Audra McDonald, Lady Blue

4.11.2014

By Max Berlinger

On what it means to portray the legendary Billie Holiday

Photography by Warwick Smith

Even when she’s just speaking, Audra McDonald’s voice has a mellifluous, singing lilt to it. The five-time Tony winner has tackled everything in the musical theater canon, from beloved classics (1994’s Carousel and 2012’s The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess — Tonys number 1 and 5, respectively) to more avant-garde, modern works (1999’s Marie Christine) with a prowess and expressive flair that remains unrivaled. For her latest project, the Broadway premiere of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City), McDonald portrays another formidable performer: Billie Holiday. The intimate one-woman show follows the legendary jazz chanteuse as she struggles through a concert four months before her death in 1959.

Being Billie
“In the show, Holiday’s goal is to just get through this concert without getting into any trouble, but she ends up getting comfortable, starts to trust the audience, and opens up. She starts to bare her soul more than she’d planned, and then suffers the consequences for having done so.”

Body and Soul
“This play takes place four months before Holiday passed away, so she was already very ill with cirrhosis of the liver and very much addicted to heroin and a raging alcoholic — there’s a lot going on. And she was lonely, lonely, lonely. So to be all those things and get up there and decide, I’m going to start baring my soul, with all that underneath, makes for a very colorful evening, a volatile one and an unpredictable one.”

On Gay Marriage
“I hear conservatives railing against gay marriage and I think, Is there anything that’s actually more traditional and, in some ways, conservative than saying, ‘I want to commit to one person for the rest of my life, build a family with them, and have all the rights afforded me that are afforded everyone’? There’s something so traditional about this. Conservatives say no, but you’re not going to make gay people go away.”

A Long Way from Fresno
“When I was growing up in Fresno, Calif., my biggest dream was to live in New York and be in a Broadway show. I didn’t care if I was in the ensemble; it didn’t matter. Everything else that has happened beyond that original goal — even if I was a swing or the second spoon on the left — has been gravy and beyond my wildest dreams. It’s hard to comprehend, so I don’t think about it... or else I think I’d lose my mind a little bit.”

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill opens April 13 at Circle in the Square, New York City. Watch a clip below:

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