Music: Young McDonald hits top form

At only 29, Audra McDonald has won three Tony awards and is about to star in a musical written specifically for her. She talks to Robert Butler
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She's been hailed as the new Barbra Streisand, the new Judy Garland and the future of Broadway musical theatre. The American playwright Terrence McNally compares those who saw Audra McDonald play Carrie in the Lincoln Centre revival of Carousel in 1993 with those who saw the young Streisand in I Can Get It For You Wholesale in 1962. "People left the theatre," he writes in the sleeve-notes to McDonald's first CD, Way Back To Paradise, "knowing that they had `discovered' a star".

At 29, McDonald has won three Tony awards: one for Carousel; one for Master Class (by McNally) in 1996, where she played one of the students of the Maria Callas figure; and one for Ragtime in 1998, the musical based on E L Doctorow's novel, where she played a mother who had an illegitimate child by a ragtime pianist. This autumn she opens in a new Broadway musical, Marie Christine by Michael John LaChiusa, that has been written specially for her. It is an update of Medea, set in Chicago at the turn of the century. This will be her first Broadway lead. If you want to see whether any of this hype is warranted, then McDonald is in London doing a week of cabaret at the Donmar.

Way Back To Paradise is a bold choice and a smart career move. It consists of 14 songs by youngish unknown musical composers. Instead of familiar showtunes, the CD showcases a new generation that combine Broadway sounds with the American classical tradition. They deal with pregnancy, abortion and racism, a murder trial and a Monica Lewinsky figure. Her next CD will mix standards from Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin with more new songs from youngish unknown musical composers.

I spoke to her last week, the day before she made her debut at the Proms in Wonderful Town. Sir Simon Rattle was conducting the same cast he had conducted on the EMI recording, and McDonald's main concern was getting the high C at the end of "Conversation Piece". She can go higher. Nearly every young composer who writes for her knows she can do a top A, and throws one in.

If you know Bernstein's overture, you could tell, just by watching McDonald at the Proms, which section of the overture the orchestra was playing. Her feet tapped, her hands patted her emerald dress and her black bolero swung gently from side to side. When she stood up to sing, her voice was clear, full and dramatic. The audience took to her at once. The high C was a cinch.

She's been at it a long time. McDonald grew up in Fresno, California. No, I hadn't heard of it either. A friend from the States e-mailed me about it. "Subject: Fresno is Nowheresville." According to his mother- in-law: "It's very hot and with a really nice mall in town." McDonald could be its first distinctive feature. "People say it's the armpit of California," says McDonald, "or it's like New Jersey." But McDonald had a good time from an early age: "I was very hyperactive. I had to channel that." There were dance classes from four, piano from six and performing with the Junior Company Players from the age of nine. "We were doing 10 musicals a year and I was on-stage 90 per cent of the time. I remember being on-stage more than off-stage."

Both grandmothers were music teachers. Her five aunts perform gospel as the McDonald Sisters. Did her father play an instrument? "What instrument didn't he play?" she answers. Everyone had day jobs. Her mother is director of an affirmative action programme, her father is a head teacher. McDonald remembers a moment when she was about eight, when her parents tested her voice to see if she had perfect pitch. A television clip of her as a child shows her singing the title song from Fame. When the governor of California came to town, she sang for him at a big dinner. Her numbers were "Someone To Watch Over Me" and the National Anthem. "I was 14. It was a big deal."

The crisis came when she went to the Juilliard School. Her main reason for going was to move to New York. "I didn't realise what I was getting into. It was very regimented. Italian diction, French diction, German diction. Theory classes. It was a conservatory." There was no place for Broadway. "All classics, all the time. It sounds like a radio station." The conflict for McDonald was acute. "I was discovering that my voice is operatic, I have a naturally classical voice. But my love is for musical theatre. I kept sneaking off to do summer stock-and-belt." When McDonald took the role of the student in Master Class, all these issues came "flying back in my face".

If you read the 43 customer reviews of Way Back To Paradise on the amazon.com website , there is a consensus about her voice: "honey-like", "angelic", "glorious" and "shattering". The reviews split when it comes to the songs. The bad ones say they're "art songs", "inaccessible" and "aping Sondheim's worst flaws" and the good ones say "sure to become standards", "miles away from the formulaic pap" and "music of the late 20th century and definitely of the 21st". Either way, McDonald is an inspiration to this new generation. LaChiusa wrote Marie Christine for McDonald after hearing her sing a song at an audition. He has written one song just because her voice has a strong angry quality on the `E'. These new composers can't wait to show her stuff. Another one, Adam Guettel, brought McDonald a song that became "Baby Moon" on her CD. "He'd only written the complement. He didn't have the melody yet."

`Divas at the Donmar': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732), 23-28 August

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