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Audra McDonald on music, theater and happiness

 June 26, 2024 at 4:46 PM PDT

S1: Welcome. In San Diego , it's Jade Hindman today. We're talking with Audra McDonald on her upcoming symphony performance in San Diego. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Connecting our communities through conversation. If you're a lover of theater , you've most likely heard of Audra McDonald. She's one of the most decorated performers on American stages and screens today , with six Tony Awards , some Grammy Awards and even an Emmy under her belt. She's also been in shows like Private Practice , The Good Fight , HBO's The Gilded Age , and so much more. Throughout all this , she's been performing and recording music regularly , and this Sunday , she's coming to town to perform with the San Diego Symphony. KPBS Arts producer Julia Dixon Evans spoke with Audra about her upcoming concert and her journey through theater. Take a listen.

S2: So you are currently on the road quite literally , and for these recent performances , you're doing some time tested Broadway favorites with orchestras around the world. Audra , I imagine you've sung some of these tunes so many times.

S3: His name is Andy Einhorn , and the two of us , the two of us work very hard to curate our programs. We want to we look at them as a meal. That makes sense. We want to make sure that there's , you know , the right appetizer , the right main course. You know , the second course. Um , and amuse bouche , you know , the , the , you know , the big finale and the dessert. We really try and create an emotional journey and arc throughout the evening. Um , and in doing so , I am also looking at , you know , what's going on with each character in each song as I sing it and when I sing it in the program , so that for me , it does in some ways feel like music theater. It feels like a musical theater performance for me. So I make sure that I delve into each character as , as as though I were on stage eight times a week in a show on Broadway. That's how I approach my concerts as well , of course , with the one big exception being that I'm allowed to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Um , so keeping it fresh has to do with just making sure that I am staying connected to what each character wants to each song that I'm singing.


S3: Um , almost immediately upon hearing it , that I know that I want to do it. And I just heard a clip of Meryl Streep speaking recently about acting. And in it she says that , you know , when you're looking at script or lines on a piece of paper or whatever it is , there's something that happens from the neck down that you react to , and you recognize some bit of yourself in the words or your music , whatever it is that you can then explore , and with that , then bring that particular whatever it is to life. And I think that's very true in choosing music as well. So , you know , the songs have to resonate with me in a way that maybe I can't even describe , but I just feel one of those songs that I've been singing recently is a medley that Andy and I put together of Carefully Taught from South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein , and children Will Listen by Stephen Sondheim from Into the Woods. Two songs written by different people , different eras , but really saying the same thing. Be careful what you say and recognize that you know hate is something that can be , that is taught. And we must learn , you know , to teach our children , you know , well , teach them to love and.

S4: Make them aware. And that's something that's very important in this day and age.

S2: I love that. And you actually performed that medley on the PBS show Great Performances. Let's take a listen.

S5: Careful the things you say. Children will listen. Careful the things you do. Children will see.

UU: Here and the.

S5: Children may not.

UU: Obey , but children will listen.

S5: Children will look to you.

UU: Listen to me. Children.

S2: And I want to take us back to the beginning of your theater journey.

S3: Both of my grandmothers were piano teachers. I heard a lot of classical music. I heard a lot of religious music , a lot of gospel music. Um , my dad , before he became a high school principal , was the , um , jazz band director at a high school and a music teacher at a high school. So I heard a lot of jazz growing up , a lot of soul. I heard a lot of opera because my mother was really into a lot of opera. I was hearing Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price , um , and then just the great singers of the 40s and 50s and 60s era of all , you know , horn. I was hearing everything really and obviously theater. So I had just the full gamut , you know , of all that music has to offer in my head from a very early age. But when I first went to see a show at the dinner theater that I would eventually end up performing , um , for the rest of my time in Fresno until I was 18 , and I saw what was happening on stage. I wasn't just getting the aural experience of , uh , listening to it , but I saw what was happening on stage. That's when I was hooked.



S4: Written , of course , by Stephen. Sondheim.

S3: Sondheim.

S6: I'm just a Broadway baby.

UU: Walking off my tired feet. Pound and 42nd Street to be in a. Show.

S4: Broadway , baby. Um. And I knew from a very early age , um , that I wanted to be on Broadway someday. So. Broadway , baby. Um , I was singing at , you know , a fairly young age and not even really understanding all of the , you know , the concepts within the song , within geographical locations , within the song , you know , like , you know , like , you know , um , the Battery Park to Washington Heights , you know , I had no idea where they were. Mhm.

S3: Um , I knew they were in New York , but that's not all I knew. So but uh , just identifying with , um , the want , the need , the desire of um , that that song of wanting to be on Broadway someday being a Broadway baby. So that's the one that we should have.


S3: I was going on just sheer , you know , desire and ambition. I just I just wanted it , you know ? So I went to every audition I could find. Um , and because my parents were very specific about what I could do when I was a kid in doing dinner theater , and they didn't want me to do certain stereotypical roles or roles that were just , you know , could be seen as demeaning for a young black girl to play. They didn't need to do any of that. So that was sort of in my head , um , as I , you know , started auditioning for things when I got older , um , and was , you know , out on my own trying to make it on Broadway. So I was because of that , I was sort of putting myself forward for what felt right and not. I thought they assumed I would only be right for it. And that was important. Um , I think there was an important part of my journey. Besides , aside from the fact that I think Broadway has , um , in theater in general has come into a more diverse era , I think there's more to be done. But , you know , there's colorful cast and , you know , there's more and more of that. There's more diversity on stage , backstage , uh , the creative , you know , producing and seeing the change in that. And the other thing is , you know , before we had to buy backstage newspaper for $0.25 and you figure out where to go to our auditions , and now it's all online.

S1: This is KPBS Midday Edition. We're back after the break. Welcome back to KPBS midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. You're listening to an interview between Julia Dixon Evans and Audra McDonald on her upcoming performance in San Diego.

S2: You are also a mother.


S3: Fact that you will never sleep again. When you're a mother , you just. And even if you do get a few hours to sleep , it's never a restful sleep. Um , you know the sound. You know the sound as it could be a joke , but it's true. Your heart is now running around outside your body. Um. And so in one sense , that's a bit terrifying and exhausting and , you know , sort of an anxiety provoking thing to think of. You know , the other side of that is that you now have I have a depth of love and emotion and , um , and fierceness that I did not have before I became a mother in that you know , I now know what it feels like to be a mama bear. I know how it feels for me anyway , and not speaking of anybody else's experience , but for me , I feel like what it means to love someone so unconditionally and all the way down to the depths of your toes , knowing you will do any and everything for them. Um , and that , you know , for me , gave me a greater depth of , um , you know , sort of emotional clarity that , that I then what I had before I became a mother. That's my personal experience with that.

S2: And last month , it was confirmed you'd be leading the Broadway revival of Gypsy as Mama Rose. And you would once called this the King Lear of roles for women in musical theater.

S3: So everybody certainly has an idea of how it should be portrayed. Everybody knows every single lyric of every tune. Well , not everybody , but most people do , especially theater fans. But Rose is a very complex character in that she is someone who , you know , on the outside looking in , it seems as though she's a monster. Um , for the way she , you know , a terrible mother , the way she's raising these children and the ambition that she has for them and therefore for herself to make them stars and can live vicariously through them. So the challenge for me is to get inside Rose and advocate for her and not just judge her. I have to understand where that comes from , why she has sort of the trauma in her life that triggers her to behave and act the way she acts and she and makes the choices that she makes all of that. So that's the challenge for me. And then also to sort of in my mind , as an actor , I have to jettison all the other performances that have come before all the other brilliant performances of Rose that have come before , and I have to just concentrate on my own , on my own. So those are the challenges for me.

S2: You recently performed at the Tony Awards. I imagine you had kind of a front row seat to what is going on in the American theater space.

S3: Um , its definition is , and I find that to be , um , thrilling to , you know , have shows like Illinois is , you know , up there in the same year , it shows as , like Merrily We Roll Along. I mean , there's something out there for everybody. And now what I'm seeing on the theatrical landscape is that we're seeing more of everybody being represented and more. There's many stories being told , and that is thrilling and exciting to see. Um , and theater should continue to be a living , breathing entity that more changes and grows and it should be a stayed , you know , sort of boxed in thing that doesn't grow. It needs to and it does.


S3: So that's where my head is now. I'm getting ready to start filming the third season of the Gilded Age. Uh , in a couple of weeks. But other than that , I'll just , uh , Gilded Age from corsets right into , uh , mama Rose.

S4: I love it.

S3: And then we'll see. We'll see where I come up after that.

S1: That was artist and performer Audra McDonald , speaking with KPBS Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Audra will be performing this Sunday , June 30th at The Rady Shell.

S5: Maybe there's a chance for me to go back.

UU: Now that I have some direction. It sure.

S5: Would be nice to be back home.

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Audra McDonald in an undated photo.
Allison Michael Orenstein
Audra McDonald is pictured in this undated photo.

Lovers of musical theater likely recognize Audra McDonald.

The Broadway legend and screen star will visit San Diego this weekend to perform some Broadway favorites with the San Diego Symphony, between filming “The Gilded Age" and prepping for the “Gypsy" revival.

McDonald spoke with KPBS/arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans about her emotional connection to the music she performs, breaking into theater and what she sees in the American theater space today.


  • Audra McDonald, artist and performer