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Fifteen Minutes with Fame: The Audra McDonald Q&A

Editor’s Note: Audra McDonald performed at Hill Auditorium on November 4 as part of 11/12 UMS Season.  A brief Q&A session with U-M Musical Theatre students preceded the performance. Sarah Bichsel, UMS Social Media Intern, attended and transcribed this session.

When I was eight years old,  my mother brought home the new Disney version of Annie on VHS (this was still a time when you could purchase a VHS tape without the store clerk bursting into laughter). My mother purchased Annie knowing that I loved both musicals and the prospect of stardom, and as we watched it together, I’m sure she was gratified by the sight of my attempts to sing along. The movie became one of my favorites, mainly because I believed I could sing better than the girl who played Annie, and it was not uncommon to find me in the living room belting out  “Tomorrow” in front of the TV. There was one person in the film, th0ugh, for whom I had the utmost reverence, and that was Audra McDonald. When she came on the screen, I was transfixed as she glided effortlessly over each note. Her voice was sacred, her music ethereal. Even as I grew older and drifted farther from my interest in performance fame, I remembered her and cheered as she triumphed in one concert after another. I hope that you will all be as inspired by her as I was and still remain.

From the Q&A Session:

Why don’t you tell us about the program tonight?
Audra McDonald: I’m a bit of an eclectic personality so it’s going to be a mixture of stuff that you’ve heard me sing before, and some new things. I’m doing some Julie Styne, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, and then some new composers. I’ll do some that’s modern and some that comes from before you were born–whatever speaks to my heart.

You studied voice at Juilliard. Do you continue to study and have voice lessons?
AM: You must always continue to study voice. I had a voice lesson the night of my performance at Carnegie Hall! A dancer wouldn’t stop doing their barre. What Juilliard gave me was the idea that I had this classical instrument and without my studies there, I wouldn’t have discovered this part of me. I wanted to be a belter. I didn’t want to sound too arch. [She sings an exaggerated, Wagnerian opera note]. But I found that the classical part of my voice is a part of who I am.

How do you approach developing a character?
AM: For me it’s all about finding. Finding the why, finding the verb, finding the arc within the play. I am always searching for the truth. It doesn’t change from role to role. I’m always looking for that arc.

Did you ever study acting specifically?
AM: I never studied acting. Programs were very specific at Juilliard. You’re either in the voice department, or the drama department. Juilliard since I’ve left has become a bit more open…at the time I studied you couldn’t do both.

How did you get involved with Private Practice?
AM: It was interesting. The show was a spin off from Grey’s Anatomy, a Shonda Rhimes production, so it had a certain pedigree. It scared me so much. And in the beginning I had to learn that being in front of the camera wasn’t about giving my entire self. It was an opportunity to learn and get comfortable. You have to bring it down and use those smaller muscles in front of the camera.

What do you like about performing a role versus performing in concert?
AM: What I love about a role where you play the same part is that you get a million chances to get it right. There are some people with whom you can set a watch to their performance. For me if it doesn’t feel alive and true, that doesn’t work. If you mess up one night, you can try again the next night. My director has this saying, “turn the page,” which means that even if you thought that for that night you were brilliant and awesome, don’t hold onto it, turn the page. You have to move on the next night. With concert work, I love the spontaneity of it. It’s nice to not have the fourth wall.  You’re actually able to talk to the audience and say, “Hey there! What’d you have to eat?”

What about the diversity of the arrangements on your CDs?
AM: Without music directors we are nothing. They help give you fresh perspective. You say to them, “Is there a way to make this funnier or sadder or faster,” and they scribble it down and say here I know what you mean.

How do you balance family life and your career?
AM: My family is the most important thing to me. I’ve read a quote from Renee Fleming that says, “I don’t get paid to be on stage, I get paid to be away from my family.” How does one balance it? I don’t know. Today anyone who wants to have a child can have a child, and you make sacrifices on either end for that family. My family always says to me “sing fast.” It’s all wonderful, but I keep thinking about Tony Award nights. None of it feels real until I’m back on the couch at home having a burger with my kid.

When did you know you wanted to be a performer?
AM: I’ve never done anything else. My dad’s family was very large. They used to say, “oh she’s the dramatic one,” “calm down, it’s just a thunderstorm.” I always knew that I could sing. In my family I have the cute voice. I have some massive voices in my family. “That’s cute,” they all said, that’s what she’s going to do. I can’t do anything else. Don’t ask me to cook!

How did you get involved with GLAAD?
AM: My boyfriend was in Hair with Gavin Creel at the time. After Prop 8 passed, Gavin got very vocal, and the Hair cast got very vocal, and Will [my boyfriend] would come home every night going RAWR! They both gave me the idea of doing the rally. We convinced Austin Eustice to do an equality march and cancel a show for a DC march. Tonight in honor of this cause, I will be doing Gershwin’s “He Loves and She Loves.” Actually, I’ve been thinking about doing a song to combat Herman Cain, “Loving You Is Not A Choice it’s Who I Am.” It’s from Passion.

How do you balance Broadway and classical?
AM: They’re one in the same now. Getting the voice centered, getting the body out of the way constrictively. My coach’s philosophy is always healthy, healthy, healthy and then from there we can find the colors of the voice.

How did you transition from school to real-world auditions?
AM: I was sneaking out of school to audition! The transition was more about going to a classical sound. For me I started to feel better about who I was once I started auditioning, even though I wasn’t necessarily landing. I felt more secure because people weren’t saying “oh you said deh vieni wrong.”

How do you make choices in your career?
AM: I just knew that I wanted to perform. I’m curious about different aspects of the field—I’m open to it all. I think that what’s important is not saying no to certain opportunities—saying I want to try! When they asked me to perform at Carnegie, I’d never sung that high, and I’d given up the classical way, and it should have been no thank you, but I said, “Okay I’ll try!” Go at it with 100% commitment, with passion. Be willing to fall flat on your face!

How does it feel to have work created for you?
AM: It’s an incredible honor. You develop really deep collaborative relationships with directors. It’s like having a suit tailor-made for you. There’s the excitement about having things recognized about you that you might not see yourself. You say, “I can’t go that dark in this role.” Then someone looks at you and yes, you can go darker, you can, and you need to explore this. It has been a growing experience for me.

What are some of the relationships that have impacted you?

I have a lot of mentors…I also consider them family. Lonny Price is who I call my gay husband. I gave him a wedding ring a few years ago! Really, I did! He’s someone I run every project by.  There’s Zoe Caldwell—she scared me so much when we first met and now we talk about everything–I named my daughter after her. And Barbara Cook, who is finally being honored by the Kennedy Center this year! There are just certain people I run all my artistic decisions by.