Broadway star Audra McDonald on racism, Tonys, Mama Rose, and her elephant plan
The Daily Beast
December 26, 2022
Tony Award record-breaker Audra McDonald talks candidly about playing Mama Rose, racism, her ADHD, marriage to Will Swenson, refusing to be “boxed in”—and retiring with elephants.
At a recent Carnegie Hall concert, Broadway star Audra McDonald sang “Rose’s Turn” from the musical Gypsy, delighting the assembled and raising one of the most intriguing casting questions in musical theater: will—and if so, when will—this most lauded and awarded of actors take on the legendary role?
“Well, it’s the King Lear of roles for women in musical theater,” McDonald, winner of a record-breaking six Tony Awards, told The Daily Beast in a recent Zoom call. “That’s the role isn’t it? I certainly wouldn’t say ‘No,’ let’s put it that way. Yes, I would love to play Rose someday. But when it came to singing that song it was me dealing with my emotions on the occasion of my oldest daughter Zoe going off to college, and realizing a lot of the anger, hurt, and abandonment I was feeling were similar to what Rose was going through in that moment. I’m not saying Rose is the world’s best mom, or that I am. But we both love our children fiercely and do what we can for them, and that connected me to that song.”
Zoe’s departure for college was an intense experience for McDonald, who is presently appearing—to rave reviews—in the searing play Ohio State Murders on Broadway.
“I expected the feelings of sadness and apprehension about Zoe going away, and also hope and joy—but I wasn’t expecting the anger,” McDonald continued. “All of this weird anger came up. It was a completely irrational sense of abandonment and betrayal. I had been preparing her entire life for her to go away, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so angry with her. I wasn’t taking it out on her. Once I sat down and really thought about it, its because I was feeling abandoned, and it’s my baby, and you do feel they are part of you.
“It felt like: my baby is leaving and I poured my life into her and she’s going. It was one thing I wasn’t expecting. Once I acknowledged it, it was alright. I didn’t talk to Zoe about it until I understood what was going on. We’re very, very close. That girl knows she’s loved. I’m the mama bear. Thank god she went to college not too far away.” McDonald laughed. “I’ll drive up in the middle of the night, and be like, ‘Do you need a granola bar?’”
This mixture of emotions, the rich and commanding voice, the humor and candor recur throughout our conversation, as McDonald reveals the significant echoes that reverberate between her professional and personal lives. She is just as direct, down-to-earth, and open when discussing racism and change on Broadway, being an older parent, dealing with ADHD, and her passionate love for elephants which forms the basis of her retirement plans. Seriously, if you have an elephant in any way available for adoration, Audra McDonald would like to hear from you.
A year after graduating from prestigious arts college Juilliard—a challenging but clarifying part of her life—McDonald won her first Tony for her role in Carousel (1994). Two others came for her performances in Master Class (1996) and Ragtime (1998). Her fourth was for Raisin in the Sun (2004). Her fifth, and first as a lead actress, came for Porgy and Bess (2012).
Her sixth, record-breaking Tony was for portraying Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (2014). Besides the record itself, McDonald is the first performer to receive Tony awards in all four acting categories. Acclaimed for roles spoken and sung on stage and screen, McDonald has also won two Grammy Awards, an Emmy, the National Medal of Arts, and has countless other awards, laurels, and nominations to her name.
Her record-breaking Tony Award tally is “one of those things you can’t think about because you have no control over it,” McDonald told The Daily Beast. “You can’t vote or nominate yourself, there’s nothing you can do. In the same way, my husband (the actor Will Swenson) and I both just opened shows within four days of each other.”
Swenson’s is the title role in A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical. “We don’t read reviews, because we can’t let reviews affect the work we have to do,” said McDonald. “We still have to go out and do that work. Whether the reviews are good or bad, if you read them they mess with you. In the end, as far your psyche is concerned, they shouldn’t exist because you still have to do the work. I feel the same way about Tony Awards. If I win a Tony or don’t, I gotta go and do my job.”
The Tony record itself is “lovely, an amazing honor, but I have never been able to wrap my head around this ‘record-breaking Tony award winner’ thing,” McDonald told The Daily Beast. “On nights when the Tony Awards happen, especially for Lady Day, my soul flew out of my body. I don’t know who was up there talking. None of that felt real. I don’t mean to demean the awards, because they’re an incredible honor. It’s just that I’m still me. I mean, talk to my kids! It feels like it all happened to somebody else.”
“Am I going to get through it?”
