Singular chanteuse and six-time Tony Award–winner Audra McDonald, who’s taken home the coveted trophies for her recent turns as Bess in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, is also familiar to television audiences as Dr. Naomi Bennett on Shonda Rhimes’ Private Practice and as Mother Abbess in NBC's live adaptation of The Sound of Music. This month, McDonald, a California native, takes the stage at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall to sing from her latest album, Go Back Home, featuring Broadway classics from Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin.
You were amazing in the live telecast of The Sound of Music. Were you nervous before the performance as if it were the opening night of a Broadway show?
Thank you! It was a huge challenge and a really ambitious project, but it was a wonderful and wild experience. It was a very diverse cast, and I had a lot of fun. While we performed on a soundstage and it was broadcast live, we approached it as if it were a staged night in the theater like a Broadway show, so I wasn’t that nervous.
Have you developed a rivalry with Angela Lansbury since you now have more Tony Awards than her?
Ha! Angela Lansbury is a legend and a brilliant actress, so I feel extremely honored and humbled to even be named in the same sentence with her.
What are your pre-performance rituals?
Whether it’s for a performance on Broadway or a concert, I like to have some quiet and alone time before I get onstage.
How do you get inside your characters?
When I was playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, I would get to the theater every day, two hours before I had to, because I needed time to bond with Roxie the dog, do makeup, get dressed. I would put gin behind my ears and on top of my nose, so I could smell what Billie smelled and felt. I would also wear Tweed perfume, which is what Billie used to wear. It’s funny, though, because as soon as I would walk into the theater I would get sleepy. I was about to take on Billie Holiday’s life, and my body was subconsciously preparing for the transformation.
What’s your dream role?
I would like to do more Shakespeare, particularly playing Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. As far as musical theater, as long as a role scares me, challenges me, I’m completely open to whatever comes along.
See Audra McDonald on December 6 at UC Berkeley Zellerbach Hall (Berkeley), Get tickets here.
This article was published in 7x7's December-January 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe.