For someone who’s been a fan of Audra McDonald since 1998, when I bought her first CD at Tower Records as a high school sophomore, the question in my mind has always been this: When will more Americans — as well as Hollywood producers and directors — recognize the breadth and scope of McDonald’s talent?
In Thursday’s live broadcast of The Sound of Music on NBC, McDonald will play Mother Abbess, the nun who sings the anthemic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” — and she’ll cement her reputation as America’s greatest singing actress.
McDonald is not only the most decorated Broadway performer of her generation, she is poised to become the most decorated theater actor ever. At only 43 years old, she’s won five Tony Awards, tying the record set by Angela Lansbury (88 years old) and Julie Harris (who died this summer at age 87). She’s trailblazer for color-blind casting; referencing her role as the head of the Nonnberg Abbey, she’s joked that she’s the “darkest mother” ever. In The Sound of Music, McDonald will perform “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “My Favorite Things,” which she sings with Carrie Underwood, who plays Maria, the role popularized by Julie Andrews. McDonald is that rare actor who’s earned Tonys for musicals (Carousel, Ragtime and Porgy and Bess) and plays (Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun). She also took a co-starring role on TV as a doctor on Private Practice, but she went back to Broadway in 2012, won her fifth Tony, and recorded her fifth and most personal album to date, appropriately titled Go Back Home.
And home, in many ways, means the live stage, which has no brighter star. She’s as lauded for her acting as her singing, a true chameleon of a performer who can sing the answers to Yahoo! Questions with Jimmy Fallon, make you rethink Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and breathe new life into “Tomorrow” from Annie.
Here’s the equation I use to explain McDonald to people who are unfamiliar:
Basically: Meryl Streep + Beyoncé = Audra McDonald
Like Streep, McDonald’s acting ability is only limited by her own imagination. (Her performances of Lizzie and Bess — two very different characters in acclaimed revivals of 110 in the Shade and Porgy and Bess, were breathtaking.) Like Beyoncé, McDonald owns an expansive sound with its own vocabulary. It’s an inherently operatic and trained voice, but it swings and belts, it growls and swoops, it’s jazzy and bluesy when it wants to be, it’s as high and as low as it needs to be. As New York Times critic Stephen Holden recently wrote, it’s “a voice that finds a flexible, intuitive balance between storytelling and singing — a defining voice of our time.”
If this hasn’t convinced you, I present the following: