Audra McDonald: Say Yes To Yourself

Audra McDonald. i i

hide captionAudra McDonald.

Michael Wilson/Courtesy of Nonesuch Records
Audra McDonald.

Audra McDonald.

Michael Wilson/Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Audra McDonald has been dazzling audiences for more than a decade with her stunning soprano voice. She has won Grammy and Tony awards, and has starred in stage classics and the TV drama Private Practice. She's now part of a controversial new interpretation of Gershwin's American opera, Porgy & Bess. She speaks with Michel Martin about her latest show and upcoming concert tour.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

Today's guest is one of the premier talents in American theater. She won three of her four Tony Awards before she turned 30. For the last four years, television audiences have known her as Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC's medical drama, "Private Practice."

But what some may not know is that, for more than a decade, fans of opera and popular music have been seduced by her voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR DADDY'S SON")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) And he played piano, played it very well. Music from those hands could catch you like a spell. He could make you love him 'fore the tune was done. You have your daddy's hands. You are your daddy's son.

MARTIN: That's Audra McDonald singing, "Your Daddy's Son" from the musical "Ragtime." That performance earned her second of four Tony Awards. She's also recorded five albums and is the winner of two Grammy Awards.

Now she is returning to the stage. She stars in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." That's a new adaptation of the 1935 opera, "Porgy and Bess." The play is completing a trial run at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is scheduled to head to Broadway in December.

But instead of putting her feet up until then, Audra McDonald is starting a 20-city concert tour. Somehow or another, she managed to fit us in, and we are so glad that she's speaking with us now from Cambridge.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCDONALD: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Why are you laughing? Just, like, hearing you say, who is she talking about?

MCDONALD: No, no. I just got tired thinking about the tour.

MARTIN: Okay. Really? Because you obviously don't have enough to do.

MCDONALD: Well, it was one of those things where the tour was booked before "Porgy and Bess" came into play, and I was like, there's got to be some way I can do both.

MARTIN: You're a trooper. You're a Marine, in addition to being a fabulous singer. Well, tell me about the production of "Porgy and Bess." What drew you to it?

MCDONALD: Well, I have been obsessed with the opera "Porgy and Bess" for a very long time. My parents had the album with Leontyne Price and William Warfield and also the one from Houston Grand Opera in 1976. But then I became truly obsessed with it when I went to Julliard and a Glyndebourne production conducted by Simon Rattle had just come out. And that's when I memorized the opera from top to bottom. I used to listen to it over and over again.

I was obsessed with Cynthia Haymon's portrayal of Bess. And that's when I started to think, well, I don't love opera for me. I don't think it's something I do well, but if there was one opera I could do well, I think this might be it, and this would certainly be a role that I'd want to play.

MARTIN: Well, of course you know that "Porgy and Bess" has always been a controversial classic. I mean, it's featured - throughout its history, it's featured some of the most important African-Americans in theater. It's given them a showcase. On the other hand, some people can't stand it. I mean, they just can't get past Catfish Row and the whole - what they sort of see as a stereotypical or cartoonish version of black life.

MCDONALD: Yes.

MARTIN: And I'd like to ask you...

MCDONALD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: How do you deal with it, emotionally?

MCDONALD: Well, it's one of the things that I think Suzan-Lori Parks, our book adapter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was really trying to address. And the Gershwin estate and the DuBose Heyward estates came to Diane Paulus, asking her if she would be interested in sort of reimagining a new "Porgy and Bess" for the 21st century, and one that dealt with a few of those racial issues.

Because even though it is a glorious piece of work and a very powerful piece of work and at the core is a beautiful, complicated love story between two individuals, a lot of people - especially African-Americans - have a hard time coming to it because it's easy for us to look up on that stage and say, yes. I know this is glorious music. I know these are beautiful songs and there's a beautiful love story here, but I'm being told, by seeing these stereotypes up here, that I'm not being given the full picture. It's just - it's very difficult as an African-American to be able to come to it.

I find, especially one that didn't necessarily live during the civil rights era, but after it, but I think about all the people who did live during the civil rights era and all the time before that.

You know, there's lot of performers who've done this show who've said - you know, Sidney Poitier kind of regretted that he was a part of the movie. Grace Bumbry has gone on record as saying, you know, we haven't come this far for me to go back to Catfish Row.

You know, I mean, it's a difficult thing. At the same time, it's this piece that has allowed African-Americans to get on stage and showcase their - not many operas, especially at that time, written about African-Americans. And if there had been, they wouldn't have been allowed to perform them, anyway. So it's a very - it's double-edged sword. So I think what we were trying to do is just trying to sort of exorcize some of the more racist bits or which things that can be conceived as racist to certainly a modern audience so that we can just focus on the story and the characters.

MARTIN: And, of course, you know that just the idea of tampering with or changing or reimagining it, as you put it, this work, has drawn real controversy. Even before many people have even seen it...

