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Talking To Audra McDonald: She’s At Tanglewood, And On New CD

Audra McDonald and Neil Patrick Harris at this year's Tony Awards. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

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When Audra McDonald returned to live performanceafter leaving ABC’s “Private Practice” in 2011 she did it with a vengeance, storming the American Repertory Theater stage in a pulse-racing performance in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” Then in New York she won a record-tying fifth Tony Award for the performance.

This summer hasn’t seen much of a letup with another sensational Nonesuch recording (her fifth, and her first since 2007), “Go Back Home,” along with three performances in Massachusetts alone. Following performances at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield and the Art House in Provincetown she’ll be at Tanglewood Saturday night under the baton of John Williams singing standards by the likes of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

There are standards on “Go Back Home” as well, but she has been a tireless champion of contemporary composers since her first CD in 1998, including Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa who are represented on the new CD.

Here’s the title song, the opener, from Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys.” Notice the perfect use of vibrato — she’s a classically trained soprano — at the beginning of the song as well as how she never overwhelms the song despite its yearning for freedom and deliverance.

Home is a key to much of the work here. Part of the reason she quit the show was to spend more time with her family, her daughter, though much of the influence on the CD comes from her father, Stanley, who died in an air crash in April. One of the standards here is “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music,” which seems odd till you read that he accompanied her on piano when she was 9, auditioning for the Good Company Players in Fresno. If you thought you never wanted to hear the song again, you might want to think twice.

I think she passes the audition.

On that song, and on my favorite — James Baldwin’s “Some Days” set to music by Steven Marzullo — she goes from happiness to heartache and back again with such easy power — a fall here, a rise there — that you almost don’t know which is which, or care what the difference is.

The mood will be lighter in Lenox and that’s OK, too. The CD ends with a standard by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, “Make Someone Happy.” She never fails to do that.

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Ten Minutes With Audra McDonald

Ed Siegel: You’re doing standards at Tanglewood, though you’re equally famous for championing today’s composers. Is there a great divide between the two or is it all the Great American Songbook?

I think it’s all the Great American Songbook … I hope it continues to grow. I don’t think there’s some shelf life or cutoff date. But the thing about Tanglewood that’s so nice is we’re doing great American songs from great classic movies.

[Here's one of the songs she'll be performing at Tanglewood:]

Some say the newer songs don’t live outside their musicals as well as they used to. My guess is you’re not one of them.
I’m certainly not of that mind at all. I think we just don’t have as much access to them as we did years before because that was the popular music of the day, what you were hearing on the radio. Unless you’re listening to songs on a Broadway show station … They don’t have the accessibility, which doesn’t mean they don’t have merit.

You can’t let them wash over you, though, can you, as you need to pay attention to the lyrics in “I’ll Be Here” (about Sept. 11) or “Married Love?”

Sure. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing … They wash over you emotionally. It’s still a very full meal.

Speaking of today’s composers, you perform Stephen Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” on the new CD. Have you and he spoken since “Porgy and Bess” [he blasted the ART production in the New York Times]? Did he ever see it?

I don’t think he ever did see it. We’re fine. That was a difference of the mind on something we’re very passionate about … I think people would like to think we’re off in the corner duking it out, but we’re not.

Audra McDonald and the cast of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" at the 2012 Tony Awards.

Audra McDonald and the cast of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the 2012 Tony Awards. (Charles Sykes /Invision/AP)

What do you think Diane Paulus’ or Suzan-Lori Parks’ greatest accomplishment was in the new production?

What I found very fullfilling was that they were both interested in unpacking every aspect of the story … It was very surpising how many people have never read “Porgy” the book … Even if you don’t see it [onstage] they were willing to use it and unpack all that in finding our way into these characters.

You were in a show with Michael C. Hall in Williamstown [LaChiusa's musical based on "Rashomon" in 2004]. Do you ever watch “Dexter”?

Absolutely. He’s so talented. I’ve worked with him many times and it’s fun to see him explode and become such a big star. And people found out he could sing. I would have loved to see him be Javert in the movie [of “Les Miserables”].

What’s next for you in the fall?
I’m not at liberty to say but I can soon.

Might it be on Broadway?

It might. [Laughs]


Audra McDonald’s set list at Tanglewood

 

“Lose That Long Face” from “A Star Is Born,” Arlen/Gershwin

Medley: “It Might As Well Be Spring” from “State Fair,” Rodgers/Hammerstein and “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” from “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,” Lerner/Lane

“The Man That Got Away” from “A Star Is Born,” Arlen/Gershwin

“Too Late Now” from “Royal Wedding,” Lerner/Lane

“10,432 Sheep” from “The West Point Story,” Styne/Cahn