Audra McDonald's career is as broad as her vocal range. (For the record, the Broadway star is a member of the exclusive high C club: "I'm a lyric soprano with low notes, that's how my voice teacher likes to describe me," she says.) Best known for her roles in "Carousel," "Master Class," and "Ragtime" – musical-theater productions that garnered her three Tony Awards in three successive years – McDonald has just surprised the Playbill set by releasing an album of songs by the likes of Neil Young, John Mayer, and Elvis Costello. In March, she made a crossover of a different sort: The singer made her operatic debut with the Houston Grand Opera. Her other spinning plates include dramatic stage acting (she won a fourth Tony for 2004's "A Raisin in the Sun"), roles on TV (she's a regular on NBC's new show, "Kidnapped"), and motherhood (she has a 5-year-old with husband Peter Donovan, a bass player).
It's a multifaceted career that springs from an artistic wanderlust. Ask her which roles she'd like to perform, for example, and her answer is quick-sure. "Something that hasn't been written yet. I've done revivals – I'm going to do another one this spring on Broadway – it's not as if I thumb my nose at that. It's just that I'm just as, if not more, intrigued by what's still out there to be discovered," she says.
That progressive sensibility informs "Build a Bridge" (Nonesuch), an album largely devoted to interpretations of rock and pop rather than just sticking to musical theater.
"Instead of focusing on one genre, I said, 'You've got the whole world. Look at everything,' " McDonald explains during a telephone call from New York.
She's not kidding when she says that nothing was off limits – initial recording sessions included a Willie Nelson song, later shelved – in her search for lyrics she could relate to. One such tune was John Mayer's "My Stupid Mouth," a tale of rueful regret by someone who talked too much on a first date. "It was a story I'd lived in my own personal life," reveals McDonald.
Two of the cover versions, "To a Child," by Laura Nyro, and "Bein' Green," a Joseph Raposo tune popularized by Kermit the Frog, resonated with the young mother.
"My life is so busy now that I have a child, that I rarely get a chance to listen to music just for the sake of listening to music," she says. "Usually I'm studying something that I have to sing or, 9 times out of 10, it's 'Dora the Explorer,' or something Disney, because of my daughter!"
"Build a Bridge" does include one song from a musical: "Dividing Day" from Adam Guettel's "Light in the Piazza." But McDonald's vocal, accompanied by Fred Hersch's piano, is more reflective and stark than Victoria Clark's original. It was a conscious attempt not to mimic Clark's rendition.
"Why do it that way? What's the point? We already have that interpretation," says McDonald. "That's how I feel about new music as a whole. Maybe that's sort of an infantile, rebellious reaction to my years at Juilliard and being told, 'That's not how one sings Mozart.' Well, how does one sing Mozart? I'm not 'one,' I'm me. I'm going to sing it this way."
The singer's foray into opera is another legacy of her Juilliard years in New York. It was there that she first heard Poulenc's "La Volumen," a piece that helped her discover her voice. This year, she went to Houston to achieve a long-held dream of singing the opera. True to form, the singer opted to accompany the piece by commissioning Michael John LaChiusa to write a one-woman opera about someone navigating the world of online dating. (Joke about the idea of her performing "Aida," and she snorts with laughter.) In February, she will visit the Los Angeles. Opera for "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
Before then, McDonald will have worn out several day planners. In between filming of "Kidnapped" (NBC, Saturdays, 9 p.m.) as well as a television adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun" with original cast members Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, McDonald will be preparing for a Broadway revival of "110 in the Shade." She will also join the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center for a New Year's Eve performance of jazz standards that will be broadcast by PBS. But first she's relishing the idea of touring the US to support "Build a Bridge." (See Nonesuch.com for tour dates.)
"These songs resonate very deeply with me in a personal way," she says. "We have moments of pure joy and then, boy, we go down deeper than where the iguanas play, and then we come back up again. That's life, and I'm just trying to explore that."