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Sharing the right songs

Audra McDonald 

Sharing the right songs

Audra McDonald has created many memorable characters on stage — and has the awards to prove it. As a singer, McDonald's a great performer in smaller venues, but she really loves singing with symphony orchestras. "Everything is big, big, big — singing with all those instrumental colors is like playing with the coolest box of toys ever," McDonald says.

McDonald's current concert tour — her first since 2008 — brings her to Rochester for the first time, where she'll appear at Kodak Hall, Saturday, January 17, with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

If McDonald's concert has a theme, she says it's simply: "I've got something I want to share with you." The "something" is a program of carefully-chosen pieces from what is usually called The Great American Songbook — classic and obscure songs by Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, and so on — balanced with songs by the generation following, including John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and Stephen Sondheim.

And then there is the even more recent generation following them. Showcasing younger theater writers like Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, and Josh Schmidt, McDonald says, appeals to her.

"I like showing audiences where the musical theater is headed — and it is headed in all different directions," she says. "Most of these composers and lyricists have been influenced by the work of Stephen Sondheim and by the rock and pop music of their own time, but each of them has a unique, beautiful, individual voice."

What ties them all together, and what makes her want to interpret a song is "a beautiful story matched to a beautiful melody," McDonald says. She's sometimes attracted by the possibility of singing a song from a musical role she could never play on stage. "I approach each song as a monologue or a dialogue; presenting a different character."

She also looks for new material in Off-Off-Broadway productions or workshops of new musicals by emerging writers, and is also given material by Andy Einhorn, who has been her musical director and vocal coach since 2005. Really, she receives more material than she can possibly perform. "It's shocking how much great material is out there."

McDonald began in high school theater in her native California, and studied voice at the Juilliard School with Ellen Faull, a highly regarded dramatic soprano of the 1950's and 60's. McDonald's combination of an opera-weight soprano voice and serious acting chops quickly made her a top-echelon star on Broadway, with numerous Tony Award nominations and a record six wins.

Barely out of Julliard, McDonald won the first two as supporting actress in the musical "Carousel" (1994) and in Terrence McNally's play "Master Class" (1996). She followed that with two more supporting actress awards, for "Ragtime" (1998) and "A Raisin in the Sun" (2004); a Best Actress in a Musical win for "The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess'" (2012); and, her most recent, Best Actress in a Play, for her remarkable recreation of Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" (2014).

McDonald also holds two Grammy Awards for a Los Angeles Opera production of Weill and Brecht's opera "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," with Patti LuPone and Anthony Dean Griffey, and a number of Emmy nominations. She's a familiar face on TV from the ABC series "Private Practice," the live "Sound of Music" on NBC, and "Sweeney Todd" on PBS. Recently she performed musical interpretations of "Yahoo! Answers" on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" (her melodic answers to questions like "What's the best way to get rid of hiccups?" and "How can I tell when boiled eggs are done?" prove that she truly can sing anything).

And now she's on a 32-date tour, which, along with her first performance with the RPO, will take her all over the country. Stops include Symphony Hall in Boston and Carnegie Hall, with a side trip late this month to Madrid's Teatro Real.

McDonalds vocal and acting prowess will serve her equally well on this tour. "Performing a concert is more difficult than performing a role in a play or a musical," she says. "It has to be a cohesive event, but without a specific script to support you; the responsibility for the show falls at your feet: It's all you, all the time."

For Saturday's concert, she'll announce the program from the stage — and, as noted above, she has a wide repertoire to choose from.

"If you go into the theater to make money, you'll be lucky to make 50 cents," she says. "The only reason to work in the theater is for love of it, and love of artistic expression"

McDonald enjoys programming old standards back-to-back with new material, or giving older material a new twist for a modern audience. For example, in her current concerts she presents a medley of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" and the Gershwins' "He Loves and She Loves" in the light of the struggle for marriage equality, a cause she strongly supports.

Asked about her post-tour performing plans, she answers, "I never say never to any idea. I remain open to whatever comes along."

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