September 29, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Broadway elite

Audra McDonald
The Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Tuesday at 8 p.m.
$25-$85
wpas.org
kennedy-center.org

An Evening with Linda Eder
Music Center at Strathmore
5301 Tuckerman Lane
North Bethesda, MD
Thursday at 8 p.m.
$35-$76
Strathmore.org

Audra McDonald (Photo by Michael Wilson; courtesy WPAS)

With a gorgeous voice and the acting chops to match, Audra McDonald ranks as one of Broadway’s biggest and most talented stars. Her seemingly limitless career is the stuff of theatrical dreams.

By 30, she had already won an unprecedented three Tony Awards for “Carousel,” “Master Class” and “Ragtime,” and then went on to win a fourth for “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2004. She’s also starred in a TV drama (ABC’s “Private Practice”), made recordings and all along has continued to perform sold-out concert dates. Now 41, she’s on the cusp of yet another Broadway triumph playing Bess in a new take on the beloved 1935 opera “Porgy & Bess.”

Despite the awards and many successes, McDonald remains far from complacent. Her feelings about her highly praised turn as Bess in a re-mastering of the classic titled “The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess,” which premiered at ART Theatre’s (Cambridge, Mass.) this summer and moves to New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre in mid-December, are no exception: “I’m never satisfied, but my goal is continue to work. By the time I leave the role, whenever that may be, I want to have been able to excavate everything from her soul that I can. I want to truly understand her, but that’s still a long way off.”

In reworking the operatic tale of down and out African Americans living in a Charleston, S.C., slum  into a Broadway musical, director Diane Paulus, playwright Lori-Suzan Parks, and McDonald have, among other things, fleshed out the role of Bess, a drug-addicted prostitute. Not surprisingly such fiddling doesn’t sit well with all folks including genius gay composer Stephen Sondheim who expressed his distaste in a rather scathing letter to the New York Times. After seeing the production in Cambridge, that same paper’s theater critic reported that the changes aren’t so startling and that McDonald has more than made the part her own.

“Friends assume I’m never going to sing Sondheim’s songs again. I tell them of course I am. I’d be a fool not to,” McDonald says. “I admire Sondheim as an artist. He’s one of the greatest. I also believe in our production.”

Seldom idle, McDonald is spending the months prior to “Porgy & Bess’” New York opening touring with songs from the Great American Songbook. She lands in Washington for one night on Tuesday where she’ll perform Broadway favorites and songs from the contemporary musical theater repertoire on stage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

“I’ll do Adam Guettel, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, and Cole Porter,” says the soprano, “but every show is a little different. It sort of depends on my mood that day. For the D.C. show however, I plan to do something entirely new. I’ll play piano and sing for one song. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it scares me to death. That’s how I know it’s something I need to do.

“Sometimes on concert tour I can roll into a city grumpy and tired, but then I get on stage and the audiences cheers me up. I have a good time. I’d never want to give up concerts, mostly because I enjoy them, but also because they keep you honest as a performer. When you’re doing a concert, there’s no place to hide. No characters, no costumes. It’s just you, the audience and the material.”

McDonald grew up in Fresno, Calif., in a house filled with music. She began acting and singing as a child but became serious about it at 16 when she played the lead in “Evita” at a local company. Because her parents insisted she get a degree before striking out on a theatrical career, McDonald studied classical voice as an undergraduate at Juilliard in New York (the city she has since enthusiastically called home).

McDonald made an impressive Broadway debut as the textile worker Carrie Pipperidge in the 1994 revival of “Carousel,” a part typically reserved for young white actresses.

When asked about nontraditional casting and whether there might be a Mama Rose in her future, McDonald chuckles and relays a fun show biz anecdote: “Very recently, my good friend Zoe Caldwell (In 1995 McDonald created the role of a young voice student in “Master Class” starring Caldwell as opera diva Maria Callas), my 10 –year-old daughter Zoe [who is named for Caldwell], and I attended a performance of the Broadway revival of ‘Master Class’ with Tyne Daly as Callas. After the show, we joined Daly and the play’s [gay] author Terrence McNally for dinner. It was a wonderful evening. At one point Terrence asked ‘So Audra, how about you play Maria one of these days?’ Maybe I will, who knows? But talk about nontraditional casting …”

From the outside, McDonald appears to have lived an utterly charmed life. In reality, there have been bumps. While at Juilliard she attempted suicide and was treated for depression before graduating in 1993.

Has she ever lost faith in her talent or thought perhaps her career might not last?

“Every day,” McDonald says. “I’m always afraid that this will be the day the world will catch me and find out that I’m no good. Really, that’s how I feel, but still I get back on stage and keep trying. I have no choice. There’s nothing else I know how to do.”

Eder set to play Thursday Strathmore show

It’s unlikely there’ll be any celebrity death match over it but Audra McDonald will have some competition next week for much of the same local Broadway- and standards-loving crowd as Linda Eder brings her show to the Strathmore Thursday night.

Linda Eder, despite early success on Broadway, says a recording and balanced touring schedule is more conducive to raising a son. (Photo courtesy Linda Eder via the Strathmore)

A bit more pop leaning than McDonald, Eder also cut her teeth on Broadway (in 1997’s “Jekyll & Hyde”) but has focused more on recording and touring in the ensuing years as she raises her 12-year-old son, Jake.

Speaking by phone from her Worcester, N.Y., home, Eder says she’ll mix up her set list with selections from her latest album (“Now,” which dropped in March) and her signature songs like “Someone Like You” and “Vienna” with her five-piece band.

Eder, 50, shares some interesting thoughts about the difference between pop and standards.

“I think with pop music, it’s much more about hooks while standards are more about a pure melody,” she says. “A pop song might have one great hook in the chorus whereas a standard, the whole thing might be kind of a hook. … Really successful pop songs are mostly just reflecting what’s happening in the world while standards are an art form. To me, pop is just sort of the voice of the people.”

Eder says she’s appreciative of her gay fans and laughs that, “singing the kind of music I do, I’d probably be doing something wrong if I didn’t have gay fans.”

She appreciates “anything that helps get that energy up in the room,” which she says gays are generally more unabashed than their straight counterparts.

Eder remembers her 1988 “Star Search” stint — she was undefeated and eventually won the $100,000 prize — and late host Ed McMahon fondly.

“It was obviously great for me,” she says. “I never had to lose.”

During the run she didn’t see McMahon often off-camera but after her victory got to interact with him at a few dinners and appearances.

“He was always very supportive and would mention me when he was asked about certain winners.”

She scoffs slightly at what she calls “the viciousness” of “American Idol.”

“It’s so far from the real thing,” she says. “Some of the things Simon has said would never happen in real life because then you wouldn’t even get in the door.”

— JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

 

 

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