassing an incredible library to the point where I look back on it now and a song will come up from “Ok” or from “On a Clear Day” or something and I’ll know all the words, and I will have known all the words from the time I was about 9, 10, 11 years old, just due to the fact that I was just being exposed to so much of it.
I gained an appreciation for the arts, as well, through my dinner theater and high school and obviously Julliard, where I was studying music theory and music history. In my high school, I was not only studying acting, dancing and singing, but directing. We were putting on shows, and I got to stage manage a couple of shows. Then you work in the costume shop and you do all this stuff, so you gain an appreciation for all of the performing arts. When I was at Juilliard, lots of producers would hand over a certain block of free tickets for students, so even though we couldn’t afford Broadway shows or the opera, people out of the kindness of their hearts would give us tickets so we could come and watch and be inspired and learn. It was an incredible education.
You’ve performed on Broadway and in television. Do you have a preference between theater and TV?
I wouldn’t say that I have a preference, but I started in live theater and so that’s always home for me, because that’s how I got my start. Television came much, much later and I like it and I love the challenge of it. Watching all different aspects of a crew and the actors and the sets and then seeing it all come together is fascinating, but I think the live theater feels more like home to me because that’s just what came first.
Do you have a preference between singing and acting?
No, I kind of love it all. It’s different ways of expressing the truth of a character, emotion in a story, telling a story, and so I’m fulfilled by all it.
With President Obama recently voicing his support of same-sex marriage, what was it like performing at the first gay wedding in New York City?
It was an honor, it was a beautiful moment. I felt like it was a historic moment and a big step in the civil rights battle that is marriage equality. I was very moved to be a part of it and I’ll never forget it. I think it’s something I’ll carry with me always, having my daughter there and seeing these two people who were loved and committed to each other and already had a family — they have two beautiful little girls — see them become a family in the eyes of the state legally, to then all of a sudden in that moment be able to receive all the benefits of being legally recognized as a family that they already knew in their hearts they were but to see that being legally recognized, I think was momentous.