Broadway darling Audra McDonald won three Tony Awards before she turned 30, and a fourth for “A Raisin in the Sun” with Sean Combs in 2004. So how could she have strayed into Stephen Sondheim’s firing line?
McDonald is currently headlining the revised 1935 George Gershwin-Dubose Heyward-Ira Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess,” about an addicted woman and her crippled lover. Sondheim, the revered and intimidating composer of “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd,” adores “Porgy.” He penned a scathing public letter criticizing the Boston production’s proposed liberties — targeting McDonald and others specifically — after reading an article in the New York Times. The show, with new material and a Porgy (Norm Lewis) who limps as opposed to the traditional rolling in a goat cart, transfers to Broadway in December.
Between “Porgy” performances Wednesday, McDonald, 41, talked about the flare-up, leaving ABC’s “Private Practice” after four seasons, and her upcoming Washington Performing Arts Society appearance Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.
Were you surprised to be so aggressively called out by Stephen Sondheim?
Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it. I was not surprised by his passion. I know how much he’s always talked about how much he loves the piece. I respect him as a composer; I think he’s a brilliant composer. And that’s about it.
You quoted a Sondheim song in a tweet — “Art isn’t easy” — as tongues were wagging about this. Was the criticism hard to cope with?
Sure. We hadn’t done one single performance yet. I think the hardest thing for me was that . . . I’ve always had an incredible love for this piece and always will. And for that particular interview, that didn’t come across. So then it gets thrown out there that you don’t love and respect the piece.
Did you worry that the controversy would keep the show from transferring to Broadway this winter as planned?
No, I never did. The wonderful thing about “Porgy and Bess” is that it has endured all these years in many, many different versions. That’s the thing: when people say “the original,” it’s hard to know what the original was.
Have you heard from Sondheim since?
Ohhhh, umm, not about the letter. We’ve not spoken about the letter.
That sounds like you’ve spoken about other things.
Well, I’m not saying that. But we’ve not spoken about the letter. (Chuckles.)
Did you get other pushback in Boston?
Everybody has a very specific and personal opinion about “Porgy and Bess.” It’s so varied that I don’t think there has been any specific pushback. I don’t think that there have been any protestors out here saying, you know, “Bring back the goat!”
What, for you, was the allure of being in “Porgy and Bess”?
It’s some of the most glorious music ever written, and Bess is a character that I’m intrigued by. I carry the Dubose Heyward book, “Porgy,” with me. I have it highlighted like it was a college textbook. It’s a big, big challenge, and the hardest role I’ve ever played. From a character standpoint, and vocally and emotionally, it takes me a long time to recover. It takes me a long time to get the [makeup] scar off my face, and I use that time to sort of peel Bess off and go back to being Audra.
Starting Saturday, you’re diving headlong into the concert schedule: Philadelphia, Boston and Washington in three days.
Yeah, it’s called timing. Basically the concert tour had been booked for quite some time before “Porgy and Bess” came into play.
What’s on the bill?
I loved doing “Private Practice,” but I’m very happy to be coming back to live performing and singing. So I wanted to go back to my first love, which is Broadway. I’ve been looking at a lot of material by Kander and Ebb, Jule Styne, some of the new musical theater composers. And I’ll be doing Sondheim.
You’ll play 21 cities in October and November?
Yes, I guess so. Stop saying that. (Laughs.)
“Porgy and Bess” is famously on that divide between opera and musical. Since you’re a classically trained Broadway diva, is that where you see yourself, too?
Sure. I don’t consider myself a diva, at all. But I was trained classically, and I’ve always just wanted to do musical theater. That’s always been my love.
You’ve been in seven Broadway shows, not including replacement work and special engagements, and you have won four Tonys. Why do you have such a high slugging percentage?
I don’t know. I’ve been very, very lucky. You don’t do it for the Tony Awards. You do it because you love the work.
How do you handle it when you get better reviews than the shows you’re in?
I don’t read reviews. It’s different if you’re doing a film or a television show. But if you get out there and you do the show every night, it can mess with your head too much. And it’s the old adage: If you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones, too.
You get great reviews, though.
I’ve been lucky. I don’t — they just mess with you.
Why step away from “Private Practice”?
I just couldn’t do the commute anymore.
New York to L.A.?
Every week for four years, and sometimes twice a week. It was just starting to really get to me, and it was really hard on my daughter [Zoe Madeline, 10]. I needed to get home, get closer to her. If I have to run out and do a concert — yes, I’m going to Washington and Philly and Boston within the next three days, but then I’m driving home after every single one of those performances. So I can be home at night.
You’re keeping your hand in with “Private Practice”?
Yeah, I think the door is open. They didn’t kill my character off. (Laughs.)
How much do you have planned beyond “Porgy”?
That’s it. That’s enough for now. That, and get some laundry done and take a nap at some point.
Your tweets reveal a serious weakness for junk food.
Well, let’s get specific here. I have a thing for Kettle Chips. I feel like the more I tweet about them, the less I’ll eat them.
Is that working?
No. But “Porgy and Bess” is a good workout. Any time I’m going for that second or third bag of chips, I remind myself that I have to sing “I Loves You, Porgy” in a slip.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
Oct. 4 at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. Call 202-785-9727
or visit www.wpas.org.