Six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald is one of the great stars of Broadway, an outspoken civil-rights advocate and not a guarded show-biz diva.
For starters, even her official bio begins with her DOB: July 3, 1970.
“I can’t hide. I can’t hide how old I am. There’s no reason to, either,” says McDonald, who performs Thursday at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse in a sold-out concert with musician and Sirius/XM radio host Seth Rudetsky. “The truth will set you free. I have nothing to hide. As far as fighting for civil rights, I am certainly someone who is a beneficiary of the civil-rights movement of the ‘60s. I just feel its sort of my duty, you know how it is? It’s only right. I don’t see any point in not doing anything. I want to be a good citizen of the United States. I want to be a good citizen of the human race, you know?”
McDonald, one of the musical theater’s most vocal LGBT allies, has long fought for same-sex marriage equality. Married to another musical theater star, Will Swenson, she is an advisory board member of Broadway Impact, a freedom-to-marry advocacy group.
“I also work with Covenant House, with homeless youth all across the country,” she says. “Forty percent of the homeless youth in this country are LGBTQ and just discarded by their families.”
McDonald made her Broadway debut in 1992 as a replacement in The Secret Garden. Two years later, she won her first Tony Award in a Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Her performance as Carrie Pipperidge, a role usually played by white actresses, broke barriers. In 1999, she co-starred as Daddy Warbuck’s girlfriend in a TV adaptation of the musical, Annie. A year ago, her portrayal of the Mother Abbess in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, was one of the program’s few critical high points.
“There is more awareness and more realization that the world is not going to end if there’s marriage equality, the world is not going to end if there’s an African-American Mother Superior in a production,” McDonald says.
“When I was in Annie, the one that Rob Marshall directed for ABC, everybody was a little nervous about the fact that I was playing Grace. Daddy Warbucks — [played by actor] Victor Garber — proposes at the end. Time magazine that year said ‘In other things that happened, Daddy Warbucks marries a black Grace Farrell and nobody cares.’ That’s what it is. The fear of the unknown. There’s more awareness. Awareness eventually becomes acceptance.”
Last year, McDonald won her record sixth performing Tony (her first as Leading Actress in a Play), for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the drama, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Last month, HBO announced she would film Lady Day before a live audience.
In December, McDonald also began a 32-city concert tour that will bring her March 24 to the Kravis Center For the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. The concerts feature McDonald “singing songs from the American Songbook, going as far back as 1920 and all the way forward as recent as 2013. And everything in between.”
“From time to time I include stuff from my shows, but I usually use this an opportunity to explore other music from other shows that I’ve not necessarily been a part of,” she says.
Thursday’s show with Rudetsky is quite unlike her concert tour, McDonald assures.
“Seth sort of makes the concert a much more informal affair. I always jokingly call him Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin — I’m dating myself — he’ll sing a little bit, then he’ll sit down and interview you. It’s sort of like a conversation. He’ll ask you to tell stories, try to elicit stories and ask questions about you and your life. It’s Seth Rudetsky and he’s very funny,” she says. “Then, he gets to decide what he wants you to sing next, so he has all of your music. He says, ‘And speaking of flowers, why don’t you sing Edelweiss.’ Or ‘You know what? You should belt more. You need to sing Maybe This Time’ or something like that. You never know what you’re going to sing or what’s coming next. You’re just at his mercy, but he’s so warm and funny that you’re incredibly safe.
“There is this certain abandon to a format like that. In some ways, there’s less of a wall between you and the audience. There really is no wall. It’s more like someone’s living room and less like a formal concert.”