Another Tony nomination may soon be McDonald’s thanks to her role in Ohio State Murders, in which she plays a writer called Suzanne Alexander revealing an appalling tragedy from her past, and the jigsaw of racism she experienced around it, of which the awful tragedy is the most glaring, damning piece.
McDonald’s calibrated, commanding voice is central to Ohio State Murders—the story is obviously conveyed by it, yet we hear also clearly McDonald’s expertly deployed shades of outrage, upset, anger and grief. The 75 minutes of her performance, observed by audiences in rapt, horrified silence, is a barely suppressed scream.
To get that voice right, McDonald has spent a large amount of time speaking to playwright Adrienne Kennedy, who attended Ohio State University and for whom the play is partly autobiographical. “To understand this play I had to understand Adrienne Kennedy, and needed to spend time with her,” McDonald said. “Ruby Dee first played the role in 1992 in its original production, and asked Kennedy to read the play to her, “because there is such a rhythm in the prose and poetry that is best understood when you hear the woman who wrote it speak it.”
McDonald came to understand Kennedy’s “specific cadence, sound and tone,” and because the play is semi-autobiographical wanted to “go to the source” to understand as much of Kennedy there is in Suzanne.
McDonald described this landscape of insidious racism—Suzanne revealing how it impacts her study, and where she can live—as “death by a thousand cuts” to Kennedy, who responded, “That’s it, that’s it, that’s it.” McDonald said: “All of this is fresh in Adrienne’s mind, even though she’s 91 years old.
“She gets very emotional when talking about her time at Ohio State still. She says, ‘I remember all of it, it’s as if it happened yesterday.’ She said it was easier growing up in Georgia where racism was so blatant, where there were ‘coloreds-only’ and ‘white-only’ drinking fountains. She said that was easier than going to Ohio State and them accepting her, and destroying her in the ways it did, rather than saying she just couldn’t be there.”
McDonald still calls Kennedy at least once a week to speak to her, and craft as much specificity into the character as possible. She walks out on stage in the combined spirits of Suzanne and Adrienne facing the audience she says as if to say, “I know the truth, and I am going to tell you the truth. You do with it what you will. It’s almost like, ‘You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.’ That’s the strength that keeps her going.”
“One of more powerful things Adrienne said to me once was that she was given an honorary doctorate at Ohio State in the early 2000’s state. They had a lovely dinner for her, and she was supposed to give a speech. But the geography of the place and being back in that space had such a physical effect on her she was re-traumatized and became too ill to give the speech. I think her grandson had to give it. That is the thing I carry with me on stage every night. That was the most powerful thing she told me.”
The struggle for Suzanne to tell her story is part of her performance—the sense she must get through of what she must say. As McDonald says, “It’s an indictment, a cautionary tale, and she is giving her children names, and telling their story. The question is: will she get through it. Even as Audra, I’m like, ‘Am I going to get through it?’ I don’t know.”
To get what is essentially a 75-minute monologue down—and one that is so intense and non-linear—McDonald said she sang some lines “to get them into my brain, because singing is my first language.” Alliteration offers some other cues. And then it’s just the mechanics of memorization. “As (director) Kenny Leon said to us at rehearsal, ‘Let’s go back and do that again. Repetition is good. Good repetition is better.’ I also recorded it, and listened to it as I was falling asleep so it was going into my subconscious.” She laughed. “No wonder I’ve been having nightmares!”
McDonald has a very specific ritual to prepare for a show. “I get to the theater, two, two and a half hours early. I have to be very silent. I have to stay in my dressing room. I say every line of the play because, especially with this one, the language is so specific you can’t really riff. Every word is there for a specific reason. At my advanced age of 52 I have to make sure I run through it every night to make sure I have it in my head, and then it’s just about going out there.
“At the end of the play for me I have to say goodbye to the character in my dressing room. I say, ‘Thank you, goodbye, you stay here, you don’t get to come home with me.’ I’m a mom. The trauma that Suzanne is holding on to all this time is so deep. That affects your body as an actor. It’s the reason actors fall in love with co-stars because in your head you may know this is your co-star, but your body is going through all that every night. It’s the same when you play tragic characters. I have to let it go and let it stay in my dressing room, otherwise I would lose my mind. I can’t live with that at home. I didn’t used to know that when I was younger. I have learned it now.
“So, every night, out loud I say to Suzanne, ‘Goodbye and thank you. I’m honoring you. I am telling your story, and I will be available again to you tomorrow night so your story can be told again. But now I’m going to go home and have Audra’s life.’”
