A Broadway Chanteuse
I think about the fact that she was 35 when she got the lead and had already clawed her way through vaudeville,” mused Audra McDonald to the New York Times about stage actress and singer Lottie Gee, star of the groundbreaking 1921 Broadway smash Shuffle Along. “I realized: She was 35 when she made her debut. An ingenue at 35. Talking about being in the chorus all those years, wanted to get to the front. And the fact that she was always so impeccably dressed. There is a pain, and the sense that she’s going to miss an opportunity, and that she’s trying to desperately stake her rightful claim on what is hers.”
McDonald recently portrayed the nearly-forgotten showstopper Gee in Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The well-received Broadway interpretation of the creation of the eponymous show had been the largest African-American-produced Broadway show in history. It introduced furiously copied novelties such as a chorus of professional dancers and syncopated jazz score, among other firsts. The show also featured a 16-year-old Josephine Baker as a young chorine performing in front of the first racially integrated audience, among which George Gershwin and Al Jolson often appeared. And unlike the talented but long-suffering vaudevillian she embodied, McDonald was only 24 when she earned her first Tony Award, a full decade younger than when Gee finally had her star turn.
The record six-time Tony Award winner also has two Grammys and an Emmy to her name, only partial evidence of a remarkable range of talent across genres and mediums that inspired the New York Times to gush that McDonald is “a one-of-a-kind musical supertalent” and “irreplaceable resource.” But her incomparable work ethic is what led her to tackle two historical chanteuses, both in 2016: the aforementioned Gee on Broadway, and as battered but unapologetic icon Billie Holiday in a revival of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, broadcast in the United States on HBO and performed live in the West End.
“I think what made Billie Holiday such an incredible talent is that she was unlike any sound anybody had ever heard before,” McDonald said of Holiday in an interview just before the broadcast of the HBO special. “She was able to just truly express herself artistically through that very unique sound. She could make a mountain cry.”
Originally produced in Atlanta in 1986, Lady Day was finally staged on Broadway—and starring McDonald, who won her sixth Tony Award for the performance—in 2014, before being revived again last year. Shortly after the play’s debut, journalist Charlie Rose asked McDonald on The Week what was so very special about Holiday. “A lot of the interviews I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to said that when you were in the audience and Billie was performing, you felt like she was singing just to you, and she knew exactly what was going on in your heart and your head.”
McDonald spent 18 months researching Holiday’s life and studying the singer’s trademark voice some 60 years after her untimely death from liver cirrhosis at age 44. “My grandmother had a speaking voice very similar to Billie Holiday’s speaking voice and I used to imitate my grandmother to her face. She’d laugh, and sometimes she wouldn’t,” McDonald told Clay Cane of BET.com. “I’ve been using that as my jumping off point—Nana’s voice. And that sort of helped me find it. I just start like I’m imitating my grandmother and then I try to go to Billie Holiday from there.”
Certainly, McDonald’s voice isn’t known for the raspiness of Lady Day’s or the wavering of a wizened grandmother’s. In fact, some two decades ago, the California-raised mezzo-soprano was nearly sidelined while studying at New York’s Juilliard School. “I entered into the classical vocal program and so all of a sudden I was on this different path,” McDonald told Oprah Winfrey on the television show Oprah: Where Are They Now? in 2016. “I was studying with a classical teacher whose goal was to make my voice operatic. And I wasn’t allowed to sing Broadway or to audition for musicals or anything like that. So here I was finally in New York literally living on Broadway; my apartment was on Broadway. And I’d never been further away from my dreams. So I really felt lost.” Eventually, McDonald bottomed out. “I had a suicide attempt,” she told Popcorn with Peter Travers on ABC in 2014. “I tried to slit my wrists.”
Thankfully, McDonald’s own determination, with the help of Juilliard’s on-site mental health facilitator, was able to get her back on track to success, starting with a national tour of Tony-winning musical The Secret Garden. “Juilliard was like, go do that we’ll be here,” she told Travers. “You can delay finishing your program, but we think that the musical theatre thing is more for you anyway. That seems to be where you’re the happiest, so go do it.”
And so she did. After The Secret Garden, McDonald finished school and charged full-speed into a career as one of the biggest stars in Broadway history. She appeared as naive, dreamy-eyed Carrie Pipperidge in the 1994 revival of Carousel—a coup for non-traditional casting because McDonald was the first black woman to play the role in a major production. She took home her first Tony Award for it. She won the second two years later as a headstrong student of opera diva and voice instructor Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s homage, Master Class. In 1998, she clenched her third Tony as the beloved and doomed Sarah in McNally’s multicultural turn-of-last-century romp, Ragtime. It seems her advisers at Juilliard were right.
After a fourth Tony for her performance as the weary but hopeful Ruth Younger in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, with Phylicia Rashad and hip-hop star Sean “Diddy” Combs, McDonald steamrolled through Shakespeare, opera, and television. Two more Tonys—in 2012 for musical The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and, finally, in 2014 for Lady Day—and more than a few concert albums, television appearances, films, and philanthropic endeavors later, McDonald’s performance schedule finally permitted her to focus exclusively on two roles described as being her personal favorites: wife and mother. McDonald gave birth to her first child together with husband and fellow Broadway belter Will Swenson in 2016; she has a teenage daughter, Zoe, from her previous marriage with orchestral bassist Peter Donovan.
McDonald had been excited to get back into Lottie Gee’s shoes when her pregnancy was first announced: “I’m glad I’ll be able to spend a little more time in Shuffle Along this summer,” she told the press, “and will look forward to setting up a 1920s-themed nursery in my dressing room when I return to the show.” But producers pulled the plug on the show, reportedly due to a drop in ticket sales during the star’s maternity leave.
While Gee’s star faded slowly but steadily—she lived among an adoring arts community in Los Angeles into her 80s—McDonald’s continues to shine, humbly but brightly, illuminating a path trod by trailblazers both forgotten and remembered. “I want to thank all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I am standing on,” McDonald said through tears as she accepted her sixth Tony Award, for her portrayal of Holiday. “Lena Horne…Maya Angelou…Diahann Carroll…Ruby Dee, and most of all Billie Holiday. You deserved so much more than you were given when you were on this planet. This is for you, Billie.”
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