It would be an understatement to call singer and actress Audra McDonald successful. Successful doesn’t begin to encapsulate all that she has achieved. With six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards and three Emmy nominations, McDonald is an entertainment powerhouse, and this Thursday, she returns to Hill Auditorium for her sixth concert at the University.
Thursday, September 17th
McDonald was born in Berlin, Germany but grew up in the U.S., where she eventually received vocal training at the Juilliard School in New York City. Her first role on Broadway came in 1992, while still in school, when she was cast as a replacement in “The Secret Garden.” She won her first three Tony awards between 1994 and 1998 and was the first person to ever win three of the awards while still under the age of 30. In June 2014, she claimed her sixth Tony Award for her performance in the musical play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” making her the record-holder for most Tony Awards ever won by single person.
So why keep coming to Ann Arbor? McDonald thinks it’s the talent within the University that draws her back every time.
“The school is wonderful and I think the musical theatre program has some magic pixie dust in their water or something because they keep churning out star after star after star,” said McDonald, who is currently doing a concert tour around the country. “So I’m very impressed by the energy there and the talent there so that’s why I keep coming back.”
McDonald was last in Ann Arbor in 2013 where she performed a tribute to George and Ira Gershwin’s musical genius at Hill Auditorium. During that concert she performed a number of classic Gershwin pieces as well as an array of other songs, including a few original pieces written especially for the singer. Audiences can expect a similar selection this time around.
“It’ll be a plethora. The audience is pretty used to me introducing them to new songs from new composers that are making their way and then songs they know really well,” McDonald said. “I try to change it up quite a bit but there will certainly be composers that they are familiar with: Sondheim, there might even be some Gershwin, and there will definitely be some Roger and Hammerstein. Just a big variety.”
This concert tour is just one of the projects McDonald is currently working on. Her movie, “Ricki and the Flash,” starring Meryl Streep just came out in August, and she just finished filming the new live action of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” where she’ll be playing Garderobe, the wardrobe. She’ll even be making a return to Broadway next year in George Wolfe’s new musical “Shuffle Along.” With so many projects coming along, it would only be natural for McDonald to grow tired of the work — but work is her life, so she says, and she couldn’t see herself doing anything else.
“What I am is what I do. It’s who I am. I don’t know anything else. It’s the only thing I know how to do,” she said. “I have deep admiration and respect for producers, directors and writers but I know that’s not my forte. I’m doing what I love and what I want to do.”
Performing isn’t the only passion in her life, though. McDonald is an avid supporter of a number of charities, including Covenant House, which assists homeless youth, as well as PFLAG, which offers support for the LBGTQ community.
“These are issues having to do with equality and making sure there is social justice for everybody, and taking care of each other as citizens of the world,” McDonald said. “It is our job to take care of each other. You’ve got to give back.”
And yet, giving back isn’t just limited to donations. McDonald understands that students may be strapped for cash, but as she explained, giving one’s time and energy is just as important as any financial contribution.
“There’s always someplace to volunteer. Just volunteer your time even if it’s just at a local homeless shelter or the children’s hospital, or something. Just volunteer your time,” McDonald said. “Giving up your time is just as important, just as valuable.”
For those students who may wish to follow in her impressive footsteps, she had this piece of advice: “Don’t turn down any opportunity to perform, whether it be at your local YMCA or church or community theater, the experience of being on stage is the same. No matter where it happens, live performance is the same dynamic, so get as much experience as you can, wherever you can.”