Friday, July 17, 2020

Audra McDonald: Culturus Interruptus

I’m a huge fan of Broadway singer and actress Audra McDonald, who brings passion, nuance, and a peerless soprano voice to every musical role she undertakes. Her long string of Tony Awards recognizes her success in a variety of stage vehicles, everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (where she made theatre history as an African-American Carrie Pipperidge) to Ragtime to Porgy and Bess. She’s been acknowledged for non-singing roles too, notably in a Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansbury’s classic A Raisin in the Sun. I treasure the recordings in which she reveals her sharp timing, her sense of humor, and her affection for the work of new composers, especially women. Now 50, she’s an American treasure.

I’ve several times enjoyed her stage performances. But of course all that’s a thing of the past in this era of COVID-19. We who love live theatre and concerts sadly recognize that it will be a long, long time before we can leave home to get a culture-fix . The Internet, augmented by various technological platforms, can give us an emotional lift by presenting great stars in an up-close-and-personal format. At least, that’s the idea. Unfortunately, just when we’re thinking it’s safe to enjoy ourselves online, technology tends to throw us a curve.

Early in the lockdown, a star-studded live Zoom tribute to Stephen Sondheim had musical theatre buffs counting the minutes to “curtain-time.” (One of many promised treats was McDonald singing a sloshed shelter-in-place version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” with chums Christine Baranski and Meryl Streep.) Alas, grating technical difficulties delayed the opening of the broadcast for at least 45 minutes while we fans lurked around our computers, desperate for the show to start.

Then last weekend I actually paid for a link to an intimate musical tête-à-tête between Audra and pianist Seth Rudetsky , as part of his now-online Seth Concert Series. Rudetsky’s personality may require some getting used to, but he’s a master accompanist, and clearly Audra’s a longtime pal. From their separate homes they performed old songs and new, interspersed with behind-the-scenes stories and easy banter. But . . . midway through the performance (for which I had shelled out $25) of such artful scat as a Streisand-inspired  “Down With Love” medley or a breath-taking ballad like “You Are Your Daddy’s Son” (from Ragtime), the screen would suddenly freeze, leaving me pining for the intricate passage or the last thrilling notes I’d missed. (Happily, the concert organizers gave me a second chance to see the show in its entirety—and it worked!)

As a versatile performer, McDonald has also played a number of film and TV roles, Few, though, have allowed her to sing, and when it comes to meaty parts I’m certain that her African-American heritage has held her back. On the webcast she told a pertinent story dating back to a TV performance of Annie, shot in 1999 as part of The Wonderful World of Disney. She was very pleased to be cast as Grace Farrell, good-hearted secretary to Daddy Warbucks (Victor Garber): she gets rewarded in the last scene with her boss’s proposal of marriage. Then, after the production had wrapped, word came from on high that the marriage proposal would have to go, or risk alienating the Southern markets. The dispirited cast re-assembled on a Saturday (at enormous expense) to re-shoot the scene. Young director Rob Marshall shot one take, quickly and sloppily, and called it a wrap. He knew what he was doing: making it impossible not to choose the original ending. Which—hooray!—proceeded to air with absolutely no furor at all. 

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