For McDonald, the Music Never Stops

"It's just better for me to keep busy," says Audra McDonald, who ended an opera run and began rehearsing a new show. (By Eddie Malluk)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Hyperactivity is an interesting excuse for Broadway greatness.

The motivating factor for enrollment in toddler tumbling classes? Probably. The reason little Stevie has to sit up here by the teacher's desk? Unfortunately. The selling point for a new class of generic pharmaceuticals? Oh, sure.

But a path to musical theater glory and the like?

Odd. But how else to explain the storied, eclectic career of Audra McDonald?

Study, for a moment, her agenda for the first quarter of 2007.

She ushered in the new year via a concert at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. Then she jetted to California to perform in a month-long run of Kurt Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" with the Los Angeles Opera. (Verdict in the New Yorker: McDonald plays the role of a prostitute with "impeccable musicianship while exuding eyebrow-raising sexiness and sass.") She closed that show the Sunday before last, took a red-eye to New York and started rehearsals for a Broadway musical the next day.

The singer will take this weekend off, but only to travel here and set up shop at the Kennedy Center with her old friend and favorite grande dame diva, Barbara Cook.

"I am of the belief that life is to be lived," McDonald says on the phone from a temporary home in California. "I do sort of just go at things pretty gung-ho in terms of how busy I keep my schedule. And if it's not filled up with performance, it's filled up with other things in life -- I'm a wife and mom, too. . . . But I have a lot of energy, so it's just better for me to keep busy."

Since graduating from Juilliard in 1993, she has been busy nabbing four Tony Awards, including one in 2004 for her role in "A Raisin in the Sun." (You'll remember that Diddy -- then Sean Combs -- was also in that one.) There have been television acting stints and an Emmy nomination and the release of four solo albums, three of them for musical theater aficionados and her latest, "Build a Bridge," introducing new pieces by such songwriters as Elvis Costello and John Mayer.

Regardless of origin, McDonald says, for her the song is always about the story it tells.

"The person who starts the song should be changed. There should be some kind of arc, some sort of journey. Otherwise, why are you singing it?" she says. "These lyrics aren't chosen at random. Lyricists are very specific with the words and commas and phrases they choose. . . . I think attention should be paid to that as much as attention should be paid to the rhythm and the notes a composer has laid out."

In the Roundabout Theatre Company's April revival of the 1963 musical "110 in the Shade," for instance, her songs will tell the story of Lizzie, a woman convinced she is doomed to old-maid-dom, eventually finding "more than she ever could've dreamed or hoped for."

McDonald calls the show, her first Broadway musical in seven years, a "chestnut" she hopes people will rediscover and come to love, but she says it's really only during concerts like the one this weekend that she has the ability to create a personal rapport with fans.

"There's no fourth wall. You're talking to the audience and including them in the most obvious way," she says. "And it's you up there, even though you're doing different songs and you may inhabit a different character or emotional state for each song, it's still you up there -- which has its challenges but is also very freeing."

Cook and McDonald have performed together so many times, they have the routine down pat: start with a duet, sink into a couple of solo sets, then a duet, then more solos and so on. Cook, of course, will tend toward the old standards that made her famous in musicals such as "The Music Man" and "Oklahoma!" McDonald will give her fans what they expect, including numbers from more recent musicals, such as "Your Daddy's Son" from "Ragtime."

When the two women (who between them encompass the better part of a century of musical theater) sing together, it's usually "old-fashioned familiar songs" that might prompt a little audience participation.

"Barbara and I are of the same mind that a concert is to invite people in and really create a communion between performer and audience," McDonald says. Done right, she adds, everyone within earshot will have "a sort of singular experience."

Audra McDonald and Barbara Cook Kennedy Center Concert Hall 202-467-4600 Saturday at 4

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