Arts & Culture

Emmy-, Tony- and Grammy-winning Audra McDonald brings emotional truth of American song to Tacoma

Audra McDonald, who will sing at the Pantages Theater on Oct. 25.
Audra McDonald, who will sing at the Pantages Theater on Oct. 25. Courtesy

It’s hard to catch Audra McDonald.

Shuttling between rehearsals for upcoming Broadway show “Shuffle Along,” appearances at events like Disneyland’s “Gay Days” and a current North American tour that includes Tacoma’s Pantages Theater Sunday, McDonald has a busy schedule.

Equally at home in film, theater, opera or concert, this soprano with what Time magazine calls an “angelic” voice is also committed to spending as much time as possible with her husband and daughter, and is an outspoken activist for issues such as marriage equality.

McDonald’s busy schedule is a metaphor for her career. Starting as a classical voice student at the Juilliard School in New York, the Fresno, California, native won her first Tony award for a performance of “Carousel” at Lincoln Center. Since then she’s won five more Tonys — one in each acting category, and the most competitive wins for any actor — as well as several Grammys for her opera work. She also has several Emmys under her belt, including a 2015 award for hosting the PBS Live from Lincoln Center production of “Sweeney Todd.”

With a voice that can cover everything from Poulenc to Gershwin, and a camera presence that has gone from “Law and Order” to the recent “Ricki and the Flash” opposite Meryl Streep, it seems there’s nothing that McDonald can’t conquer.

And in the 10 minutes McDonald gives to a phone interview, she can also cover a lot of ground. She spoke to The News Tribune about the classic American songs she’ll sing in the Pantages, what makes a great song, and just how she juggles everything she does.

Q: Is this your first time performing in Tacoma?

A: Yes. I’ve played in Seattle before, but never Tacoma.

Q: Tell us about the program — what will you be singing? And how did you choose it?

A: It’s a mixture of music from the Great American Songbook, ranging from as far back as 1922 and as recent as music written in 2011. There’s Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, and more contemporary stuff that I’d like to introduce to the audience. A lot are my favorites, some are songs my music director found and told me about, but they’re all songs that I have some personal connection to, in some way.

Q; Can you give us an example?

A: Well, there’s a song from the 1959 musical “Fiorello,” called “When Did I Fall in Love?” I’ve sung it for years now, and Stephen Sondheim told me never to stop singing it — so I won’t!

Q: How do you balance all the artistic art forms you excel in? Do you have to get into a different mental and artistic space for each?

A: The artistic frame of mind is pretty much the same for everything — I’m looking for the emotional truth of what I can convey in a song or character. There are differences when it comes down to the technicalities of where you are, whether it’s singing in a concert hall or playing a character on a stage or for a camera, when you’d bring the acting down so it’s not too big. Those are intricate details. But the main idea and aim is always the same.

Q: You’re known for your work supporting marriage equality, but now that that bill has passed what do you see as the biggest social justice issue facing Americans?

A: Well, I’ve been on the board of (homeless youth advocacy group) Covenant House for a year now, and so I’m very much involved with that. There’s plenty going on in the world, many causes that are important to me. I help wherever I can. I feel you have to give back, and I’m trying to teach that to my daughter. Even though we have marriage equality now, there are issues inside the workplace and so on. I feel I have to be vocal and help causes that I believe are important.

Q; As a multi-award-winning singer who’s now touring a program of classic American song, what do you feel are the ingredients for the perfect song?

A: Oh, that’s a hard one. Let me think. Anything that for me gets to the core of an emotional truth, be it through the lyrics or a melodic passage, or a set of harmonies that conveys something deeply human. It can be comedic, but it has to be true.

Q: Will you get much chance to see Tacoma when you’re here?

A: No. I fly in the day of the concert, I do it, and then the next day I’m on the plane to Australia. I’ve never been there, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it and singing in the (Sydney) Opera House.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

@rose_ponnekanti

AUDRA MCDONALD

When: 3 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma.

Tickets: $36-$99.

Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org.

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