Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald will receive the Sarah Siddons Society Award on June 17. She has just released a new CD called “Go Back Home.”
Updated: June 14, 2013 9:10AM
Audra McDonald will be feted with the 2013 Sarah Siddons Society Award in Chicago on June 17, joining such esteemed company as Helen Hayes (the first recipient, 60 years ago), Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone and a Who’s Who of other formidably talented performers.
The official tribute to McDonald, 42, reads this way: “[She] is unparalleled in the breadth and versatility of her artistry as both a singer and an actress... with a record-tying five Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, and a long list of other accolades to her name. Blessed with a luminous soprano and an incomparable gift for dramatic truth-telling, the Juilliard graduate is as much at home on Broadway and opera stages as she is in film and television. Broadway master Stephen Sondheim says, ‘Audra McDonald’s voice is one of the great glories of the American theater.”
That is as good a rapidfire appreciation as you could devise — aside from noting that everything McDonald touches turns into artistic gold, and she is a workaholic to boot. Not only did she receive the 2012 Tony Award for best actress in a musical for her performance in the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” but she is hosting nine telecasts as part of her new role with PBS’ Live from Lincoln Center programs. And last month, “Go Back Home,’ her fifth solo album (and the first in seven years) was released by Nonesuch. Those who watched this year’s Tony Awards could see her in all her glory — dressed in a golden brocade gown for the grand finale in which she was the soaring classical-voiced counterpoint to Neil Patrick Harris’ hip-hop tribute to New York.
The album is a beauty, with an exquisitely ordered lineup of a dozen songs — some lifted from Broadway shows, but most examples of the newer generation of songwriters she continues to champion.
McDonald’s move back to New York from California (where she had been working primarily on the ABC medical series, “Private Practice”), was the impetus to include the title song, from Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys.” Stephen Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” (from “A Little Night Music”) seemed custom-made for her real-life role as a show biz mom to Zoe Donovan, her now 12-year-old daughter from her first marriage to a musician. Her divorce, and her second marriage, in 2012, to actor-write-film director Will Swenson, inspired her choice of “Baltimore” (the hilarious song by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler), and Michael John LaChiusa’s “Married Love.” And above all, coming to terms with the devastating death of her father, a pilot and jazz musician who died in a plane crash six years ago, made her think about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss,” which her dad played for her on the piano when she auditioned at a dinner theater in Fresno. (For Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V,” McDonald even polished her own piano skills so she could accompany herself.)
“This album’s title has so many meanings,” said McDonald during a recent chat. “I grew up in Fresno, Ca., but I came to New York to study at Juilliard, and have lived in the city much longer than anywhere else. And home is where your family is, and where you are doing the work you love — singing, the stage. So it’s about coming home to all that.”
More than a galvanizing theme, there is the complex process of gathering material for the album and figuring out “what songs just belong together.”
“People access and listen to music in such different ways these days, but I still like to tell a story,” said McDonald. “Finding the flow for an album is a real art, and invariably I have to leave things out because they don’t quite fit. I had great help from my music director, Andy Einhorn, with whom I traded many e-mails. But once I’ve recorded the songs I let go. I have a difficult time listening to myself sing. I leave that to the people I trust.”