Christian Dante White, who was just finishing a run as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady,” had a question for an actress he looks up to as a trailblazer for black musical-theater performers.
Sitting with Audra McDonald in the quiet of an empty bar at Sardi’s, the Theatre District hangout, White seized the moment: “Going back to your ‘Carousel’ moment, when did you realize, like, ‘Whoa, this is a big deal’? Did you go, ‘This is a little historic here’? ‘This is a road being mapped out’?”
McDonald smiled back at him and said: “I’ll tell you what. I had to audition and I had many callbacks for ‘Carousel.’ And at my final callback, I passed out. In the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.”
“Yeah. In the middle of singing ‘Mister Snow,’ I passed out.”
So at the time, a wildly nervous Audra Ann McDonald — as she was known professionally then — certainly did get that it was a big deal. She wasn’t the first African American actor to be cast in a part traditionally played by whites. In the 1960s, for instance, the great Pearl Bailey famously portrayed Dolly Levi in an all-black incarnation of “Hello, Dolly!” But McDonald’s featured performance as Carrie Pipperidge in Lincoln Center Theater’s 1994 revival of “Carousel,” for which she won the first of her record six Tony awards, is regarded as a watershed. It reaffirmed indelibly that parts in musicals, classic or otherwise, need not be parceled out by some strict racial code: Talent was the defining qualifier.
“Hamilton,” of course, with its prescriptions for black George Washingtons and Latino Alexander Hamiltons, has altered perceptions even more radically for who can play whom in the sphere of big Broadway entertainment. So it was with these dynamic casting currents in mind that White wanted to organize a sit-down with McDonald, with whom he performed in the short-lived 2016 musical “Shuffle Along.”
He sought a get-together with a reporter to talk about the inroads that have been made, and the challenges remaining, for actors of color cast in roles that we have been conditioned to think of as Caucasian. Both actors also imagined the conversation as a way to encourage those coming up behind them. By now, McDonald is a veteran of colorblind casting, in a résumé that extends to singing in TV versions of old musicals in parts routinely played by whites: Grace, Daddy Warbucks’s secretary, in a 1999 ABC movie of “Annie”; and 14 years later, the Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music Live!” Such is her range that the roles seem to conform to her these days as much as the other way around, as she demonstrated this summer opposite Michael Shannon in a Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” Her part was previously played onstage by the likes of Kathy Bates and Edie Falco, and on film by Michelle Pfeiffer.
In his last two Broadway ventures, meanwhile, White succeeded another black actor who played Freddy, the blue-blood English suitor to Eliza Doolittle and crooner of “On the Street Where You Live,” and he was understudy and replacement for a white actor in the hit revival of “Hello, Dolly!” playing Cornelius Hackl, the Yonkers shop clerk who woos Irene Molloy and sings “It Only Takes a Moment.”
As they warmed to their topic, McDonald, 49, and White, 33, traded stories about trying to inhabit a character — and alter perceptions.
“I’m not only going out there as an actor,” White said. “I’m going out there as a ‘black actor.’ So it is an added pressure. When I started in ‘My Fair Lady,’ I started getting all these amazing messages from these young people of color, a lot of them in school, saying, ‘It was so good to see me up there. You made it seem possible.’ ”
“There is absolutely a lot of pressure,” McDonald said. “But that is a pressure that exists for African Americans, for people of color, in life anyway. I was always taught, you don’t have to be as good, you have to be twice as good, just to be considered.
“And so, if you fail,” she added, “for the audiences that are not open to change, it’s ‘See, that’s why we don’t do that,’ and for your own people, it’s ‘Well, now how are we going to get there?’ ”
I was curious about how an actor of color might approach entering a world not written for someone who looked like them, but I realized the question was riddled with absurdity. Isn’t musical theater intrinsically make-believe? Why do we sometimes persist in applying the strictures of realism to a platform on which characters interrupt conversations to break out in show tunes? Whose expectations are being served?
“During ‘Carousel,’ people who did have a problem with me, I would say, ‘And you have no problem with some guy bringing a star down from heaven, to give to his little girl? You cool with that?’ ” McDonald said, referring to one of the fantastical elements of the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
For White — an Indiana native who considered a career in opera before discovering musicals at an arts academy in Michigan — the aspiration seemed limitless thanks to forerunners like McDonald. He made for a sweet Cornelius in “Dolly” and a suave and striking Freddy in “My Fair Lady.”
“When I walk out, the first thing they see is I am a black man. But me going through the show, I’m not ‘Black Freddy,’ ” the actor said, as he and McDonald both laughed. “I’m thinking, ‘What is most true for the character, stepping up to the plate and telling the story?’ You know what I mean? Because white actors aren’t thinking, ‘I’m being white.’ They’re just being the person.”
For McDonald, though, the barrier-breaking wasn’t always seamless. She recounted a painful interlude 20 years ago during the filming of the TV version of “Annie,” directed by Rob Marshall and featuring Bates, Victor Garber, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. The happy ending, in which Annie is united with Daddy Warbucks, has Grace marrying Daddy Warbucks, played by Garber, who is white.
“The network was very concerned about me marrying Daddy Warbucks at the end,” McDonald recalled. “So they asked us to reshoot, where Daddy Warbucks does not propose to Grace.”
When they explained the change, “I was horrified, I was devastated,” she said. The cast and crew assembled on a Saturday, she recounted, and Marshall shot the scene without the proposal as “one wide, wide take — usually you would do all this other stuff. And he says, ‘Great, while we’re here, there are a few other things I’d love to reshoot.’ ”
As McDonald described it, Marshall spent the studio’s money that day to refine other shots, and provided only the one take of the reshot ending between Grace and Warbucks. “It was a terrible take,” she said, and as a result, the studio kept the proposal in. And that, McDonald said, was how the director ensured the integrity of the original script, and the interracial proposal remained.
McDonald was moved by Marshall’s protectiveness, although the incident stayed with her. “I’m always one of those people who’s like, ‘Don’t you dare put me in a box. If you think I shouldn’t play this role, then it’s on you, but I’ll continue on this path, even if it means I’m playing roles I want to play in my own damn basement.’ So it fuels me.”
In what ways have things improved?
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” McDonald said, bringing up another casting decision, from 2013. “[NBC] was like, ‘Yes, she can play Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music”! Yeah, she can do that, that’s cool!’ No one said anything, so, yeah, there’s been some progress.”
In live performance, of course, the impact one makes can be felt far more viscerally. Both McDonald and White spoke of being deeply moved when peering into audiences filled with white faces and seeing some black ones, too.
“There’s that unspoken black nod,” White said. “I see them at the curtain call and they give me the little nod — you know what I mean? It’s almost like, ‘We see you, baby.’ ”
“And ‘thank you,’ ” McDonald added. “And then, it’s a ‘thank you,’ back to them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the 2013 television version of “The Sound of Music” was broadcast by ABC. It was broadcast by NBC.