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Audra McDonald speaks about her journey to superstardom and the music that moves her

Woman wearing grey sweater seated with arms crossed in front of a tan background
Autumn de Wilde
Singer and actress Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald brings the talents that have made her the most-lauded Tony Award winner in history to Burlington's Flynn Center on Friday, September 8th. Vermont Public Classical's Helen Lyons caught up with her ahead of time to learn a little bit more about what makes this extraordinary artist tick.

Helen Lyons: We're very much looking forward to welcoming you here in our little Green Mountain State. I'd love to start out by having you tell our audiences what you have planned for your upcoming concert.

Audra McDonald: It's going to be me with my music director, Andy Einhorn on the piano, and we're going to be doing basically a journey through the Great American Musical Theatre songbook. It's pretty informal. I am not ever really sure what's going to come out of my mouth. I like to talk to my audience. I want them to know who I am, not only through song, but through speaking to them. So, I do like to make sure that none of us are ignoring the fact that the wall is down, that there is no fourth wall there, that that wall is broken. Unlike with a performance of actual musicals where you're playing a character - that we are all in the same space, sharing the same air and sharing the same experience.

Lyons: You have had all the accolades there are to have, and you had so much success so early on. How did you cope with that? Did you have any challenges that arose with those heady first years out of Juilliard?

McDonald: It wasn't like, "Oh, well now I'm just a superstar." It was more of a sense of, "That happened to somebody else - that didn't happen to me because I'm still me." And actually my anxieties about performing on stage actually got worse after that. And, I started fainting during concerts and things like that. So it got heady in that sense, that all of a sudden I felt pressure. I had to learn to sort of let myself off the hook. And I had some wonderful mentors who helped teach me that, Barbara Cook being one I can think of right off the bat, who kind of taught me how to be in front of an audience and be fully who you are in front of an audience in a concert setting and to embrace the great moments in your concerts and, and the mistakes, which comes with any performance and to not hide from any of it, or try to hide it from the audience. She was able to give herself such grace with that. And I learned that from her and it helped me to calm down and stop passing out on stage! You know, it's, it's all a mind game. I think about athletes too, Olympic athletes or athletes in general. I mean, it's the same sort of thing. It's like, it all comes down to these next two hours or two minutes or 30 seconds. And so for me, one of the things I kind of fall back on is reminding myself that it isn't necessarily about me. It's about the experience that the audience is going to have. And I also remind myself that this is what I've trained for. It's not like I'm going to go out on stage and try and change a flat tire. Then we'd all be in a lot of trouble! But I'm going to go out on stage and I'm going to sing. And I'm going to communicate with the audience. And that's what I do. It's a part of who I am. And I don't want to miss this experience. Also I remind myself that it's a privilege to be able to do what I'm doing.

Lyons: And, and speaking of training, so you studied classical voice. So I'm so curious about how, where that shift was made for you, studying classical voice, where you decided to go into the music theater and, and the acting realm.

McDonald: I had been singing music theater from the time I was nine years old until the time I went to Juilliard and started studying classical voice. I went to Juilliard because Juilliard accepted me and I auditioned. I was thinking that I could maybe take some acting lessons and dancing lessons. I didn't think through the fact that I would be strictly in the music department, studying only classical voice. So I was not a good fit for Juilliard. So what I discovered at Juilliard was that I did have a classical voice. And then as soon as I left Juilliard, I learned how to incorporate that into what I have always wanted to do and have done ever since, which is musical theater, and to incorporate all of my sound.

Lyons: Your performance as Billie Holiday is just extraordinary. And the way you embodied her physicality as well as her vocal production, your voice sounded as fresh at the end as it does at the beginning. And you can only do that with proper technique. When you're doing the eight shows a week kind of run for months on end, do you have any other ways that you take care of yourself? Keep your voice completely fresh?

McDonald: You have no life! That's the answer. You can't talk a lot after the show or before the show. You try and rest your voice during the day, which is hard when you're a parent. You don't drink a lot or hardly at all or at all. You don't go out partying. You know, you don't have a lot of social engagement. It's a very, very difficult life. You think about it like this, you don't see a lot of baseball players out partying during the season. You have one job and, and you have to be in the most perfect shape that you can possibly be in to do it.

Lyons: What is the music that speaks most to your heart? What just makes you feel whole?

McDonald: Hmm. It's never the same thing twice, you know, I could name 500 things right now. I'll tell you what I don't listen to, to sort of soothe me, is musical theater. And I imagine it's because that's where my work is. I don't let go when I'm listening to musical theater and let it soothe and fill me. I listen to a lot of old school, I listen to a lot of Earth, Wind Fire, I listen to a lot of India Arie, Diana Krall, I listen to Nina Simone, Judy Garland, and then, you know, and then I'll listen to like, Chopin's Impromptu, or something like that, you know, that will fill me.

Lyons: Is there a bucket list achievement that you have yet to unlock? Do you have one great next thing you want to do?

McDonald: I mean, for me, it's always the thing that's right around the corner that I didn't know was coming that is going to help me evolve as an artist. That's the way my career has always gone. And I trust that what I next need to learn is around the corner waiting to teach me. I've just recorded a particular classical book on tape - an audio book. The most difficult thing I've ever done in my entire life! I cannot believe I survived it. It was an 850 page book, and the reason I said yes to it is because I thought, "This is going to be an extraordinary challenge, and I don't know that I can do this." And that's why I said yes. That's my motto, I think: just go where you can grow.

Helen Lyons serves as the Music Manager and host of Vermont Public Classical’s Monday-Saturday morning program. She grew up in Williston, Vermont, and holds a BA in Music from Wellesley College and Artist Diplomas from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. She has enjoyed an international singing career spanning three continents, performing in Europe, China, The Philippines and the USA.