Audra McDonald and the Art of Perfection
The LA Opera stage has seen its share of sopranos and mezzos who have deservedly earned the description of "diva." What they all have in common is the fact that they've conquered the world of opera. A soprano who has conquered Broadway is another kind of diva. And then there's Audra McDonald - who is simply one-of-a-kind.
Eleven years ago Ms. McDonald was performing here in Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. At the time, she was a four-time Tony winner. She just returned to LA Opera with two more Tonys but for "one night only" - actually one day only; a matinee concert of almost exclusively show tunes, backed up by no less than the LA Opera Orchestra.
The program was almost two hours long with no intermission and not even an orchestral interlude where she went offstage for a break. The show was all Audra and her perfect voice, which borders on "superhuman" - she didn't even stop to take a sip of water. Ms. McDonald is also a consummate actress. She has won Tony Awards in all four acting categories (for straight plays and musicals) - the only actress in history who can make that claim. So we were in for a real "performance" of each song, not just an invitation to enjoy her flawless, platinum pipes. So heartfelt were her renditions, that often her eyes would be filled with tears, glittering as brightly as the golden glitter on her dress.
In La Cage aux Folles, the fiery Jerry Herman song "I Am What I Am" was written for the climax of Act I, before intermission. But Ms. McDonald chose this as her opening number, letting us know right away we were in for an afternoon of a voice filled with power and passion, not to mention an afternoon of ovations.
There were a few shout-outs from the crowd, as the Broadway-savvy audience tried to stay ahead of her as she introduced each song. But she was ready, and tricked her fans into some wrong answers. She joked that she was starting to grade the audience as if on a test. "You're doing well - about 65% so far," she said, as they incorrectly identified Lerner & Lane as "Lerner and Lowe," and incorrectly identified the wrong "Barbara" in On A Clear Day… (Barbara Harris vs. Barbra Streisand.) All this as a charming set-up for "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here," from that very same show.
She let us know that she considers herself "a champion of new composers." "That way," she told us, maybe only half-joking, "I'll still have a job in the future." She reminded us that Jason Robert Brown was once a "new composer" and proffered his "Stars and Moon" which has become one of her signature songs. She has sung this countless times over the last two decades, but she conveyed the meaning and importance of every lyric as if she was singing it for the very first time. And so it was with everything she did.
In spite of an unparalleled career of great roles and accolades, Ms. McDonald has an endearing, self-effacing personality on the concert stage. She only played the "diva card" once and it was all in fun. She said "Sounds like some of you want to sing along. But it's my concert." Laughing at herself, she had to ask music director Andy Einhorn "what's next?" a couple of times. (By the way, we didn't even know - the list of songs was not in the program, and so it was a day of extremely pleasant surprises.) She also mocked herself when she forgot the opening lyrics to Stars and Moon, something she's performed for twenty years. Later, she humbly told us of her embarrassment at forgetting the lyrics to a Stephen Sondheim song at a Stephen Sondheim concert. "If you go up during a Stephen Sondheim song, you're dead. You can't make up something that will fit," she reminded us. But the reason for her Sondheim mistake was hilarious. There were two giant monitors facing the stage during that concert and she was distracted by the gigantic double image of herself. "Only Beyonce can get away with something like that. All I could think was, 'my mouth is too big.'"
She tells us that she has never forgotten that she was once a "valley girl" from Fresno ("Fres-yes" she says to anyone who might be incredulous.) At the age of thirteen she won a high school singing contest in Reno performing "Cornet Man" from Funny Girl. She remembers the judge remarking, "You're thirteen - you have no idea what you're singing about," and then she got a big laugh as she launched into the opening lyrics:
"I just put the kids to sleep
And swept the shack…"
Ms. McDonald used a microphone for the entire program with one exception: when it was "opera time" a.k.a. "Summertime." She didn't need "no stinking microphone" to fill every corner of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with glorious Gershwin.
She sang "I Could Have Danced All Night," from My Fair Lady, a song she was reluctant to sing for many years because "everyone has done it." But then she quipped that you have to sing that song to finally "earn your soprano card."
In a tribute to another soprano, her mentor the late great Barbara Cook, Ms. McDonald sang "Chain of Love" from The Grass Harp and "Ice Cream" from She Loves Me, two shows that starred Ms. Cook. "She taught me everything I know about song interpretation and concertizing," she told us. "Being Good" from Hallelujah, Baby! served as a tribute not only to Leslie Uggams (who introduced the song) but also to Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and other legends. "I'm standing on their shoulders. I wouldn't be standing here singing to you if they hadn't broken down the barriers," she said.
It's always a thrill when an artist creates a medley of songs that have never been tied together but sound like they were meant for each other. "Never Will I Marry" from Greenwillow and "Being Alive" from Company were blended beautifully to convey the angst of two characters who were "in the same place in their lives." Ms. McDonald also combined "Children Will Listen" from Into The Woods and "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific to remind us all that the next generation is the result of the harm or love from their parents.
As the parent of a 19-month old toddler - and three teenagers - she revealed her personal challenges. Her youngest is evidently quite a handful - as if she came out of the womb singing "And I am telling you…" from Dreamgirls. She jokes that she and her husband are putting money away in three college tuition savings accounts "and one for bail." A startling revelation is that her children didn't want her to sing to them - not even lullabies. One of her children complained, "you make my ears cry."
But she clearly loves motherhood as her children continue to teach her "what matters most." And with that in mind, Ms. McDonald ended the program with her personal philosophy reflected in the lyrics of "Make Someone Happy" from Do-Re-Mi:
"Fame if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute.
Where's the real stuff in life to cling to?
Love is the answer."
And then, in light of 9/11 and all the tragedies that have followed, she chose to end the evening with a song of hope: "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music.
Her encore was a continuation of that theme, with a prayer for us to live in a better world somewhere "Over the Rainbow" (from The Wizard of Oz.)
We left the theatre with another hope - that it won't be another eleven years before the diva returns.