Actress Audra McDonald Returns to Broadway

Our first thought upon hearing the news: she’s back! She’s back! After a four-year absence—during which she was on TV’s Private Practice—Audra McDonald is finally returning to Broadway. The 41-year-old Croton-on-Hudson resident already has received raves for her portrayal as Bess in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess when the production opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge this summer. On January 12, it’ll open on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The Cambridge production featured more backstory than its original incarnation, which has raised a few (high-profile) eyebrows among theater folk. We asked McDonald about going from the small screen to the big stage, awards pressures, and the controversial decision to change the Gershwins’ original work.

You’ve been on Private Practice for the past four seasons. How is doing television different from being on the stage?
In stage performances, you have the opportunity to live through your character’s entire dramatic arc without significant interruption, and you have to calibrate your performance—and maintain your physical and emotional stamina—accordingly. You also feel the audience’s response to your performance—whether enthusiasm or indifference; it’s almost like a chemical chain reaction. Television requires a different set of muscles. Shooting an episode of a TV series can be physically exhausting, but you’re doing scenes in much smaller chunks, with many interruptions and breaks. You have to learn to jump right back into a specific dramatic moment even if you’ve been mentally going over your grocery list and reminding yourself to call the babysitter while the crew is setting up the next shot. I actually really like the variety, which is why I don’t limit myself to one particular genre.

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What attracted you to the role of Bess in this production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Were you always a fan of the Gershwins?
As a student at Juilliard, I went to see Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera, and I’ve loved it ever since. I bought all of the recordings and, during my conservatory days, was literally obsessed with Cynthia Haymon’s Bess. The book by DuBose Heyward on which the musical work is based is also an incredible work and gave me a lot of insight to the character. In fact, each day before I go on stage, I read a passage from it.

You earned three Tony Awards before the age of 30, and have since received a fourth. Do you feel awards pressure? Do you think about awards when you choose roles?
Winning three Tony awards in only five years was more than a dream come true. But I was already living my dream come true by having the great fortune to be a part of Carousel, Master Class, and Ragtime.

How do you think Bess differs from your other Broadway roles?
Well, Bess is certainly more challenging and intense than any role I’ve done in the past. She’s on stage basically the entire time, and there’s quite a bit of heavy dialogue in addition to the singing. At the same time, she’s being thrown around by men and roughed up quite a bit. It’s tough, but I like a challenge.

What do you enjoy most about being in this production?
My favorite moment onstage every night during Porgy and Bess is when the glorious women of the cast are singing the ‘Doctor Jesus’ prayer during the ‘healing’ of Bess scene. Even though I’m supposed to be unconscious at that moment, I still get goosebumps every night. The mixture of their voices and spirituality in that moment is absolutely thrilling

When the show opened in Cambridge, there were those who complained that this production changed too much of the original. Stephen Sondheim is the most notable among this bunch, writing a scathing letter to the New York Times about it. How do you respond to that criticism?
In the end, if it has people talking about theater, there are worse things.

Photo by Michael Wilson

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