I just had the pleasure of seeing (and hearing) Audra McDonald in concert. In case anyone doesn’t know about her illustrious stage career, McDonald has won a record six Tony awards, for roles in both dramas and musicals. Growing up in workaday Fresno, California, she made the unlikely leap to Juilliard and then Broadway. As an African-American she has starred in revivals of such classic black works as Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. Another of her Tonys was earned for her stunning portrayal of Billie Holliday in an original play, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.
But she has also won acclaim (and Tonys) for roles not specifically designed for a black woman. Her first was as the leading lady’s comic sidekick in Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in a quaint village in 19th century Maine. It’s a sign of theatrical progress that the concept of colorblind casting has allowed her to star as a Southwest spinster in 110 in the Shade, a musical adaptation of The Rainmaker, which starred Geraldine Page on the stage and Katharine Hepburn onscreen.
When you’re a talent like Audra McDonald, you can expect to appear in television and films too. But we’re long past the golden age of movie musicals, so her film roles have been limited. On TV she’s mostly been confined to medical and crime dramas in which she doesn’t sing a note. An appearance as an ob/gyn on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy evolved into seven years as Dr. Naomi Bennett on the spin-off series, Private Practice. (Once, shamefully, black actresses were confined to playing maids. Now they seem to be stereotyped as physicians and judges.)
It’s true that McDonald has occasionally aired her musical abilities on television. Her very first TV appearance, in 1999, was in a TV version of Annie, the one with Victor Garber as Daddy Warbucks and Kathy Bates as nasty Miss Hannigan. (Audra had the rather pallid role of Warbucks’ everlovin’ secretary, Grace Farrell.) And in 2013 she played yet another improbable musical role. The other evening at Disney Hall, she ended her concert with a stirring song from a musical in which she had NEVER expected to appear. The song was “Climb Every Mountain,” from The Sound of Music. Though I doubt there were many black nuns in pre-World War II Austria, McDonald was cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music Live!, the Carrie Underwood TV special that earned both cheers and jeers. I understand the feelings of the hate-watchers, but a production in which McDonald’s lovely soprano soars can’t be all bad.
Though I didn’t see The Sound of Music Live! I looked in on its follow-up, Peter Pan Live!, which I found competent, earnest, and just a bit dull. Quick assessment: the sets were spectacular. The choreography was impressive. The musical score by old pros Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, and Comden & Green still worked its magic, though the additional songs added for this production were mostly yawners. As Peter, Allison Williams (of Girls) was better than I had expected. As Peter’s nemesis, Captain Hook, the legendary Christopher Walken was worse than I had expected, sleepwalking his way through a role I had thought he would knock out of the park. Clapping children still ensured that Tinkerbell didn’t die. (At least I guess they were clapping, because the feisty little fairy lived to flit another day.)
I could never diss a project that aims to teach today’s audiences to love musical theatre. Maybe casting Audra McDonald would have made all the difference.