MCDONALD: Yes.

MARTIN: ...the composer Stephen Sondheim wrote this, I think, very critical piece for The New York Times, saying that it's arrogant, even though he conceded that your voice is one of the glories of American theater. How do you respond to what he said?

MCDONALD: Well, a lot of people were very critical about what we were attempting to do. They were very critical about that particular interview. I respect Stephen Sondheim as a composer. I consider him to be the greatest American musical theater composer of our generation. My own personal feeling is that he was commenting on an article in which someone, you know, the person who interviewed us was there for I think a couple of days and spent many hours with us and then pulled six or seven quotes and then put them into a piece, you know, an article, and then based on that, you know, everybody had the reactions that they had.

But there's a lot of things that we did say that were not printed in that article, speaking directly to the fact that we all have great love and great respect for the opera, for the book and whatnot. So...

MARTIN: Well, at the end of the day...

In the end I appreciate everybody's opinion but I believe in the piece. I believe in our piece.

Well, that was what I was going to say, because at the end of the day you want people to see the work. Are you worried now that people won't be able to judge the work based on what you've actually, you're actually presenting to the public and will have their view of it colored by this controversy?

MCDONALD: You know, I can worry about it but I can't do anything about it. There's nothing to be done about it, so the only thing we can do is continue to focus on the work that we're doing and continue to stay as true to the story and telling the story in the way that we have committed to telling the story, and that's the only thing that we can concern ourselves with because it's the only thing we have any power over at this point.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Tony and Grammy award-winning performing artist Audra McDonald. She's starring in a new reimagination of "Porgy and Bess." She's also launching a 20-city concert tour. I was tempted to whisper that just so you wouldn't sigh again...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know...

MCDONALD: I'll think about that tomorrow.

MARTIN: Your career is so interesting. On the one hand, for example, I just will play a short clip of you singing one of your songs from "Carousel." We'll play a short clip of you singing "Mister Snow."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTER SNOW")

MCDONALD: (Singing) His name is Mister Snow, and an up-standing man is he. He comes home every night in his round-bottomed boat, with a net full of fishes from the sea. An almost perfect beau, as refined as a girl could wish. But he spends so much time in his round-bottomed boat that he can't seem to lose the smell of fish.

MARTIN: But, you know, your work in that role praises(ph) a triumph of nontraditional of colorblind casting. The role wasn't originally written for a black actress. And then you won your last Tony for the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," which is very much about kind of the racial history and story in the United States. Do you feel free now to kind of go back and forth across the lines? Do you feel that your work now speaks for itself? And is that because of you and the excellence of your work or do you think it's because of the times that we live in?

MCDONALD: Well, I don't, you know, for me I think the one thing I've always tried to do is just say yes to myself because there are enough people in the world that will - and this is the advice I give to students or anybody who asks me - I say, say yes to yourself. There are plenty of people in the world that will say no to you. But if you feel that you have a connection to that role, you do everything in your power to play that role or to understand that role. That is the one sort of edict I've given myself. If I say yes to myself and then worry about the consequences as they come, then that's the best that I can do.

And for me, my ultimate goal is just to continue to evolve as an artist. I want to be a better artist as a result of the show that I have to do in a few hours than I was yesterday.

MARTIN: I just want to ask a little bit more about that, because I do think that it's fair to say, and it's always unfair to generalize. But I think it is fair to say that sometimes people do get distracted by the perception and by the noise. I would like to ask, how do you stay focused on the work instead of getting distracted by kind of the noise of, as you described it, the business of no? Because you're in the business of no.

MCDONALD: Yes.

MARTIN: Somebody's always going to say no. And that's not unique to artists of color, certainly.

MCDONALD: No. Of course not.

MARTIN: But there is that extra...

MCDONALD: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...you know, there is that additional layer of saying, oh, you're too this, you're too that.

MCDONALD: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're not ethnic enough. Oh no, you're too ethnic.

MCDONALD: Exactly. You're not streetwise enough. That was the word you used to get a lot. Oh, she's more streetwise. Like are you trying to say she's black or what are you trying to say? But, no, I feel like for me I just - in this business of no, the way I shut out the noise is like I said before, just to really focus on the work.

Another thing I like to tell students is get on stage. It doesn't have to be Broadway. It could be in your community theater or in your church production or whatever. Just get on stage. Get that experience. That's the most important thing. You know, and then examine: Why are you doing this? Are you doing it for the love of the craft or you're doing it because you want to be a superstar? If you want to be a superstar that something else and there's nothing wrong with that. But for me it's about because it's the love of the craft and that's the only thing I can focus on. So that's how I shut out the noise, because the superstar aspect really doesn't mean anything to me. So that - and also I've got a kid that keeps me grounded. You know, like any parent knows, your child keeps your feet firmly on the ground. You know, a child will plug their ears while you're singing. Go like, mommy, that's too loud, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, in addition to keeping your feet on the ground, she's also kept you in the air. Do you mind if I - forgive me because this is always the question. When you're speaking to a woman of high accomplishment who is also a mother, people always want to ask, well, how do you do it. And then people say, well, gee, you didn't ask that of a man, but people want to know. So how do you do it? You have a 10-year-old daughter and how...

