Singer and actress Audra McDonald is Broadway royalty. She made her debut in 1992 (while still a student at Juilliard) and has earned a record six Tony Awards for roles like Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun, Bess in Porgy and Bess, and Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Throughout her career, she’s also appeared on TV and film, most recently portraying Madame de Garderobe in the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Regardless of the part, McDonald’s soaring soprano is always instantly recognizable. On March 17, she’ll share her otherworldly talent with audiences at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. PBI caught up with McDonald to talk all things Audra—and a bit of Billie, too.
PBI: What’s your earliest memory of singing and performing?
McDonald: I come from a musical family, and everybody sings. My grandmothers were piano teachers. My dad was a music teacher. I don’t remember a moment when there wasn’t music in my house. For me, I remember singing in my church choir, getting the solo on Christmas Eve, and standing up and turning around to face the congregation to sing. I remember the butterflies in my stomach and how much I enjoyed it.
When did it click for you that Broadway was where you were going to channel this energy?
Pretty early. At 9 years old, I started at a dinner theater in Fresno, California. I worked there as a kid in their junior company troupe—kind of like the Mickey Mouse Club. We would do little cabarets before a big stage production every night. At 9 and a half, 10 years old I knew. I didn’t know I was going to be successful, but I knew that was what I was going to do.
You’ve portrayed countless characters. Which one have you most identified with and why?
I identify with all of them in a special way. I would probably say Ruth from A Raisin in the Sun. She was the most like me on paper, in that she was African American, she was in her 30s, she was a wife and a mother—all of that I very much understood. She wanted the best for her family.
Which character have you been most inspired by?
Probably Billie Holiday. Obviously, my life was not like her life, [which] wasn’t the easiest life in the world. She just was not handed a great hand, except for that God-given talent. Everything else was pretty rough. I am incredibly inspired by how long she could persevere against all odds.
What has been the most challenging vocal role you’ve tackled?
Billie Holiday. I had to completely alter my voice to sound like someone else. Not only the singing voice but the speaking voice, too. That was just a huge challenge, to sound authentically like her, because her voice is so specific and original. And to find a way to do it that was healthy and wouldn’t destroy my own voice night after night.
How did her vocal styling influence your own?
What I did learn about her is that she absolutely had to be emotionally connected to the material in order to sing it. A song that she’d been singing for years, if she didn’t feel it on a certain night, she couldn’t do it. What I took away from that is more of a commitment to making sure I’m emotionally connected to every single note and song that I sing. Even though I have such a completely different style than Billie Holiday, that was something that drives us both, making sure there’s a connection.
What was the most challenging aspect of portraying a wardrobe in Beauty and the Beast and being on film without being on film for most of the part?
In some ways, that was actually very freeing. It’s just your voice in a recording studio, and there was an incredible freedom with that. You could use your imagination and try anything. She’s not the subtlest character in the world, either, so you could paint with really broad strokes. I would say the most challenging thing about when I was on camera was just the size of that wig; it was really high and hard to stand in, and I couldn’t sit down in the dress.
What’s on your Broadway bucket list? What’s one show you’d love to perform in but haven’t yet?
I would love to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret. I’m probably a little too old for her now, but maybe years ago I would have loved to have played Sally Bowles. There’s a lot of Shakespeare I’d like to do at some point. Maybe Mama Rose [from Gypsy]. In maybe about five or six years I can handle Mama Rose.
What is your favorite style of music to sing or listen to in your downtime?
I don’t sing too often when I’m not onstage but I do listen to a lot of music. I listen to a lot of Martin Sexton, or India Arie, or sometimes I like the old stuff. Martin Sexton because it keeps my baby calm. It was the last concert I went to before I gave birth about three or four days later. Anytime [my baby is] crying or upset, I put on Martin Sexton and she calms right down, and I think it’s because she heard a lot of it right before she was born.
You were one of two daughters and you now have two daughters of your own. What lesson about sisterhood do you most hope to teach them?
Just that it’s an unbreakable bond. Even if you sometimes don’t get along with your sister, your sister is your sister for life. For me, I feel grateful that they will have each other when I am gone. They will look after each other and take care of each other. And I do believe the little one will look after the older one just as much as the older one will look after the little one. She’s got a ride or die. I know I have that in my sister and she has that in me, even though we still argue and we’re in our 40s.
What are your pre-show rituals?
I’m very quiet. I stay in my dressing room. I do my little warm-ups, but mainly I get introspective and quiet, which is unlike me in regular life. It’s a lot of output, especially when you’re doing concerts. To get as quiet as I possibly can, conserve my energy, and check in with where I am emotionally helps me to make sure that when I am out there I’m able to give my all and connect with the audience.
What can audiences expect from your March 17 performance at the Kravis Center?
Everything. I like to really run the gamut in terms of what I sing in concert. There’ll be stuff from new composers and from composers they’ve known and loved. There’ll be a few surprises along the way, too. I just like to make everybody feel like we’re having an evening in a living room and enjoying each other’s company and I’m sharing something about myself.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.