By Mark Kennedy
ABOVE PHOTO: McDonald rehearses for her upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, in New York, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011.
(AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
NEW YORK — As deliberate as Audra McDonald is about picking songs for her concerts, what she says in between singing them is anything but considered.
“I just talk, which sometimes is good and sometimes is not good at all,” she says, laughing. “I find that keeps me at my most honest, which then keeps me in the right frame of mind for each song.”
The four-time Tony Award winner has even surprised herself by suddenly talking about shoes or what she ate for lunch. “For some people it’s like, ‘Oh, dear. I didn’t know all that about you, and I didn’t want to hear all that about you. I just wanted to hear your voice.'”
That voice is currently in the middle of her first concert tour in four years, which lands in New York’s Carnegie Hall on Saturday and then takes McDonald to Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Pennsylvania by the end of November.
After that, McDonald will be heading to Catfish Row to help restart a new production of “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway. The reworked opera, now called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” had a controversial out-of-town tryout this fall in Boston.
Directed by the American Repertory Theater’s Diane Paulus and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deidre L. Murray, the show generated headlines when Stephen Sondheim complained that an American masterpiece was being violated.
McDonald, who will play Bess opposite Norm Lewis as Porgy and David Alan Grier as Sporting Life, has taken the controversy in stride. While surprised to see New York critics showing up in Boston to review a musical that is still being worked on, she understands.
“People have such passionate feelings about this piece,” she says. “It’s been part of our cultural language forever and it’s just one of those things that everybody feels a bit of ownership in their own way. And God bless them all, as far as I’m concerned. Seriously.”
Paulus says McDonald has thrown herself into the role of Bess with every fiber of her being. “Audra is the kind of actress who investigates every moment she is living on stage — and she is relentless in her search for truth on stage,” Paulus says.
The controversy has found itself in McDonald’s song selections for her concert, which usually include show tunes, classic songs from movies and pieces written expressly for her. But she won’t be singing hits from “Porgy and Bess” such as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” because most of Bess’ songs are duets.
One song that McDonald, 41, has picked is “Go Back Home” from “The Scottsboro Boys,” a musical that closed abruptly in December after playing just 49 performances following protests from people who never saw it.
The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical frames the 1930s-era story of nine black teenagers wrongfully put on death row as a minstrel show but then immediately subverts it by having an all-black cast. Some performances of the show drew protesters who refused to see it and claimed the musical was actually embracing the minstrel convention.
“I think about people reacting to ‘Porgy and Bess’ because of what they’ve heard without necessarily seeing the show, and what happened to ‘Scottsboro Boys,'” she says. “Walk into the theater and see it. Then if you’ve got issues, yes, then by all means, march out of there and protest.”
She also plans to sing a Sondheim song, “Moments in the Woods” from “Into the Woods” after discussing it with the composer, a sign that their relationship hasn’t been destroyed over “Porgy and Bess.”
“I know how passionate he is about that particular piece. That’s no surprise to anybody,” she says, then adds diplomatically about the musical: “We disagree in certain areas.”
The creative team, she says, has condensed the four-hour opera into a two-and-one-half-hour musical, eliminated a lot of the repetitiveness and tried to deepen the characters. “We’re just trying to focus it more on the characters and the story,” she says. “For me in the end, if people are talking about theater, that’s a great thing.”
The opera-turned-musical tells the story of Porgy, a beggar from the slums, who tries to rescue Bess from her violent lover, Crown, and a drug dealer, Sporting Life.
To play Bess, McDonald has researched drug addiction and the life of women during the 1930s in South Carolina, where the writers based their work. She and Paulus have talked a lot about Bess’ past, what gives her joy and why she falls in love with Porgy. Two books also have helped: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which follows the fortunes of a black woman living in a small Florida town; and the DuBose Heyward’s novel from which the opera is based and which McDonald often consults.
“I carry that thing around like a bible. Mine looks like some college student’s textbook. It’s highlighted within an inch of its life,” she says. “I read a passage from it every night before I go on stage.”
When she hits the Carnegie Hall stage, it will mark her 17th appearance there but she still remembers her first. It was the season’s opening night concert in 1998 and she sang selections from the “Porgy and Bess” opera with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. “It was thrilling. It was scary. I had never sung that high in public before,” she says. “I had a ball and I loved it.”
Raised in Fresno, Calif., and trained at The Juilliard School, McDonald is the older of two daughters and is one of those performers who earns raves for whatever she touches. She won three Tony Awards before the age of 30 — for “Carousel,” ”Master Class” and “Ragtime” — and a fourth in 2004 for “A Raisin in the Sun.”
She has two Grammy Awards, four albums and thinking of a fifth, two Emmy Award nominations and has just finished four seasons on TV playing Dr. Naomi Bennett in ABC’s series “Private Practice.” She also appears in the new Woody Harrelson film “Rampart,” playing a bar fly with a thing for cops who has a steamy love scene with Harrelson.
“It was fun to step out of my comfort zone,” she says.
Her decision to join a TV show was done for the same reason. “I’ve always been afraid of the camera — really afraid. I thought, ‘Well, a TV show is certainly a way to learn how to get over that fear,'” she says. “I wanted to be as comfortable in front of a camera as I am on stage, even though they’re completely different muscles.”
McDonald’s Emmy nominations were earned in the HBO version of “Wit” in 2001 and for reprising her Broadway role in “A Raisin in the Sun” in a 2008 made-for-TV adaptation. She was also in the series “Kidnapped” and “The Bedford Diaries.”
The commute from New York to the set of “Private Practice” in Los Angeles was punishing and McDonald estimates that she spent 720,000 miles flying back and forth. “The airlines miss me,” she says. She was at airports so much that she befriended TSA agents.
Ultimately, the long days away from her 10-year-old daughter, Zoe Madeline — named after McDonald’s “Master Class” co-star Zoe Caldwell and actress Madeline Kahn — became too much. The death of McDonald’s father in a 2007 plane crash has also put her in a reflective mood.
“I have noticed that a lot of the songs that I’ve picked this time have been about being in the present and really holding onto to what’s important in life,” she says. “It forces you to take stock and learn what’s most precious. I think I’ve learned that lesson the hard way losing my dad.”
McDonald is an outspoken proponent for marriage equality — her Twitter handle is AudraEqualityMc — and she sits on the advisory board of the gay-rights advocacy organization Broadway Impact.
She may discuss her stance in between songs on her concert tour, even if it upsets her audience. “Sometimes I get quiet reactions and tepid applause. And sometimes I get raucous response to that,” she says. “That’s also part of who I am. I’m not going to hide that.”