McDonald, Audra

McDonald, Audra
▪ 2005

      In 2004 soprano Audra McDonald, best known as the luminous golden-voiced star of the American musical theatre, was rewarded with a Tony Award (her fourth) for best performance by a featured actress for her portrayal of Ruth Younger in the drama A Raisin in the Sun. In the dozen years since she had gained international attention for her first Tony-winning role—the fecund Carrie Snow in British director Nicholas Hytner's (q.v. (Hytner, Nicholas )) Lincoln Center Theatre revival of Carousel, McDonald had fashioned a barrier-busting career. Her credits encompassed not only the mainstream musical theatre but also an eclectic program of concerts and recordings, straight dramatic roles in contemporary plays and (with the 2003 Broadway staging of Henry IV) Shakespeare, singing and nonsinging roles in made-for-TV movies, and appearances on prime-time television.

      By her own admission, Audra Ann McDonald, who was born on July 3, 1970, in Berlin and grew up in Fresno, Calif., had always been a drama queen. “I'm completely overly dramatic and completely hypersensitive to everything,” she declared, only half-jokingly. During her childhood, music was everywhere—her parents were pianists and singers, and five of her aunts toured the West Coast as the singing McDonald Sisters in the 1970s—and by the age of nine, McDonald was performing big and small parts at the local dinner theatre. By the time she was playing musical leads in high school, her eyes were on New York City.

      It was the continuation of her vocal training at the Juilliard School that took McDonald to New York City and eventually brought her to the attention of Hytner. Her supporting-role Tony for Carousel was followed by similar accolades for Ragtime (1998) and Master Class (1996). Perhaps equally impressive were her 2004 season sold-out solo recitals at Carnegie Hall and with the New York Philharmonic, in which McDonald's rare versatility was on display in songs ranging from cabaret standards to Kurt Weill's “Seven Deadly Sins” cycle to art songs by young composers Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) and Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, a musical retelling of Medea written especially for McDonald).

      Whatever her successes as an actress, it was likely that audiences would continue to dote on McDonald's lustrous lyric soprano, which she controlled to exquisite effect whether in a buoyant or a mournful mode. McDonald considered singing a form of acting.

      Her future plans included singing the role of Kitty Oppenheimer, wife of the director of the Manhattan Project, in avant-garde composer John Adams's upcoming opera Dr. Atomic, about the making of the A-bomb. Many wondered if there was anything performers could do on the legitimate stage that McDonald could not do. Grand opera, perhaps? Not likely. On her work schedule for 2006 was a production of Francis Poulenc's La Voix humaine at the Houston (Texas) Grand Opera.

Jim O'Quinn

* * *

▪ American actress and singer
in full  Audra Ann McDonald 
born July 3, 1970, West Berlin, W.Ger.

      American actress and singer whose melodious soprano voice and expressive stage presence made her a primary figure on Broadway in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

      McDonald was raised in Fresno, Calif., by a family of musicians—her parents were pianists and singers, and five of her aunts toured the West Coast as the singing McDonald Sisters in the 1970s. McDonald began taking voice lessons and performing at a local dinner theatre when she was age nine. She continued to perform in high school, assuming the lead roles in several musicals, and pursued further vocal training at the Juilliard School in New York City (B.A., 1993).

      Soon after graduating, McDonald was cast in a touring production of The Secret Garden (1993). She quickly attracted attention the following year when she was cast as the fecund Carrie Snow in British director Nicholas Hytner's revival of Carousel. The supporting role earned her a Tony Award. McDonald also demonstrated her abilities as a dramatic actress when she performed the role of a young opera student in Terrence McNally's play Master Class (1996), for which she won another Tony. She made her film debut in the drama Seven Servants (1997), in which she again played an opera singer. Her third Tony was awarded for her stage role as Sarah in McNally's musical Ragtime (1998).

      McDonald's appearance in the title role of Marie Christine (1999), a musical retelling of Medea, written especially for her by Michael LaChiusa, marked her first leading role on Broadway. Though the critical approbation elicited by her acting was significant, it was exceeded by the attention paid to her lustrous lyric soprano. She controlled her voice to exquisite effect, navigating a score composed in an amalgam of musical styles. McDonald expanded her repertoire to include Shakespeare with a 2003 performance as Lady Percy in Henry IV. Her turn as Ruth Younger in a revival of Lorraine Hansberry (Hansberry, Lorraine)'s A Raisin in the Sun (2004) secured a fourth Tony. In 2007 McDonald starred as Lizzie Currie in the musical 110 in the Shade. That year she also sang the role of Jenny in the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

      As well as acting and singing in stage productions, McDonald gave numerous solo performances. At Carnegie Hall in 2005 she premiered a specially commissioned song cycle entitled The Seven Deadly Sins composed of seven pieces written for her by different composers. She was a guest vocalist with the New York (New York Philharmonic), Los Angeles (Los Angeles Philharmonic), and Berlin philharmonic orchestras. Between stage productions she toured in support of her solo albums Way Back to Paradise (1998), How Glory Goes (2000), Happy Songs (2002), and Build a Bridge (2006).

      McDonald made a number of film and television appearances. The 1999 television version of Annie featured McDonald as Miss Grace Farrell. She garnered acclaim as the nurse Susie Monahan in the television adaptation of the play Wit (2001) as well as for the reprisal of her Broadway role in the television production of A Raisin in the Sun (2008). In 2007 McDonald took a recurring role in the television drama Private Practice.

Jim O'Quinn

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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