Arts & Culture

Broadway superstar Audra McDonald performs in Chapel Hill

Audra McDonald, winner of six Tony awards, comes to Chapel Hill Friday.
Audra McDonald, winner of six Tony awards, comes to Chapel Hill Friday. AUTUMN DE WILDE

Audra McDonald is like a shark; the eclectic entertainer is in constant motion. McDonald, 44, has starred in an array of Broadway musicals and dramas and is a successful recording artist. She is also a television actress, scoring acclaim for her work on Shonda Rhimes’ ABC drama “Private Practice.”

Each achievement is laudable on its own, but McDonald has taken stage performance to another level. The Berlin, Germany, native, who grew up in California, is a real superstar on the Great White Way.

McDonald has won six competitive Tony Awards – more than any other performer – and she is the only performer to win four different acting categories. She has won for her work in such productions as “Carousel,” “Ragtime” and “Master Class.”

“I have a pretty hard time comprehending it,” McDonald admits. “When you’re in a show, your mind is on the show and you’re living another life on stage. Then the Tonys come, it happens, and then it’s gone. But when I accumulate it all, it feels like a big, fantastic blur. The biggest memories I have of the Tonys are the emotions of how it all felt. And at the end of it, you still have to go on with your daily life.”

McDonald is currently portraying Billie Holiday in the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” but whenever she gets a break from Broadway, she tours. She’ll perform Friday at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill.

“It will be a mix,” McDonald says of the show. “I’ll be performing a few fan favorites, some songs from my most recent release on Nonesuch, ‘Go Back Home,’ and several new songs that I recently added to my repertoire. There should definitely be something for everyone.”

The striking, classically trained soprano knocks it out of the park throughout the “Go Back Home” album, by making such familiar fare as “Edelweiss” (from “The Sound of Music”) and “The Glamorous Life” (from “A Little Night Music”) her own.

McDonald says she is looking forward to the change touring provides.

“It can be exhausting, but very refreshing,” McDonald says. “Sometimes on a concert tour I can roll into a city grumpy and tired, but then I get on stage and the audience cheers me up. I have a good time. I really enjoy concerts 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.”

Nervous to play Holiday

McDonald has received rave reviews for her current portrayal of the legendary Holiday.

“I was initially nervous to play Billie Holiday because she is such a historic character and there is so much video and audio of her,” McDonald says. “She’s famous for her voice and iconic sound. My biggest challenge was making sure that no part of my voice made its way onto the stage, so it was really rewarding when I found her voice.”

McDonald is humble, but is perhaps the most in-demand performer on Broadway – where she arguably, has the most malleable voice. Still, she downplays her gifts.

“I come from a really musical family and everybody in my family sings,” McDonald says. “So I don’t remember not singing. It’s funny, though, because I seriously don’t have the most remarkable voice in my family. There are major singers in my family, gorgeous voices. Maybe I’m the one who decided to do it professionally, but my voice isn’t all that special if you compare it to all the other voices in my family.”

McDonald has already achieved a career’s worth of honors at midlife, but she is excited about her future.

“There is still so much more to do,” McDonald says. “I’m constantly striving to get better. If you don’t strive to get better, I think you die. As far as singing is concerned, your body is constantly changing. You carry that instrument with you wherever you go, so your voice is constantly changing. So it’s a constant grind. It’s a constant discipline to keep it going. It’s one day at a time, but you can’t possibly rest on your laurels and think you know everything you need to know.

Starring with Winfrey?

It is rumored that McDonald will star opposite Oprah Winfrey in the Broadway revival of “ ’night, Mother.” “I would be extremely honored and thrilled to star in anything with Oprah Winfrey,” McDonald says.

And if you can’t get to New York to see McDonald on stage, look for her on the small screen.

“HBO recently recorded ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’ at New Orleans’ Café Brasil for a television special that is scheduled to air later this year,” McDonald says. “I am excited for people across the country to get a chance to see Lanie Robertson’s beautiful play.”