At 29 years old soprano and actress Audra McDonald became the first performer in history to win Tony Awards for her first three major Broadway roles. Critics hailed her as the next Broadway diva, with musical talents comparable to stage greats Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Julie Andrews. What made McDonald's success more striking was that she was perhaps the first African American to become a superstar in musicals. In addition to her Broadway, film, and television credits, McDonald has produced two solo albums, Way Back to Paradise, released in 1998, and How Glory Goes, released in 2000, both critical and commercial successes. "She's got a voice from God, just straight from God," actor Mandy Patinkin told the Black Collegian.
Born on July 3, 1970, in Berlin, Germany, where her father was stationed in the military, Audra Ann McDonald grew up in Fresno, California. Music was a passion her entire family shared: her mother played piano and sang, her father and uncle each played six musical instruments, both grandmothers were piano teachers, and five aunts had formed a touring gospel group called the McDonald Sisters. "I was hearing classical, jazz, gospel," McDonald told the San Jose Mercury News. "There was no shortage of music in the house."
Like everyone else in her family, McDonald studied music from an early age, taking her first piano and dance lessons at age three. A member of her Episcopal church choir from the time she could speak, McDonald took her first formal voice lessons at age nine. That same year, she auditioned for a local theater group, Roger Rocka's Good Company Players. Invited to join the company's junior troupe, she performed in its cabaret-style dinner theater, as well as longer productions, for eight years. Her sister, Alison, also joined the troupe. As one of the only African American players, McDonald faced the problem of racial typecasting for the first time. "I got cast in The Miracle Worker as a house girl, a sort of Uncle-Tom-type character," she recalled to the Los Angeles Times. "And my parents said 'No.' I was upset, because I got cast, and that was a big deal. Now I know they were right." McDonald went on to play the lead in her company's production of Evita at age 16 triumph in color-blind casting. As her career developed, she gravitated toward such nontraditional roles.
McDonald attended performing arts junior high and high schools, where she dreamed of becoming a Broadway musical actress goal that she would pursue almost single-mindedly for the next several years. Although she considered skipping college and trying her luck in New York after high school, her parents insisted that she earn a degree. So McDonald attended Manhattan's prestigious Juilliard School, where she lived near Broadway while obtaining conservatory training in music.
At Juilliard, living in a seedy hotel on Manhattan's Upper West Side, McDonald experienced some of the most difficult years of her life. She felt constrained by her classical operatic training, which involved rigorous courses in musical theory, ear training, and diction. Depressed and despairing, she attempted suicide at 20 years old. "[That was] the winter of '91," she told the Washington Post. "All my life I'd known exactly what I wanted to do, and all of a sudden I felt I was spiraling out of control." McDonald spent a month in a psychiatric hospital, where she received the help she needed. In retrospect, she is grateful for her challenging years at Juilliard, which prepared her to sing the rigorous arias and scores that later captured Broadway audiences.
McDonald was not long in reaching her goals. Upon graduating in 1993, she landed a role in The Secret Garden, a touring musical. She also auditioned for the Broadway revival Carousel, and despite a fainting episode during her audition, was cast as Carrie Pepperidge role traditionally given to a white actress. "I have been very lucky Nicholas Hytner [director of Carousel] had the guts to cast me in a typically white role," McDonald told the Black Collegian. "Because this was my first major role, people were first introduced to me in an atypical way." The role earned McDonald her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.
McDonald amazed Broadway with another Tony for her second major role, in the musical Master Class, where she played a budding opera singer and student of Maria Callas. That same year she appeared in her first film, Seven Servants, again playing an opera singer. Next came a brief foray into television, where she appeared in the 1996 pilot for Cosby. But she did not take the role on the series; instead, she joined the cast of the musical Ragtime. Playing the part of Sara, she netted a third consecutive Tony Awardn unprecedented feat for a Broadway actress, particularly one who was not yet 30 years old. Winning the Tonys, McDonald told American Visions, was "completely unbelievable. They were all fantasy nights. I remember hearing my name called each time and just not believing it. They are an incredible honor, but they also create pressure. Does that mean you have to win a Tony every time you step on stage? I hope that's not what people think. It's impossible to do."
Next came McDonald's first lead role on Broadway in Marie Christine in 2000, a Michael LaChiusa musical created to showcase her talents. A turn-of-the-century, Creole retelling of the Medea myth, the show's emotional, complex score mix of R&B, folk songs, dirges, and love songsave McDonald a chance to show her range as a singer. But some audiences recoiled from the depressing subject matter of Marie Christine, and the role did not lead to a fourth Tony for McDonald.
Yet the soprano's talents were not limited to the stage; she was singing and acting in film and television, and in the late 1990s, she sealed an exclusive recording deal with Nonesuch Records. In 1998 she came out with her first solo album, Way Back to Paradise. A critical and commercial success, the album was named Adult Record of the Year by the New York Times. The next year, she appeared as Grace in the ABC-TV production of Annie. In 2000 she released her second album, How Glory Goes. Both recordings feature relatively unknown tunes from musicals, a genre that McDonald is proving to have continued appeal.
McDonald married her former Juilliard classmate and longtime beau, Peter Donovan, in September of 2000.
Way Back to Paradise, Wea/Atlantic/Nonesuch, 1998.
How Glory Goes, Wea/Atlantic/Nonesuch, 2000.
Carousel (Broadway musical soundtrack), EMD/Angel, 1994.
Ragtime (Broadway musical soundtrack), BMG/RCA Victor, 1998.
Annie (television film soundtrack), Sony Classics, 1999.
Broadway in Love, BMG/RCA Victor, 2000.
Marie Christine (Broadway musical soundtrack), BMG/RCA Victor, 2000.
American Visions, June/July 2000, p. 14.
Black Collegian, February 2000, p. 168.
Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2000.
Newsweek, December 13, 1999.
New York Times, March 12, 2000.
San Jose Mercury News, July 18, 2000.
Washington Post, May 7, 2000, p. G1.
Audra McDonald Official Website, http://www.audra-mcdonald.com (December 5, 2001).
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