'I Am What I Am': In Concert and Conversation, Audra McDonald Pulls Back the Curtain on a Brilliant Career

Audra McDonald performs at the Concert For America: Stand Up, Sing Out! at The Great Hall at Cooper Union on June 30, 2018 in New York City.
Photo: Nicholas Hunt (Getty Images)

When you get an opportunity to see Audra McDonald perform, you take it. The record-breaking six-time Tony Award winner, Grammy and Emmy winner and 2015 National Medal of Arts recipient has conquered both stage and screen with her acting and singing and is lauded across the globe as one of the brightest lights of Broadway. Not bad for a woman who started out a child performer doing dinner theater in her native Fresno, Calif.

“I was so used to hearing the clanking of forks when I was performing [that] when I reached Broadway, I was like, ‘It’s so quiet out there,’” she laughed during a Sunday appearance at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

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As it turns out, McDonald is pretty hilarious; a quality that was in abundance as the soprano took the stage with her good friend, acclaimed musician and Sirius XM host Seth Rudetsky for an intimate conversation and concert chronicling some of the highlights of her now-legendary career. The benefit concert, part of Steppenwolf’s Lookout Series, was the latest in a series the duo has already performed in New York, San Francisco, and several venues in Massachusetts.

“The performance is different every single time because the format’s really, really loose,” McDonald told The Root. “Seth basically interviews you for a while, and then you get up and sing a song, and then he interviews you some more, and then you get to sing another song. You never know what he’s going to talk to you about—and he has this huge big pile of music and you’re never quite sure what songs he wants to sing. So, it changes dramatically, because it’s all what Seth feels like in that moment,” she continued. “You’re kind of flying by the seat of your pants. It’s fun and spontaneous.”

Obviously, McDonald’s musical repertoire is ridiculous; she was indeed ready for anything during two packed, 90-minute performances, the first of which she opened with La Cage Aux Folles’ “I Am What I Am.” In addition to thinking on her feet, the diva also proved to be incredibly down-to-earth. After weather delayed her flight from an appearance in Iowa City, McDonald drove herself to Chicago to ensure she’d make it to the theater on time.

“I thought that if and when I became a Broadway star, I’d have it all together,” she laughed. “Well, that hasn’t happened yet...along those lines, I’ve always been a mess.”

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Coincidentally, McDonald was also on the road when she spoke with The Root by phone ahead of her performance. The working mother of two daughters (and stepmother of two sons) was dropping off a few items for her eldest, a new college freshman—“She’s loving it, but Mom is having a little trouble with it,” McDonald admitted to the Steppenwolf audience.

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Similar moments of candor and vulnerability peppered McDonald and Rudetsky’s conversation as the acclaimed singer revealed embarrassing onstage gaffes—like the time she blanked on her lyrics at a Sondheim tribute—in front of the composer himself (and Meryl Streep!). Or the time she sang the very adult “Cornet Man” for a singing competition at age 13. She, of course, won, but not without some cringing from the judges.

And while the Broadway-loving community clamors to hear McDonald’s famed soprano, her two daughters have reportedly proven her harshest critics. Her eldest memorably quipped “Mommy, your singing makes my ears cry,” when McDonald sang her lullabies as a toddler, and her youngest, now almost three, has apparently followed suit, hilariously refusing her mother’s attempts to duet with her on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Tough crowd.

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“My karma is swift,” McDonald laughed on Sunday.

At 49, the star’s reign is far from over, but while she has been both a pioneer and in-demand presence on the Broadway stage, she deeply desires to see more success stories like her own.

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“What I find is the talent is the same wherever you go; it’s basically opportunity and discipline that make the difference...theater is magic wherever you go,” said McDonald, reflecting on her own seemingly stratospheric leap from dinner theater to the Broadway stage. And while she has long since broken through, what would she like the gatekeepers of the worlds of opera and Broadway to know about black talent?

“That it is there, and it is worth exploring—not only exploring, but celebrating and nurturing,” McDonald told The Root. “I think a lot of times, you know, maybe the talent is there but the nurturing—whether it be from the university to nurture the compositional talent, or a producer to take a chance on an African American playwright or composer or lyricist, that’s what I think is missing...We’re starting to see it, but you know, it’s incremental.”

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Reflecting on her own coming-of-age in the theater, McDonald recalls Dreamgirls being the sole representation of talent that looked like her; a seeming challenge when she was still “thinking small” about what opportunities would be available to her on Broadway. Now, she challenges performers to advocate for themselves and their own talent.

“I think what I did—and I don’t even know if it was anything super deliberate, it was just sort of instinctual, for me—I knew which parts were right for me, and it wasn’t always what was on paper,” McDonald told The Root. “So I never said no to myself, even though countless people did say no to me. I was never one of those people. So, I always put myself out there and in that respect, you sort of demand to be seen for who you represent yourself to be, and not who you’re trying to conform yourself to be for someone else’s sort of narrow-minded viewpoint.

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“The more I got to understand my voice and my own talent, I stopped trying to sound like Lena Horne or Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland or Jennifer Holiday,” she continued. “I just decided that ‘Oh no, this is me. I am me, and that’s what’s special, and I will go out I think that I am right for. And whether people want to hear it or not, that’s what I’m doing...and that, in some ways, can be undeniable in the eyes of other people.”

What’s undeniable is the connection McDonald had with the Steppenwolf audience on Sunday night, as she and Rudetsky brought many of us to tears with poignant selections from her tragic role in 1998's Ragtime; a new composition about love and loss in the wake of 9/11; and her all-too-relatable rendition of Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen.”

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“I think the wonderful thing about this is that it is able to open the door. It’s an opportunity to get a window into more of who I am, and then I think within that, people realize that there’s more commonality among all of us,” said McDonald. “Anytime we can all open our own humanity towards each other...hopefully we will then become more aligned and then be advocates for each other, and realize that we have more in common than not.”

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.