‘Entice’ white audiences to see diverse shows
The play is also important to McDonald as a co-founder of Black Theatre United (BTU), and the activism she and others have overseen around change and diversity on and off stages since the murder of George Floyd. She and this reporter were speaking just after the closure of KPOP the musical and another dramatic week for Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo’, which was set for closure.
Celebrities including Will Smith and RuPaul have helped drum up publicity for new audiences, temporarily extending its life. The trajectory of both shows again highlighted the especially uncertain future for BIPOC-themed and centered shows on Broadway.
“The positive is that these stories are making it to Broadway,” McDonald told The Daily Beast. “Producers are starting to put they money where there mouths are and telling these stories, and we’re seeing more diverse stories, and telling and creating stories backstage and producing. But there is still work to be done in terms of outreach and in cultivation of our audiences, I don’t just mean bringing in more people of color. I think they’ll come. I mean, do outreach to the typical theater audience, which tends to be white—to say to them, ‘There are lots of stories that you need to see and hear. Don’t just go with the tried and true.’ That needs to happen.
“There needs to be more education and outreach not just to diverse audiences but the white audience—they need to be enticed more to see and experience these diverse stories. That’s a hard nut to crack right now. We’re also in post-pandemic weird time. All of these stories belong on Broadway. Once the audience is found these shows should and will thrive, but there’s work to be done.”
McDonald is proud of the change that her and other organizations have successfully pushed for in the wave of activism that followed George Floyd’s death. “Allies have really stood up. What we need to do is make sure people don’t just say ‘I did that, I donated that money, we changed the name of the theater, OK we’re done. Now it’s back to our regular scheduled programming.’ This is a continuing issue that must continue to move forward. We can’t just sit back on our haunches and say, ‘We did what we said we’d do, and the audiences didn’t come. Oh well.’ I think we’re in an era of awareness.
“I don’t think we can go back to before where you had only one sort of culture of stories being told, and the general public accepting that—like, ‘Well, there are no people of color on Broadway this this season, what are you gonna do?’ No, no, no. I think if we ever came to that position now there would be an uproar. We have reached a level of awareness that we didn’t have before. Before it was not a problem, no one batted an eye. In fact, when a diverse show came to Broadway, it was like ‘Oh look at that shiny thing over there, that one thing.’ That’s never going to happen again, at least there’s that. We still have miles and miles to go, though.”
Tickets need to be made affordable, and marketing and outreach to all communities need to be improved, said McDonald.
“Most people are on the right page,” McDonald told The Daily Beast. “What I fear more than anything on Broadway is complacency or, like ‘We did that. That was 2020, let’s go back to our lives.’ That can’t happen. And that’s why we have organizations like the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Black Theatre Coalition and BTU that will continue to hold everybody accountable and focus awareness on making sure we don’t go back. If things get too complacent there are enough organizations out there that will shout.”
This reporter asked McDonald if she had faced racism in her career, and if so how had she dealt with it and would advise others if they were facing the same. “Yes, and my advice is to call it out,” McDonald told The Daily Beast.
Had she felt able to when it happened to her? “I didn’t, and that’s why my advice is to call racism out, and also to never say ‘No’ to yourself. Everybody else is going to. Don’t jump on that bandwagon. That was literally the case with me. As a 52-year-old woman, yeah, now I do that, but looking to back then it is more a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I did.’”
‘Performing: that’s the treatment for my ADHD’
It was always going to be the performer’s life for McDonald. “Oh yes, I was very dramatic about everything,” she said, laughing about her childhood growing up in Fresno, California. Her mother was a university administrator, and her father a high school principal. “I started performing when I was 9, and it was a relief to my family when I did,” McDonald said, laughing. She joined the junior company of the local Good Company Players. “My dad called me ‘the circus’ at home. There was never anything else I could do.”
Attending Juilliard for classical vocal training was the making of the soprano McDonald, but not for predictable reasons. She felt “miserable” at the prestigious school, not “understanding or connecting to the material I was singing, or liking how my voice sounded. I didn’t want to do opera. I thought it was beautiful, but not me. I knew that an early age, so it was trial and error and it was frustrating it wasn’t clicking. It was like being in a relationship and thinking, ‘Wow this isn’t clicking and I am really unhappy. I know it and everyone on that side knows it what are we going to do? Once everybody at Juilliard realized it, it was like ‘Let Audra do that musical theater thing, that’s who she is.’ That’s when I found myself.”
