Audra McDonald raises her voice — onstage and off — as she readies for San Diego Symphony show
If “Broadway” and “Audra” don’t quite make a perfect rhyme, it’s not for lack of trying: So closely identified is Audra McDonald with the biggest stage in American theater that it can seem as if she has done about every Broadway show under the sun. (Plus “110 in the Shade” to boot.)
But when McDonald takes the Jacobs Music Center stage on Thursday night for a City Lights concert with the San Diego Symphony, her audience is likely to hear a two-song combo from a couple of musicals she actually has never done: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” from “South Pacific,” and “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods.”
There’s a message to that medley: The first song is Rodgers & Hammerstein’s lament about how prejudice can take root at an early age; the second is Stephen Sondheim’s gentle exhortation to remain mindful of the example being set for the next generation.
“I’m not the first person to have sung those two songs together,” McDonald says, speaking by phone from her home outside New York City. “Barbra Streisand did it, and so did Mandy Patinkin.
“(But) I feel in this day and age, the songs unfortunately have such universal truth. Especially ‘Carefully Taught.’ My goodness, where are we headed? So it just seemed appropriate for me to start singing them.”
The addition of those numbers to the concert repertoire of the tirelessly touring McDonald are hardly the result of some sudden, recent flash of enlightenment, though. The busy actor and star soprano, who earned a record-breaking sixth Tony Award for acting in 2014, has long been an advocate for social causes.
In fact, her Twitter handle, @AudraEqualityMc, dates to the days earlier this decade when the fight for same-sex marriage equality was at its height around the country.
McDonald frequently posts about incidents of bigotry and racially based mistreatment, of the kind that seem to pop up online with regularity these days. Given their frequency, does McDonald feel there’s any cause for optimism about the prospects for a more just society?
“I can only hope so,” she says. “In some ways, (the exposure) is opening a lot of people’s eyes. The fact everybody has a video camera now — there are things that those of us who are African-American or other minorities always known have happened. Things we’ve experienced, but maybe people didn’t believe us.
“Now that we can document it and have incontrovertible truth, it is perhaps opening people eyes. And so I can only hope there’s reason to be optimistic for some change.”
The fact McDonald is serious about the cause doesn’t mean she’s always serious. Her Twitter feed also is dotted with funny, self-deprecating glimpses of her own life.
One recent tweet read: “Just walked in the laundry room to find the baby drinking out of the dog’s water bowl. How’s your day going? #MotherOfTheYear.” (McDonald has an 18-month-old daughter with her husband, fellow actor Will Swenson, and a 17-year-old daughter with first husband Peter Donovan.)
“There’s no perfect household anywhere,” she says with a laugh when the tweet is mentioned. “Parenthood is an adventure.”
While McDonald — who was honored with the National Medal of Arts in 2016 — has never appeared in a non-touring production at one of San Diego’s big theaters, she did do a 2014 developmental reading of the Old Globe’s world-premiere work “Rain” in New York for artistic director Barry Edelstein.
And in 2003, she was cast in former Globe artistic chief Jack O’Brien’s Tony-winning Broadway production of “Henry IV,” as Lady Percy.
“It was the first Shakespeare play I’d ever done, so my eyes were wide open, just trying to learn everything I possibly could from everybody around me,” she says of the show, whose cast also included Kevin Kline and Ethan Hawke.
“I was just: ‘I don’t even know how I got here, but now I’m just going to learn and try to soak up every bit of information I can.”
Doing more Shakespeare someday is on her bucket list, says McDonald, whose most recent Broadway show was “Shuffle Along” in 2016.
But in the meantime, her tour swing keeps her busy, as does recording: Her new live album, “Sing Happy,” is out this month.
For McDonald’s San Diego show, the set list is expected to include such numbers as “Being Alive,” from Sondheim’s “Company”; “Chain of Love,” from “The Grass Harp”; and “Simple Little Things,” from “110 in the Shade.”
And what keeps her coming back to live performance, year after year and city after city?
“It’s my first love,” she replies. “It’s what I did before I did anything else.
“It’s like coming home.”
‘An Evening With Audra McDonald’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 24)
Where: Jacobs Music Center, Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown.
Tickets: About $30-$75
Phone: (619) 235-0804
Audra McDonald on …
The meaning of awards: “I think they’re an incredible honor. I’m grateful and flattered by them. But I have no control over winning awards — I have no control over any of that. So for me, it can’t be why I do it. Especially in the theater. All you can do is do good work, and do the good work for the sake of doing the good work and your evolution as an artist. That’s what’s most important to me.”
Her Tony-winning work in Broadway’s “Ragtime,” a key career moment: “It was the first time I’d done a new musical from the ground up. I did ‘Master Class’ (written by ‘Ragtime’ librettist Terrence McNally), but that was a new play … a musical is even a larger beast in some ways than a play.
“It was a little over two years of my life, with all the development and then the year in Toronto and the year on Broadway. So yeah, it was a huge part of my life. And also another cast of incredible performers.” (McDonald starred opposite the San Diego-bred Brian Stokes Mitchell.)
What Broadway projects she has in the works: “Nothing I can talk about. There’s always a lot of irons in the fire, because I never want to stray too far away from Broadway. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll try and keep coming back.”
Broadway highlights: “Ragtime,” “Carousel,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”
Tony Awards: 6 (including one in each of the four acting categories, a first)
TV: “Private Practice,” “The Sound of Music Live!,” “The Good Fight” (currently airing)
Married to: Will Swenson
Children: 2 daughters, Zoe and Sally
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