Broadway superstar Audra McDonald: ‘Some of the greatest art we have comes out of tumultuous times’

Audra McDonaldPhoto by ABC/Andrew Eccles

The actress and singer Audra McDonald is one of the most spectacularly talented and versatile artists of her generation. She’s won a record-setting six performance Tony Awards, as well as two Grammys and an Emmy, and become a Broadway legend for performances in the likes of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grille.” Her success opened doors for African-American and other minority actors on Broadway, helping pave the way for shows like “Hamilton.” An activist for marriage equality, homeless children, and abandoned animals, McDonald is also a classically trained singer who does frequent concert tours. She’ll be appearing with longtime friend Michael Tilson Thomas at the New World Symphony gala on Miami Beach on Feb. 11. talked to McDonald about breaking barriers, appearing in the reboot of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” and becoming a mom for the second time at age 46; she and actor husband Will Swenson are proud parents to three-month-old daughter Sally James.

How did you get to know Michael Tilson Thomas, and what are you singing at the gala?

He basically launched my concert career. I was doing “Ragtime” [in 1998] and out of the blue he asked if I would sing something from “Porgy and Bess” at Carnegie Hall with the San Francisco Symphony. I thought ‘That sounds like a challenge, I’d better do it.’ He’s always been a very good mentor. I never feel nervous on stage with him, I just feel safe and protected, which is great. [At the gala] I’ll be doing some Gershwin and Bernstein, probably a little Jules Styne – classics from the great American songbook.

You’re a new mother again in your 40s. What has that been like?

It was quite a shock to find myself in this situation again. I was three months from turning 46 when I found out. But the second time around you know what getting into. You’re forewarned though not necessarily forearmed. But she’s a joy. I feel blessed that this happened, because I didn’t think it could happen again at this point in my life. Also, it’s great to have a before and after with my older daughter [Zoe, 15.] I know she won’t always be getting up at 2 a.m. And then the next thing you know they’re 16.

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonaldPhoto by Michael Wilson

What was it like to play Garderobe in the new “Beauty and the Beast”?

It was an incredibly rewarding experience just being on that set. Even though you could see the machinations and how things were happening, it was very intense and remarkable and gorgeous. Sometimes I’d just wander around the castle between takes. I’m pleased that they decided to use an African American actor in this part, that’s important. And it was fun to play a larger than life character. My character has no subtleties at all.

You were a pioneer in diversifying Broadway. What gave you the confidence to do that? How far do you think theater has come in being more inclusive?

What kept me going was that Broadway was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I didn’t care what I played. In the early days I auditioned for everything. I auditioned for the ensemble of “Beauty and the Beast” and didn’t get cast. There was no “let me see what I can do with this.” It was “I want to do this.” That’s what kept me going, drive and love of the art form. Also being very lucky. [Director] Nicholas Hytner had the vision to cast me in “Carousel” [in 1994.] He made the entire cast multi-racial, that’s just how it was. It’s not always the case to be that lucky out of the gate. Now I think there’s much more awareness in the Broadway and theater community than there’s ever been in how things are cast. More and more people are aware of ‘what colors am I seeing onstage?’ – more than ever before.

Audra McDonald in "The Gershwins Porgy and Bess"
Audra McDonald in “The Gershwins Porgy and Bess”Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Did you participate in the Women’s Marches the day after the inauguration?

I marched in New York with my older daughter. It was absolutely amazing, a wonderful feeling. The streets were packed, there was a lot of solidarity. It gave me a lot of hope.

Do you think the advances we’ve made in how this country treats different races, cultures and sexual preferences are threatened under the new administration? What do you think people should do?

I don’t have all the answers but I absolutely feel civil liberties for everybody are under threat with this administration. Our democracy is under threat with this administration. Especially for people of color and the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. We’ve got tough times ahead. People need to be vocal and play a part in this democracy and fight for this democracy as much as they can. Get out and vote, volunteer, support organizations that are supporting the people that feel under attack by this administration. We cannot stay silent.

Right now for me performing is a great way to get out all my emotions by pouring it into my art. Some of the greatest art we have comes out of tumultuous times.

What’s your advice to girls and young women who want to sing or act?

AM – In the most practical sense I would say to get onstage anywhere. It doesn’t have to be Broadway to start. The experience of being onstage in front of a live audience is the same, whether it’s Broadway or Carnegie Hall or school or a church basement. Any time spent onstage is so valuable. You have to throw yourself into anything you can. And never say no to yourself. There are going to be enough people saying no to you. Say yes to yourself.