On Stage: Audra McDonaldMICHAEL KUCHWARA , Associated Press
Nov. 25, 1998 12:01 PM ET
NEW YORK (AP) _ She is the shining star of a new generation of musical theater performers. At age 28, Audra McDonald, already a three-time Tony winner, faces the future armed with some impressive credentials that just keep growing.
Among the latest accolades:
_''Way Back to Paradise,'' her dazzling debut recording (Nonesuch Records) that celebrates the work of young, largely unknown theater composers and lyricists. Not for her an album of Porter, Gershwin or Rodgers and Hart standards but rather music of McDonald's own contemporaries who, she says, speak to her in ``a new language.''
_An exuberant, self-assured cabaret act featuring much of the CD material and marked by an instant disarming rapport with the audience. Earlier this fall, it was the hottest ticket in town as fans tried to shoehorn their way into Joe's Pub, the inviting new performance space named after impresario Joseph Papp in the Public Theater complex.
_Most intriguing of all, her very own musical, a show called ``Marie Christine,'' based on ``Medea'' and set in New Orleans and Chicago in the 1880s. The musical, scheduled for production next season at Lincoln Center, was written by Michael John LaChiusa, one of the composers featured on ``Way Back to Paradise.''
``She has got taste and grace and modesty and brains,'' says veteran director Harold Prince, who has seen a lot of talent over the years. ``But I'll tell you what. Nothing beats brains. Audra has a swell voice, but it is the other stuff that supports that wonderful voice.''
It is the ``other stuff'' that has had a hand in helping her cope with success, particularly after winning her third Tony last June, this time for ``Ragtime.''
``It is a bit scary,'' McDonald said during an interview in her dressing room at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts where ``Ragtime'' is playing. ``I've been sort of panicking about what I am going to do with the rest of my life.
``But it is easy to fall into the trap and worry, `Oh, God, how am I going to top this?' I feel like that about one out of four days. The rest of the time I keep thinking, `Well, I've just got to keep working hard.'
``If anything, I think that each time I have won the Tony it has made me aware of how much harder I need to work. For me that means: `Don't get lazy. Don't think that every year is going to be like this.'''
Only every other year.
McDonald's Tonys have arrived at two-year intervals. In 1994, she won for playing a swooning Carrie Pipperidge in the revival of ``Carousel'' at Lincoln Center. In 1996, it was for her portrait of a defiant opera student facing down Maria Callas in ``Master Class.'' This year's award came for her portrayal of the doomed Sarah in ``Ragtime,'' a show she has done for two years, first in Toronto and then New York City.
``I was shocked the third time,'' McDonald says. ``Wouldn't you be? But it has hit other people around me, my friends and my family, more than me. Yet when I see them get excited, I get excited, too.''
McDonald, born in Berlin, was raised in Fresno, Calif., where her father, an Army man, became a high school principal. Her mother heads the affirmative action program at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
McDonald had no choice genetically. She had to sing. Everyone in her family did, including five aunts who toured in the 1970s as the McDonald Sisters, singing gospel music.
``If I had been tone deaf they would have thrown me out,'' she adds.
``I always was a stage-struck child. Instead of putting me on Ritalin, my parents were trying to find another way of channeling my dramatic, hyperactive energy with piano lessons, dance lessons and singing lessons,'' she says with a laugh.
She found her way to a local dinner theater by age 9 and then a performing arts high school. ``Performing was just something I've been doing _ always,'' McDonald says.
``My plan was I had to appear on Broadway by the time I was 18,'' she says. She missed her goal by five years, going instead to study at the Juilliard School. At least it was a ticket to New York.
``The focus there was classical music and classical singing. I don't think I thought it through and didn't realize that my focus would have to completely shift, although my voice is inherently operatic.''
Broadway didn't beckon until she was 23 and she went into the cast of ``The Secret Garden.'' But audiences didn't notice her until the following year when director Nicholas Hytner cast her in ``Carousel.'' Even then, she was the stuff of Broadway legend.
At her final callback, she passed out from all the excitement of the audition after singing ``Mr. Snow,'' slumping to the floor as the casting director and Mary Rodgers, daughter of ``Carousel'' composer Richard Rodgers, looked on.
But then McDonald's singing has always been marked by an emotional intensity, a directness that she conveys immediately to an audience. Yet there is enormous technique, too, a product of her Juilliard training where diction was stressed again and again and again.
That discipline helped get her through ``Way Back to Paradise'' which took two years to make.
``I almost wanted to call the recording `Talking About My Generation,''' she says. ``This is my generation of musical theater composers.''
The four men and one woman featured on the recording are post-Sondheim, post-Kander and Ebb, even post-Alan Menken, the relatively youthful composer of ``Beauty and the Beast.''
She had worked with Adam Guettel on a workshop production of ``Myths and Hymns.'' And her boyfriend, bass player Peter Donovan, had played in the pit of Guettel's off-Broadway musical, ``Floyd Collins.'' She found Ricky Ian Gordon through her voice teacher and last year appeared in his song cycle ``Only Heaven,'' based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. And LaChiusa, of course, is writing ``Medea'' for her.
``Much of their music is very unpredictable,'' McDonald says. '' It's sort of in a new language. The harmonics are very thick and rich, but I was able to connect to each piece personally, which is the only reason to sing a song.''