McDonald felt “boxed in” to opera, that no matter how beautiful the music was, it meant giving up the emotional nature of the performance. “Whether it was facing the conductor, or making sure your sound was the perfect pianissimo, lilt, or floating high B-flat—I don’t care about any of that. For me, what was happening with the character and emotion was first for me.”
McDonald found she was failing all her classes at Juilliard in Italian art songs, arias, and Verdi, and not feeling it. In her French vocal literature class her teacher Thomas Grubb recommended Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” based on Cocteau’s play of the same name. “He said it would be good for me because there was a lot of acting. It’s a one-woman opera, with the character on one side of a phone conversation with her lover who’s breaking up with her. I connected the emotional side of it to the sound, as opposed to focusing on the sound first. That is how I found myself and found my voice.
“Mr. Grubb said, ‘OK, there you are. You must be emotionally connected to a piece before you can actually sing it. I passed my French vocal literature final, and Mr. Grubb said, ‘Go with God. Go act and sing.’” “La Voix Humaine” would go on to form one part of her opera debut in 2006 at Houston Grand Opera.
McDonald’s two Grammy Awards, for Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Album, came from the recording of her Los Angeles Opera debut in the 2007 production of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She has sung the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony, and internationally was only the second American in more than 100 years to appear as a guest soloist at the famous British annual classical musical blowout, the Last Night of the Proms.
McDonald’s award-winning and nomination-laden career reveals her mastery across music and acting on stage and screen, in parts spoken and sung, including her most recent Critic’s Choice Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress In a Drama Series for her performance as Liz Reddick in The Good Fight.
Her array of TV credits includes screen roles as diverse as appearing in The Gilded Age, alongside starring in Private Practice, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and as the Mother Abbess in NBC’s The Sound of Music. She has had award-nominated big-screen roles in Beauty and the Beast, as Madame de Garderobe, and in Respect (playing Barbara Siggers Franklin, mother to Aretha). Forthcoming films include the comedy Down Low and the Bayard Rustin biopic, Rustin.
“I don’t want to be in boxed in in any part of my professional life,” McDonald told The Daily Beast of a career spanning so many media, genres, and forms. “I was hyperactive as a child, and I have ADHD as an adult. I have many different interests. All of it feeds everything else for me artistically in my quest to evolve as a singer and artist. I learn from all of it. I don’t succeed at all of it ever, but I’m learning all the time. And so there’s growth in the challenge and in the attempt. And there’s growth in failure too.”
How does she treat her ADHD? “My work. That’s one thing as a kid where my parents found I would focus. So that’s always been the treatment for me. Theater performing: that’s the treatment for me. I know that kind of treatment is not for everybody, but it has worked for me.”
“We are both so hard on ourselves as performers”
The contrast between her and Swenson’s Broadway shows couldn’t be greater: a searing monolog about tragedy and racism contrasted with playing Neil Diamond, Swenson decked out in maximum wig and spangly glitz, with audience singalongs of “Sweet Caroline.”
McDonald laughed that “some people have complained hers is “not a full evening. I’m like, ‘You don’t want any more.’”
Because her show is short, McDonald pops over when it’s done to Swenson’s theater where his has just reached intermission, and where a show not ends in stunned silence but confetti cannons. “Our jobs are so weird. We are so lucky to do what we do for a living,” McDonald told The Daily Beast. “At the same time they’re extraordinarily taxing roles for very different reasons. As in marriage, you have to give and take. Will is the one who’s being allowed to sleep more these days, because if Will can’t sing he can’t do his show. He’s got like 21 songs, and he has to belt them out, so I’m giving him more sleep these days and I’m doing more with our child. He has no currency if he can’t sing. They’re equally taxing as roles, but if I have a scratchy throat I can still basically get through my show.
“We are both so hard on ourselves as performers. On our way home he will go, ‘I missed this one note,’ and I’ll say, ‘I was not really focused in this part.’ So we beat ourselves up.” McDonald laughed. “Or one of us says, ‘It was an OK show,’ and we both know it was a brilliant show if one of us is just calling it OK. The great thing about being married to someone who does the same thing is that we both have the actor shorthand. If I was married to a lawyer, they’d just be like, ‘Whaaat?’”
McDonald and Swenson have been together for almost 15 years. At the time, Swenson had two sons, Bridger and Sawyer, from a previous relationship, McDonald had Zoe. All have now left home. Sally, the daughter they had together in 2016, is now 6.
