With a powerful and impressive vocal range that encompasses opera, musical theater and Billie Holiday, Audra McDonald is the singer’s singer.
A certified star of stage (a recipient of multiple awards, including six Tonys); large and small screen (she won an Emmy Award in 2015 for “Sweeney Todd Live From Lincoln Center”); and recorded music (McDonald also has a pair of Grammys for “Weill: The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny”), McDonald has demonstrated that there isn’t anything she can’t do. She is as comfortable in a comedic setting as she in a dramatic one. McDonald’s first concert recording recently was released, “Sing Happy” (Decca Gold). She was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule — which includes opening Carnegie Hall’s season this month — to answer a few questions:
“Sing Happy,” is your first live album with a symphony orchestra. What does such a recording mean to you?
“Just the fact that I got the opportunity to sing with the New York Philharmonic and that it’s been recorded for posterity — that for me is a dream come true. These are a lot of classic Broadway tunes that I’m doing. A lot of times they were orchestrated for larger orchestras than what we have on Broadway now. But I don’t think they were ever orchestrated for as huge an orchestra as we had with the New York Phil. It was a dream come true to do an album with the incredible institution that is the New York Philharmonic.”
When you perform a concert, as you did opening night at Caramoor in Katonah this past June, what percentage of the material is drawn from your stage work and from your recordings?
“Really a small percentage of the roles that I’ve actually played. Maybe one or two songs from the roles that I played. For the rest, I try to let myself have a wide berth in terms of singing songs of the roles that I might not get the chance to play or roles that I’ve always wanted to play. More of it is just from the incredible songbook of the great American musical theater. But mainly it’s as if I could play any role that I wanted — even with the live recording. A lot of the songs were songs that were written for men and male characters.”
Earlier this year, you were a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” What was that experience like for you?
“It was so much fun. I’ve known Ru for a long time. I’ve obviously been a fan of the show. Ever since I’ve been in New York, when I was in college (Juilliard), a couple of my friends were doing drag and performing in clubs when we were in school to make a little extra cash. I grew to have not only an appreciation but also a love of the art form very early on. I consider it to be an incredible art form. For me, it was a joy to be a part of it.”
Have you ever seen a drag queen doing you in an act?
“Have I seen one? No. But there is a very talented actor in New York who sounds like me, so he’ll sing like me from time to time. He’ll do Audra McDonald imitations. He’s amazing. I’ve never seen one do me in their act.”
You were in two very different movie musicals in 2017, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hello Again.” In “Hello Again” you played Sally, a character who shared love scenes with Cheyenne Jackson’s and Martha Plimpton’s characters. What was it about Sally that made you want to play her?
“I auditioned for ‘Hello Again’ when it was first done off-Broadway a million years ago. That’s where I first met (playwright) Michael John LaChiusa and (director) Graciela Daniele. They said, ‘You’re not quite right, not quite old enough for the role.’ I’ve had my eye on Sally since then. (laughs) When I was contacted about them making it into a film and Michael John asked me if I wanted to do it, I said, ‘Heck, yeah.’ I didn’t have to think about it for a millisecond. Once they told me I was working with Cheyenne Jackson and Martha Plimpton, I was over the moon. I’ve known them both and loved them for years. To get the opportunity to finally work with both of them was great and a ball. We had a blast.”
Speaking of movies, you have an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. What would it mean to you to win an Oscar and complete the EGOT package?
“Oh, my goodness! I don’t know that that’s something that will ever happen, but I’d be blown away if that were to happen. I don’t think I could come up with that in my wildest dreams. If that were to happen I’d probably lie down and float right up to heaven. I don’t know what else would be left to do.”
Audra McDonald performs at Carnegie Hall’s 2018-2019 season opening-night gala Oct. 3 in Manhattan. For more, visit carnegiehall.org.