Audra McDonald is so popular on stage, in concert, and on television that she has become, to many, a one-name goddess like Bette, Judy, and Barbra. Judging from her recent star turn in the American Repertory Theater’s production of Porgy and Bess and this brilliant concert, she can give the other One-Named Ones a run for their money
By Susan Miron.
Before Audra McDonald began to sing (on Sunday’s Celebrity Series opening event), she thrilled most of the audience simply walking into view. Audra is so popular on stage, in concert, and on television that she has become, to many, a one-name goddess like Bette, Judy, and Barbra. Judging from her recent star turn in the American Repertory Theater’s production of Porgy and Bess and this brilliant concert, she can give the other One-Named Ones a run for their money.
McDonald charmed and seduced a packed Symphony Hall with her easy repartee and customary music-theater repertoire, uncannily getting deeply and instantly into a different character in song after song. By the end of her 90 minute set, the audience had a firm impression of her warmth, sense of humor, and occasional daffiness. Her revealing and highly personal stories not only enlivened the songs but offered a revealing glimpse of the artist who made the songs work so magically. And, of course, there’s her gorgeous, operatically-trained at Julliard voice, which is shimmering at the stratospheric top and in the middle and lower ranges just luscious. McDonald won three Tonys before she was 30. I believe Bess will be her fifth.
McDonald, who had been in Cambridge since mid-July working on Porgy and Bess, was glad to be giving a “happy dust-free concert.” She heaped praise on her Porgy family (with whom she will reunite on Broadway in December) and insisted she and Stephen Sondheim (who wrote a infamous letter to the New York Times critical of the new production of Porgy and Bess) didn’t hate each other. She said that since Porgy and Bess had no solos, she wouldn’t be singing anything from it. She did, however, sing Ira and George Gershwin’s “He Loves and She Loves” from Funny Face (1927) and gave a lovely performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods (1987).
McDonald set the mood for the recital, ably assisted by her excellent jazz trio (Andy Einhorn, piano; Mark Vanderpoel, bass; and Gene Lewin, drums), with “Why did I fall in love?” (“When did it start, this change of heart?”) by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick from Fiorello! (1950). Later she performed their “Dear Friend” from She Loves Me (1963). Most of her repertoire came from show tunes from the past 60 years, and many of the gems were, unsurprisingly, about love in all of its guises.
Relatively unknown composers have been given a serious career boost once McDonald has championed their work. One of these, Adam Gwon, won a competition for the best song to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The tune, “I’ll be Here,” turned out to be one of the most moving songs of the afternoon: it revolves around a boyfriend/husband whose devotion was, literally, eternal. Years after his death, he tells his wife it’s okay to remarry—he’ll still be there (to love her). Well, that’s why people write songs—what sounds insipid on the page sounds perfectly right when McDonald gives it life as a sung story. “We learned (from 9/11) to love, to be good to each other and to be happy,” she recalled.
McDonald was often funny about why she chose to perform a song. “I wasn’t planning on doing this until I got flowers” was one reason. Others were more personal. After she moved over to the piano and accompanied herself singing “Migratory V” by Adam Guettel, she told the audience,”That’s for my Dad. He passed away in a plane crash in 2007. He loved to fly.” The 1922 song by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, “My Buddy,” had an involved back story, beginning when at the age of 10, she sang it in Fresno, California and ending when she recently went to her favorite eatery in Cambridge, Chipotle. There she heard “a street guy” singing the tune: “Nights are long since you went away, my buddy, your buddy misses you.”
For Irving Berlin’s “Moonshine Lullaby” from Annie Get Your Gun, she did a hilarious Ethel Merman imitation. “You have to forgive me,” she quipped, “if I break into a really high note. I’m supposed to be doing Bess right now.” In a Julie Andrews standard “I Could have Danced All Night” (Frederick Loewe/Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady 1956), McDonald was sensational, turning her mike to the hall so the sopranos could (and DID) sing along—including the high notes. “Oh! I’m having fun” she laughed. “I bet you’re wondering what’s in this (water) cup!”
Two lullabies from Raisin and Dumbo (“Oh! I love elephants!” she enthused) exuded wistfulness. But McDonald confessed that her daughter, when she was a baby, had hated her voice. She said her mother’s singing “made her ears cry.” McDonald talked about The Scottsboro Boys (2010), a show that she felt had been terribly treated and unjustly closed. She sang “Go Back Home” from its score. There was a hilarious rendition of “Can’t Stop Talking” (by Frank Loesser, from Let’s Dance 1950) in which McDonald sings somewhere near the speed of light. “Oh, I’m about to share too much information,” she confided to the audience. “For the last note, I thought, “If I squeeze my butt really hard . . . Oh dear, I need to go home.”
After all the virtuosity and jokes and charm, I left with my favorite McDonald performance still at the top—her thoughtful, quiet rendition of “Bill” (“He’s just my Bill”) from Showboat (Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II). She laughed about how she sang it at an event for Bill Crosby and halfway through the tune realized how insulting it was. Given the way she sings “Bill,” it is impossible to imagine anyone who would not fall under its spell.