“We just sort of figure it out day by day with each other,” McDonald said of both she and Swenson balancing parenting and performing. “He helped me become a better mom and I think I helped him become a better dad. And we both knew family was very important to us, and because we’re both in the same business we have an idea what the other goes through. We cut each other slack in ways other partners may not do. We plan things like kids’ talent shows at home, and try to make home life as joyful and nurturing as it can be.”
Sally’s arrival was “very much” a surprise. “We already had a pretty strong family bond with all of us, and Sally really became the last bit of superglue. It’s hard on her because her siblings are older. She’s like, ‘Why do they have to go sleep at their school? Why can’t they be at home?’ That part is hard, but they all have a really healthy appetite for theater and are very talented theatrically. I don’t know if any of them will pursue it. They have spent their lives backstage seeing shows. They’re very musical, and have a very healthy appreciation for theater.”
McDonald laughed. “If you see they say ‘don’t’ to kids, that’s the one thing they will do, so all we can say is, ‘We support you as best we can, whatever you decide to do is fine, as long as you’re happy.’ As the quote goes, you’re only as happy as your least happy child.”
McDonald laughed, noting that she and Swenson are “ten to fifteen years older than most of Sally’s friends’ parents.” Of being older parents, she said, “It’s like, ‘Oh, we thought we were done with that, and we’ve been pulled back in. Oh, she’s got homework, oh, she’s got to go to school. Oh, we did all that. Oh, we’ve got to do it again.’ Our energy levels are not what we once had, but she is keeping us young.”
As well as the possibility of Mama Rose, she would “love” to play Lady Macbeth one day, McDonald said.
Does she ever consider retirement? “What I want to do when I retire—and my husband makes fun of me of this—is… well, I love animals so much,” McDonald said, laughing. “We went to an aquarium in Valencia in Spain where the dolphins were doing their thing, and I just broke down in tears. My husband was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ I said, ‘I just want to be friends with them.’ He said, ‘Oh god, woman!’
“So, when I retire I just want to take care of elephants and sheep and goats and dogs and, y’know, dolphins. There’s something about being in such close proximity to that purity that moves me so much. Any animal that could be my friend. Our joke is when I see a dog on the street I want that dog to text me.” Another roar of laughter. “That’s literally where I am. When I’m impaired and can’t do this stage thing any more you’ll find me on an animal refuge somewhere.”
McDonald happy-sighed, contemplating sleeping in pens with elephants, as employees of one animal refuge she knows of do. She acknowledges the ethical concerns around keeping animals in zoos, but remembered, with laughing affection, meeting an elephant called Kelly at Zoo Atlanta, who sprayed her and Swenson with water for their ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video, and also created a painting for her, which—much cherished—hangs on the wall of the family home.
“As we were leaving the zoo, she looked up and I swear she remembered us,” McDonald said. “I thought, ‘Kelly the elephant remembers me! I’m the happiest woman on the planet!’”
McDonald hopes that aging doesn’t bring professional invisibility (this seems highly unlikely). “I’m not afraid of approaching my mortality because of beliefs not tied to any one sort of religion. I think there is something else out there for me. I’m not necessarily afraid of death. I just want to know my children are OK. That’s the only thing that frightens me. Please let my kids be settled, be happy, settled, grown and not need me any more. That’s all I ask. But as I get older I finding I want to touch the earth and touch my family and friends more. More than ambition, more than work, that’s what I am about now, and to continue to evolve as an artist.
“I don’t feel there’s something that I’m chasing that I haven’t got in terms of work, but rather I ask myself, ‘Am I better today than I was yesterday?’—and make sure none of us are erased or dismissed because we are a certain age. That’s why I am so inspired by Adrienne Kennedy, making her Broadway debut at 91. I don’t think I would completely walk away from performing, but you need input. It can’t all be output. I need stuff that will feed me so I will have humanity to give to my work. I will slow it down in the future when it’s time. I won’t give performing up, but I don’t want to die on stage!”
McDonald laughed. “The universe has sent the right thing along at the right time throughout my career. My dream is to continue to trust my instinct and trust my gut. The right thing seems to fall into my lap at the right time, and it always comes with ‘OK, this is the lesson you need to learn now.’ That’s how I look at it.”
In farewell, this reporter asked McDonald if there was anything we hadn’t discussed that she would like to. McDonald smiled broadly, then said, “Just, if you know of anybody who has an elephant sanctuary…”