For Audra McDonald, the New York dreams came true


Amazing things happen when Audra McDonald steps to the microphone. She flawlessly ranges from Broadway to classical, from whimsical or deeply emotional. Now she has a PBS concert special Friday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

Growing up a continent away, Audra
McDonald was sure she wanted to be in New York. She wanted to be on
Broadway and on the Lincoln Center stages.

“I didn't get to see a lot of
classical music growing up,” she recalled. “But I was able to
reach it through 'Live From Lincoln Center' …. I remember watching
(conductor Leonard) Bernstein and freaking out.”

Now she's a Broadway star with five
Tonys; her own “Live From Lincoln Center” concert is Friday.

Also, she's the show's host. That's
important, because she recalls the show's original host fondly.

“Beverly Sills sort of introduced me
to this whole world,” McDonald said. “I saw this place that I
wanted to go …. We don't look anything alike or sing anything
alike, (but) I felt a deep connection.”

McDonald looks nothing like the
light-haired Sills or most past-generation stars. She's gone on to
play Broadway's top black characters – in “Porgy and Bess,”
“Ragtime,” “Raisin in the Sun” – and others.

That began in 1993, she recalled: “(My)
agent said, 'They are doing a production of “Carousel” with a
color-blind casting at Lincoln Center. We want you to go in for it.'”

Paula Kerger, now head of PBS,
remembers seeing McDonald's Tony-winning work as Carrie Pipperidge
when “Carousel” opened in '94. “I knew instantly that she was
an extraordinarily gifted performer and would have an amazing
career.”

This career started far from Broadway.
McDonald was born in Germany, when her dad was in the military, and
grew up in Fresno, Cal., where both parents were school
administrators.

There were other interests. Her dad was
a pilot who died in a 2007 experimental-plane crash; both parents
were musical.

“My mom used to sing,” McDonald
said. “She had a cassette tape of Beverly Sills ….Every morning,
my mom would play it in her Mazda RX7 as she took us to school, and
she would sing along.”

McDonald did community theater at 9 and
did musicals at a performing arts high school. The goal was New York,
though, so she auditioned for Juilliard – taking her to the Lincoln
Center she saw on TV.

“I remember … being like, 'There's
the fountain! There's the fountain!' So I annoyed my mother and did a
couple (dances) around the fountain, like the kids did in (TV's)
'Fame.'”

She got into Juilliard, where she added
classical music and saw shows – sometimes with free tickets and
sometimes with stealth. “I remember sneaking in to see 'Anything
Goes' and second-acting that.”

Second-acting? “You used to be able
to find a ticket stub and say, 'I was sitting there.'”

Fresh from her 1993 graduation, she
landed a “Secret Garden” tour and then “Carousel.” She's
lived in New York for the 25 years since high school. Divorced from
bassist Peter Donovan (with one daughter), she married actor Will
Swenson in October.

There's been more media to conquer by
McDonald, whom the Lincoln Center's Elizabeth Scott calls “a
cross-genre 'it girl'.” The biggest change, she said, was her four
years as a “Private Practice” star:

“I would walk through the airport and
people would say, 'Oh my gosh! Naomi. Naomi. Naomi! And that was
something I had never experienced before, in all of my years of being
on Broadway.”

– “Live From Lincoln Center,”
Audra McDonald in concert

– 9 p.m. Friday, PBS (check local
listings)