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  • Finian Hackett

Theatrical Legends - Audra McDonald

This post marks the start of a brand new series called 'Theatrical Legends'. Once every month or so I'll be posting a profile of one of theatre's most legendary figures who have made a huge impact on the theatre world.


This week, we start with the record breaking 6 time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald.

Born in Berlin in 1970, Audra grew up in California, before going to New York to pursue her dreams of performing, where she attended the prestigious Juilliard School (which has alumni such as Mandy Patinkin, Christine Baranski, Kevin Kline and Laura Linney, to name but a few). Although now renowned for her ability to perform both in musicals and plays, she actually trained in classical singing. Whilst training at Juilliard, Audra made her Broadway debut as a replacement in the 1991 musical The Secret Garden. After finishing her run in the show, she returned to Juilliard and completed her degree, graduating in 1993. It was after this that her career took off and has not stopped since...

 

Carousel

Audra McDonald and Sally Murphy in Carousel (1994)

Audra's first starring role was as Carrie Pipperidge in the 1994 Broadway revival of Carousel. This production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, was a transfer of the 1992 National Theatre revival which had won 4 Oliviers. Starring alongside Audra were Michael Hayden, Shirley Verett and Eddie Korbich. The show was extremely well received and won 5 Tonys, including Best Musical Revival. But it was Audra McDonald's win for Featured Actress in a Musical which was the real standout for this show as it kickstarted the record breaking Tony wins for the years to come.


Master Class


Straight off the back of her Tony win the year before, Audra took on her first original role in Master Class, written by legendary playwright Terrence McNally. The play, which premiered on Broadway in 1995, follows opera diva Maria Callas as she teaches and coaches students, all whilst looking back on her career and all she had done in her life. It originally starred Zoe Caldwell as Callas and Audra McDonald as her student Sharon, who received Tony Awards for Best Actress and Best Featured Actress respectively. The two became close friends, with Audra naming her first daughter after Zoe Caldwell.


Ragtime

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in Ragtime (1998)

Audra's third Tony was for her role in the 1998 musical Ragtime. The show tells the story of 3 very different families as they try and achieve the "American Dream" in early 20th century America. Alongside Audra was a stellar cast: Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Judy Kaye and Lea Michele. The show was a hit, running for over 800 performances, which was very much needed as its budget was a large $10 million. Ragtime and The Lion King fought it out at the '98 Tonys, having 13 and 11 nominations respectively, and although The Lion King was crowned Best Musical, Ragtime won for Best Book (another Terrence McNally triumph), Best Score, Best Orchestrations and of course Best Featured Actress for Audra.


Life after Ragtime


Following 3 consecutive wins at the Tonys, Audra was in high demand. One of her first major film appearances was in the 1999 Disney remake of Annie as Grace Farrell. She starred alongside major names such as Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Alan Cummings and, in her first screen appearance, Kristen Chenoweth! Later that year, Audra opened in a brand new musical, Marie Christine, written especially for her; the show is loosely based on the greek play Medea and follows Marie Christine, a woman with voodoo links, as she gives up everything for a white sea captain and follows him all the way to Chicago. Even with a star name, the show failed to grab much attention and only managed a month on Broadway. Despite this, it gained 5 Tony noms including another for Audra but failed to win. After a small hiatus, Audra returned to the stage in 2003 in Henry IV as Lady Percy in a production in New York.


A Raisin in the Sun

Phyicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan in A Raisin in the Sun (2004)

In 2004, a revival of A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway starring Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy), Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan. It tells the story of a black family in South Chicago in the 1950s and their financial struggles after the death of the father of the family. It was the first revival of this classic play and was extremely well received with Phylicia Rashad winning for Best Actress in a Play and Audra McDonald picking up her 4th Tony in 10 years for Best Featured Actress. Audra had now fully cemented herself as a Broadway legend and had lots more success coming her way. The four main players reprised their roles for the 2008 TV film remake of the play, for which Audra even picked up an Emmy nomination!


Porgy and Bess


After Raisin in the Sun, Audra starred in productions of shows such as Twelfth Night with Anne Hathaway and Raúl Esparza and a revival of the musical 110 in the Shade, a show which would give her yet another Tony nomination (her sixth). In 2011, McDonald returned to the stage in a new adaptation of the Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess, in which Audra played Bess alongside Norm Lewis as Porgy. The show was completely reworked from top to bottom, most majorly turning the opera into a musical! Diana Paulus (Waitress) directed the revival which was met with positive reviews from critics (even though Sondheim wasn't as keen!). 10 Tony nominations later, the show won just 2 for Best Revival of a Musical and, you guessed it, Best Actress in a Musical for Audra McDonald. At this point, she had now tied with Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris for most Tonys with 5 under her belt! Only one more was needed and it came in the form of...


Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill


This play, surrounding one of Billie Holiday's final shows before her death in 1959, first premiered in 1986, but this production in 2014 was the first Broadway run. Starring McDonald as the iconic singer, the show's original 10 week run was extended many times and ended up running for 173 performances. Audra's groundbreaking turn as Billie Holiday is said to be her most impressive performance to date and earned her her sixth, record-breaking, Tony win for Best Actress in a Play. As well as having more Tonys than any other performer, she is also the only actress to win in every possible acting category! The show was filmed for HBO, gaining her an Emmy nomination, and it later transferred to London in 2017 marking her West End debut. She was then nominated for her first Oliver Award! An impressive feat - and all for the same role.

 

Away from the stage


It's not just the stage where Audra shines; TV and Film have played a major part in her career. Her first major series was Private Practise on ABC where she played Dr Naomi Bennett. After making a brief appearance in The Good Wife, McDonald now stars as a lead character in the show's sequel The Good Fight. Her character helps run the Reddick-Boseman-Lockhart law firm in Chicago, alongside characters played by Christine Baranski and Cush Jumbo (Go watch it, it's so good!). You may also recognise Audra from the film Ricki and the Flash or from her role as Madame Garderobe in the 2017 remake of Disney's Beauty and the Beast!


As well as all the Tonys, Audra has had many other awards and nominations, including:

  • 5 Drama Desk Awards

  • 5 Emmy nominations - winning one for presenting the live concert of Sweeney Todd

  • 3 Grammy nominations - winning 2 for Best Classical Album and Best Opera Recording

  • 6 NAACP Image Award nominations

  • The National Medal of Arts - presented to her by President Barack Obama

 

And that is the career of Audra McDonald (so far!). The actress has only just turned 50 so another 6 Tonys would not surprise me in the slightest. She is an Oscar away from becoming an EGOT; the possibility of this is getting closer with her upcoming role as Barbra Franklin in the 2021 film Respect about the life of Aretha Franklin. Rumours are constantly swirling around which role she'll tackle next - the most prominent of these being Mama Rose in Gypsy. Audra has expressed interest in tackling the role and in my opinion she would be amazing!


Let me know below your favourite Audra performances and what you'd like to see her do next!

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