Audra McDonald is 'bustin' out all over'

Interview with Audra McDonald

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Tony-winning actress and soprano Audra McDonald has the kind of talent that can't be pigeon-holed.

She has been honored for Broadway roles in such plays as "Ragtime" (1998) and "Carousel" (1994) and has starred in TV movies like "Annie" and "Wit," and appeared on series like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

The Fresno, Calif., native is now touring nationwide and has a new CD, "Happy Songs." She debuted recently with a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall and travels to Los Angeles this weekend. McDonald also will take on a dramatic new role in a new TV series, "Mister Sterling," in which she plays a senator's chief of staff.

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Whether she's performing in a TV drama or a staged opera her goals are similar. "The most important thing for me as an actress ... is to be fearless and to challenge myself," McDonald says. "Acting in TV and film forces me outside of my comfort zone, which is why I jumped at the chance to be in 'Mister Sterling.' "

At least one of her many fans is concerned about her segue into prime-time TV.

"She can be an excellent actress, but she seems to find her way to real emotion most successfully through passionate music and intelligent lyrics," says novelist and Broadway musical aficionado Jesse Green. "It's hard to believe she'll get the equivalent on a weekly show. Also, what animates her style is something rather quirky ... underneath the perfect veneer of her voice. Television drama doesn't usually do justice to such types."

Still, Green adds that McDonald has "acquitted herself well in every unlikely adventure she's taken on. Just when it seems that, this time, she's not going to pull it off, she does."

McDonald got her start in Fresno, performing in dinner theaters as a young girl.

"My earliest idols were Barbra Streisand, Patti LuPone, and Lena Horne," she says. "While at Juilliard, I was constantly torn between a classical career and a career on Broadway. I am still tempted by many classical works."

Heartily agreeing with her taste for varied fare is the rising star conductor Marin Alsop, who recently led a concert with McDonald as soloist.

"Audra is one of those rare artists that defies categorizing," Mr. Alsop says. "She has earned her well-deserved reputation based on her work on Broadway and in popular song, but she is equally gifted in classical repertoire and moves easily among all styles of music. She has a passionate curiosity for all styles of music and drama."

Some of her biggest fans demand more musical theater. "I want her to star in a revival of 'My Fair Lady' or 'Funny Girl,'" says Green. "A smart director could use the nontraditional casting effectively. As far as recording ... I'd like to hear her do more [Leonard] Bernstein."

Indeed, McDonald says she has a weakness for Bernstein's music, saying that the late composer was "someone who bridged the genres of classical and Broadway with ease, because he lived in both worlds. Being a genius didn't hurt either. I, too, fall in between both of those worlds, so I ... feel very comfortable singing his music."

Recently even McDonald's formidable gifts were not enough to carry an overly tragic "Marie Christine," (a musical retelling of Medea) by Michael John La Chiusa.

Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, says that McDonald "did a gallant job in 'Marie Christine,' which turned out to be too glum for the paying audiences. I hope younger composers like La Chiusa hang in there and create more works."

Green agrees that McDonald "above all needs to keep working with living composers ... otherwise we will have, in 20 years, only the same repertoire we have today."

McDonald herself seems to find no shortage of future projects, with plans to perform music by new composers Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers's grandson) and classics by Kurt Weill, whose theater piece "Seven Deadly Sins" she recently performed with conductor John Mauceri.

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