MCDONALD: Yeah. It's hard.

MARTIN: How do you do it?

MCDONALD: It was really difficult during "Private Practice." I mean I didn't move her out to LA. Instead, I commuted because I didn't want to uproot her and uproot her life in any way, shape or form. And my ex-husband and I co-parent really well. And I thought I'll just be the one to do all the traveling. So I traveled 720,000 miles in those four years and it's very difficult. I'm not going to say it's easy. It's not. And it takes a village. I've got lots of people that help. I've got my, you know, the babysitter. I've got my ex-husband's parents. I've got friends. And then any spare moment that I have, it's me.

It's one of the reasons I decided to do "Porgy and Bess" too, so I could come back home and have a job and be closer to my daughter on a more regular basis. And thank God for Skype and things like that and, you know, email and the phone. But now I get to be home every single day and that makes a big difference.

MARTIN: I'm not trying to investigate for pain here, but was there ever a moment when you just thought I just can't do it? I just can't do it.

MCDONALD: About every 30 minutes of the past four years was I just can't do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: I also had very understanding bosses. With "Private Practice," Shonda Rhimes, you know, who is this the incredibly accomplished African-American creator of four television shows - "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" and now "Scandalous" with Kerry Washington, and "Off the Map," she also created that one, and she is a single mom. And so she understood a lot of what I was going through and she did what she could to reduce the amount of shows I was in and make sure that I wasn't working on a last (unintelligible) on a Friday so I could catch and earlier flight home. She understood. She really understood and that was helpful. I don't think I could have done it without her understanding and the understanding of actually the whole crew over there.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

MCDONALD: Like, you know, understanding what I was up against.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of "Private Practice" as a medical drama, as we mentioned earlier, this is a role in which you did not sing.

MCDONALD: Nope.

MARTIN: Was that weird? I mean why did, first of all, why were you attracted to the role? And was it weird for you to have a role where you did not sing?

MCDONALD: It was a little odd. Actually, there was one episode where my character, Dr. Bennett, and her ex-husband, Sam and Addison, played by Kate Walsh and Sam played by Taye Diggs, who is also a singer, we had to kind of drunkenly sing a song in a bar, but our characters are not supposed to be able to sing so they kept telling us to sing off key. And it was so much fun for me and Taye to just sing bad.

MARTIN: That was fun?

MCDONALD: It was fun.

MARTIN: I would've thought it would've been excruciating.

MCDONALD: And it was kind of funny for us. And it was like I...

MARTIN: Can you do a little for us? Can you do a little?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Can you - come on, do a little. Come on.

MCDONALD: No.

MARTIN: Come on, the "Happy Birthday" song, sing it bad. Come on.

MCDONALD: Really? You want me to do that?

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah, I really do.

MCDONALD: Oh come on.

MARTIN: Come on. Please?

MCDONALD: Okay. Well, I'll do what so many of my Broadway friends do. We go...

MARTIN: Yeah.

MCDONALD: We go... (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: Norm Lewis is going to love that I just did that. He does... (Singing) Happy Birthday to you. Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: So stupid. I can't believe you made me do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: Oh, dear me.

MARTIN: Yeah, that was right. That was really bad.

MCDONALD: Oh man.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: Anyway, I can't believe I just did that. But, you know, I chose the role because I, you know, they offered it to me and I was thrilled to take it because I had always been afraid of being in front of the camera. And I thought, you know what, a TV show is the best way possible to learn how to get comfortable with flexing your acting muscles with this humongous HD lens two inches from your face at times, you know? And I thought I want to I don't want to say conquer that, but I want to be able to, I want to study that.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you? Let's see, we've got all the Tonys, the Grammys, the television program, four years, "Porgy and Bess." What's next? What else?

MCDONALD: Well, you know what? I mean after the tour I've got "Porgy and Bess" to focus on, on Broadway, and then I'll probably take a nap once I finish my run with "Porgy and Bess" I'll take a nap and finally try and learn how to cook. My poor daughter, she's been dealing with her terrible cook of a mom for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Tony and Grammy Award-winning artist Audra McDonald is currently kicking off a 20-city concert tour. She's starring in the Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," which is currently playing in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is scheduled to head to Broadway this winter. And she was kind enough to somehow or another fit us in from the studios of Harvard University in Cambridge. Audra McDonald, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCDONALD: Thank you. My pleasure.

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