As a young girl growing up in Fresno, California, while her teenage friends were swooning over air-brushed MTV pop stars, Audra McDonald dreamed of the bright lights of Broadway. She would lie in her bedroom and listen to the sounds of such legendary vocalists as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Lena Horne while pictures of Broadway divas like Patti LuPone hung on her wall. Yet McDonald, who is raising temperatures this month in the Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, never imagined that one day she'd be sharing a stage with idols like LuPone, or that the two women would become the kind of friends who call each other up for casual afternoon chats, or that her singing and acting would one day be compared to those celebrated performers she worshipped in her childhood bedroom.
The 36-year-old McDonald, however, spends little time resting on her laurels—even if she is the kind of singular talent that comes along only once in a generation. "I can't think about that. If I did, I'd never be able to get out of bed. That would mean that there's not work to be done. And there is work to be done," she said earlier this year over the phone from Los Angeles, where she was minutes away from walking into a rehearsal room with LuPone (the two did the Brecht-Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for LA Opera). "For me, it's just about growing as an artist—not getting stagnant, always continuing to study and to constantly keep working at the craft…. I want to be able to look back—when I do finally decide to stop—and feel that I challenged myself and that I worked hard, and whatever comes out of that is what comes out of it."
Still, it's hard to ignore McDonald's already lengthy list of accomplishments. When the classically trained soprano burst onto the Broadway scene in the 1994 revival of Carousel, audiences were immediately wowed. Here was a sublime, expressive soprano who also possessed an instinctual ability to fully inhabit characters onstage. By the time she was 28, she had become the first performer to garner three Tony Awards for her first three eligible Broadway shows—Carousel, Master Class and Ragtime. Her fourth Tony win—for A Raisin in the Sun in 2004 — placed her in the rarefied company of such luminaries as Angela Lansbury, Gwen Verdon, and Mary Martin.
Despite her status as one of the brightest female stars of the Broadway musical stage, the revival of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' 110 in the Shade at Studio 54 marks McDonald's first musical role on the Main Stem since Michael John LaChiusa's Marie Christine back in 1999. (She has, however, been doing plays like Raisin and the star-studded Henry IV opposite Ethan Hawke.) Adapted in 1963 by N. Richard Nash from his play The Rainmaker, 110 is something of an overlooked gem in the Broadway canon. Set in a Depression-era dustbowl, the story revolves around Lizzie Curry, an unmarried plain-Jane who's as starved for companionship as the surrounding drought-plagued farmland is for rain. She may be teetering on the brink of spinsterhood, but she's witty, feisty and opinionated, and she repeatedly resists her father and brothers' attempts to "lasso her a husband." However, when a charismatic con man swaggers into town, he awakens deep desires inside of her. "She's not willing to compromise who she is, but still wants to be able to have love," observes McDonald. "So there's this pride and desperation all at the same time—and fear that she's running out of time."
McDonald and director Lonny Price wanted the play to resonate for contemporary audiences—so they're planning to underline Lizzie's fierce independence and outspoken nature to help people understand why she remains unattached to a man. "In the year 2007, just to say, 'Well, she's not going to get married because she's plain and she's ugly and that's it'… that's hard to wrap your head around. So we're focusing on the fact that she's someone who speaks her mind, who doesn't have a filter. She just says what she's thinking—often at the wrong time. She's got very strong opinions and people aren't always attracted to that."
Growing up in an all-white neighborhood and attending a mostly-white school, the African American actress says that she can empathize with Lizzie's feelings of loneliness and isolation—as she often felt like an outsider during her formative years. "Everybody feels, at one time or another, that they're not wanted for who they are—whether it's that you're not talented enough or pretty enough. Everyone has those insecurities deep down inside. The fact that she's not a beauty, that's certainly something that I grew up feeling. I was always much bigger than the rest of the girls I went to school with. I had big curly hair and this weird voice with vibrato. So I really am able to identify with Lizzie."
Thanks to an insatiable curiosity and love of a challenge, McDonald has kept up her usual furious pace over the past year: releasing a new album, Build a Bridge; doing a string of solo concerts; performing with the most prestigious orchestras in the world; and filming Raisin for television. "I've had a lot going on this past year—and it's all been really amazing stuff. But this show really felt like a carrot for me," she says before running off to rehearsal. "So I'm sort of effusive and speechless at the same time that I'm finally getting to do it."