Audra McDonald: A 'Theater Geek' Turns to Pop Audra McDonald is a bona-fide Broadway star and a well-regarded recording artist whose albums have featured American popular standards and newer musical theater. But her new album takes her in a different direction.
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Audra McDonald: A 'Theater Geek' Turns to Pop

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Audra McDonald: A 'Theater Geek' Turns to Pop

Audra McDonald: A 'Theater Geek' Turns to Pop

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. In a moment, our new cultural curator serves up some delectable entertainment picks.

But first, a Broadway star expands her horizons. Now, Tony Award winner Audra McDonald is not just a bona fide Broadway star. She's also a television actress and a recording artist. Her albums often showcase show tunes, but as NPR's Jeff Lunden reports, McDonald's new CD takes her in a different direction.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Audra McDonald is a self-professed theater geek. Growing up in Fresno, California as a teenager in the 1980s, she says she wasn't listening to Wham or Devo. She was listening to Barbra Streisand.

Ms. AUDRA MCDONALD (Actress, Singer): I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I was listening to, you know, Pajama Game, Hello, Dolly!, King and I, A Chorus Line, Evita. You name it, I was listening to it, you know.

LUNDEN: So what's she doing singing a song by bluesy rocker John Mayer?

(Soundbite of song, "My Stupid Mouth")

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) My stupid mouth has got me in trouble. I said too much again to a date over dinner yesterday. I could see he was offended. He said, well, anyway, just dying for a subject change. Oh, another social casualty...

LUNDEN: Audra McDonald's new album, Build a Bridge, also features songs by Nellie McKay, Laura Nyro, and Neil Young, among others.

Ms. MCDONALD: I don't want to call it a pop album because it really isn't. They're singer/songwriter songs, basically. For me they're songs that could be in musicals. Almost all of them, you know, are character driven and tell wonderful stories, but I decided I just didn't want to go to musical theater to look for these songs.

(Soundbite of song, "My Heart")

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) My heart, my heart, I've got to keep my heart. It's not too late. It's not too late. I've got to keep my heart...

LUNDEN: New York Times critic Stephen Holden says McDonald, who studied classical vocal performance at Julliard, manages to sidestep some of the pitfalls of more traditional crossover albums by singers like Leontyne Price and Kiri Te Kanawa.

Mr. STEPHEN HOLDEN (Critic, The New York Times): You always feel that they're somehow condescending to the material or trying to elevate it in a way that makes it seem pretentious. And Audra can relax enough, somehow, and get into the spirit of it enough to let the voice go off the track and just wail.

(Soundbite of song, "Tom Cat Goodbye")

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) You don't try. You don't care. You don't love. You don't know, child. You run like a chicken from the pan. Yeah, baby, what you say now? Hey there, tom cat. Walk like a tom cat. You run like a tom cat. You treat me like a tom cat. You cheat like a tom cat. And you lie...

LUNDEN: Audra McDonald's longtime music director, Ted Sperling, says regardless of the musical genre, when the two of them choose songs to perform, McDonald's theatrical instincts are at the forefront.

Mr. TED SPERLING (Music Director): They have to have some dramatic content. They can't just be pretty songs, because she has some instinctive trigger, and if they don't have something to sing about, really, that she can dig her teeth into, she just rejects them.

LUNDEN: For instance, McDonald takes Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's song God Give Me Strength, from the film Grace of My Heart, and turns it into a dramatic aria. One of the most striking aspects of her rendition is that it begins without instrumental accompaniment.

(Soundbite of song "God Give Me Strength")

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) Now I have nothing, so God give me strength...

(Speaking) The first words are now I have nothing, so what else is there? You know, if you've got a little strings or anything beneath it, you've got something. But now I have nothing, you know, so I just wanted to sort of capture the essence of that.

(Soundbite of song "God Give Me Strength")

(Singing) ...I might still break...

LUNDEN: It's the build from nothing to something, both musically and dramatically, that New York Times critic Stephen Holden finds so striking.

Mr. HOLDEN: What she does with that song and the arrangement of it, especially the vocal arrangement, which goes up and it was a very daring, interesting modulation at the end, is stunning, just stunning. And I think its one of the great classic cuts of her career.

(Soundbite of song, "God Give Me Strength")

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) God give me strength. God give me strength. God give me strength. God...

LUNDEN: While Audra McDonald mines drama out of pop songs on Build a Bridge, she doesn't completely abandon theater songs. She sings a rendition of an Adam Guettel song from his Tony Award-winning score to The Light in the Piazza with jazz pianist Fred Hersch.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) Dashing as the day we met, only there is something I don't recognize.

LUNDEN: And finds tender insight in Being Green, a song from The Muppet Movie which McDonald often watches with her five-year-old daughter Zoƫ.

Ms. MCDONALD: It moves me so much and so I decided I wanted to sing that song again, because it really speaks to, you know, finding who you are and being okay with who you are. And it's the message that can maybe fly over your head a little bit as a kid but as an adult it's just so resonant.

(Soundbite of song "Being Green")

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) Its not easy being green, having to spend each day the color of the leaves. When I think it would be nicer being red, yellow or gold, something much more colorful like that.

LUNDEN: Build a Bridge comes out on Tuesday. And Audra McDonald is taking her songs on a multi-city tour, including a Live at Lincoln Center performance in mid-October. And theater geeks, don't worry. She'll be returning to Broadway next spring in a revival of 110 in the Shade.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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