There were the inevitable crowd-pleasers on which Audra McDonald puts her impassioned stamp.
By Susan Miron
When singer and actress Audra McDonald walks on stage, magic happens. Friday night the beloved singer and actress returned to a packed Symphony Hall for her seventh appearance on the Celebrity Series. She currently holds the record for most Tony Award wins, with six, and is the only performer to have won a Tony in all four acting categories. She also has two Prime Time Emmy Awards and a Grammy. Her most iconic and celebrated roles have been Carrie in the 1994 Broadway revival of Carousel, originating the role of Sarah in Broadway’s Ragtime, the title character in Broadway’s Marie Christine, Ruth in the 2004 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, Bess in the revival of Porgy and Bess, Mother Abbess in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, and Madame de Garderobe in this past March’s live action film adaption of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Audra entranced the packed hall with her stories about her family (which recently added actor Will Swenson, his two sons, and a 17 month old baby daughter). At one point, she explained that she needed to tour to finance three college educations and bail money for her new daughter, who was in utero while her mother tap danced on Broadway and “who came out of the womb singing. Who knew that tap dancing in perimenopause could lead to a pregnancy?” Her daughter Zoe famously remarked when she was three that her mom’s singing “made her ears cry.”
This is the third time I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of hearing Audra courtesy of The Celebrity Series, and the performer brought along an excellent three piece band — Brian Hertz, piano; Mark Vanderpoel, bass, and Gene Lewin, drums. Symphony Hall was packed — as I expect every stop on this tour will be. The songs ran the spectrum, from the well-known to those by young, still unfamiliar composers. And An Evening with Audra McDonald was chockfull of charming, funny, and endearing stories. In terms of awards, she has most recently garnered The McDermott Award in the Arts and a residency at MIT. (Many MIT students were in the audience cheering her on). Equally important are McDonald’s contributions to LGBTQ causes as well as her commitment to underprivileged youth and marriage equality.
The evening began with “When Did I Fall in Love” (from the 1959 musical Fiorello), one of several Broadway songs that are far less well known than other, more famous, tunes that she champions. After some talking, she sang “It Might As Well Be Spring” (from State Fair) and Stars and the Moon (from Jason Robert Brown’s musical Songs for the New World). Among the more humorous songs, in which she clearly was having grand old time, included “Baltimore,” in which a girl is warned never to date boys from that city.Audra McDonald was in fabulous voice, and treated us to a extraordinary “Summertime.”Click To Tweet
Also part of the line-up: Stephen Sondheim’s “Glamorous Life” and the hilariously super-fast “Can’t Stop Talking.” She considers Sondheim her mentor — “we all do” — and told us about the “fresh hell” she experienced serious public humiliation when she forgot the lyrics to one of his songs at an important Sondheim celebration. Audra’s comic side is refreshing, as is her deep respect for those who came before her, such as the recently deceased legend Barbara Cook, whose career lasted fifty years. In her memory, Audra sang “Ice Cream” from the musical She Loves Me. Her next song, she pointed out, “was by an immigrant” named Irving Berlin, the charming “Moonshine Lullaby” (from Annie Get Your Gun).
Audra was in fabulous voice, and treated us to a extraordinary “Summertime” (from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) and led a sing-along of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” (from My Fair Lady), a song she claims all sopranos must conquer in order to receive their “Soprano Card.” One of the evening’s highlights was Kate Miller-Heidke’s timely “Facebook Song,” in which a woman with an abusive former beau gets a invitation to be become his “Facebook Friend.” This, to Audra, represented heartbreak in the 21st century. Rage — mixed with hilarity and profanity — ensues.
Another highlight was the heartbreaking I Won’t Mind, one of my favorite Audra performances. The song (by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler, Libby Saines) features a childless woman who speaks tenderly to Lizzie, who is a baby when the song begins: “I won’t mind sitting by your cradle, playing peekaboo for hours…. In my dreams you’re my very own…If one day you call me Mama by mistake, I won’t mind at all.”
There were the inevitable crowd-pleasers on which Audra puts her impassioned stamp — “Climb Every Mountain” (doing it well earns you a “Gold Soprano Card”) from The Sound of Music, which she sang on TV as the Mother Abbess (“I am probably the darkest Mother Abbess ever, maybe from the sunny side of the Alps”) and as an encore, “in honor of Judy Judy Judy,” Somewhere Over the Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz). Audra makes every note and every word count; she raises an almost impossible bar for other singers. She informed us that she was singing this beloved standard “in honor of hope and dreams and our children who are leading the way.”
My favorite moment during this concert was Audra’s knowing version of “Someone to Love”: “Be good to each other, spread some love. We are all in this together.” Her response — the bittersweet Make Someone Happy, with its message “Love is the answer. Someone to love is he answer. One you found them, build your world around them. Make just one someone happy. Then you will be happy, too.” And very happy we all were. Thank you, Audra. You were an oasis of beauty in every way, much needed and much appreciated.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.