April 6, 2022

Award-Winning Performer Audra McDonald Sings at McCarter Theatre; Uplifting, Thoughtful Concert Features Anecdotes, Broadway Standards

AUDRA MCDONALD: National Medal of Arts winner Audra McDonald (above) performed April 2 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, accompanied by Andy Einhorn. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Award-winning singer and actor Audra McDonald performed at McCarter this past Saturday night. The concert, which played to a packed Matthews Theatre, featured a selection of Broadway standards. The evening was by turns uplifting and introspective. McDonald’s range and stellar vocal technique, and her respect and passion for material on which she was determined to make her own, all were on display.

In addition to six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, and an Emmy, McDonald has received a National Medal of Arts. Her numerous stage credits include Ragtime and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The Juilliard-trained soprano’s opera credits include Houston Grand Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Screen credits include the HBO series The Gilded Age, as well as the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

McDonald was accompanied by Broadway music director and conductor Andy Einhorn. Multiple songs heard in the concert appear on McDonald’s 2018 album Sing Happy, for which Einhorn conducted the New York Philharmonic.

Einhorn struck one key on the piano, which was a sufficient introduction for McDonald to launch into the stirring opening number, “I Am What I Am.” Early in the song Einhorn’s accompaniment was comparatively spare; as McDonald’s impassioned performance grew in speed and intensity, Einhorn’s accompaniment grew more elaborate.

Written by Jerry Herman as the first act finale for La Cage Aux Folles, “I Am What I Am” was well chosen as an introduction. An anthem of defiant self-acceptance in the face of prejudice, the song succinctly prefigured the concert’s dual moods. Predominantly life-affirming songs and warmly humorous commentary were complemented by socially conscious introspection.

“Stars and the Moon” is a brisk, sweeping song that appears on McDonald’s 1998 album Way Back to Paradise. Written by Jason Robert Brown for Songs for a New World, the number is sung from the point of view of a woman who marries a rich man instead of her other — poor and Bohemian — suitors, and grows to find her cosseted life stultifying. The song’s mordant humor, which includes lines such as “You know, I’d rather have a yacht,” highlights McDonald’s acting talents.

McDonald paid tribute to one of her idols, Diahann Carroll, whom she credits with being a trailblazer and an influence on her. This provided a cue for McDonald’s rendition of “A Sleepin’ Bee,” a lyrical number which Carroll introduced in House of Flowers. The music is by Harold Arlen, who co-wrote the lyrics with Truman Capote. McDonald recorded the song for her 2000 album How Glory Goes.

The singer recounted a bit about her upbringing and education in Fresno, to which she airily referred as the “home of the raisins.” She recalled entering a singing competition at age 13. Although she won with her performance of the earthy, up-tempo “Cornet Man” from Funny Girl, one judge — while complimentary about McDonald’s talent as a performer — chided the young singer for choosing a song that depicts a character and situation beyond her life experience at that time.

Before launching into a rendition of “Cornet Man,” which has music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, McDonald ruefully admitted that the song’s first line — “Well, I just put the kids to sleep” — proves the judge’s point. Although McDonald is a soprano, she has a lower, brassy range in which she can belt, and this number gave her an opportunity to demonstrate that.

The musical language markedly changed again in “Simple Little Things.” Composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist Tom Jones wrote the delicate ballad for 110 in the Shade. McDonald starred in the musical’s 2007 Broadway revival.

At this point McDonald asked that her microphone temporarily be turned off. She then sang “Summertime,” whose seamless phrases she caressed with her vibrato. (She starred in the 2012 Broadway production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.)

After the microphone was switched back on, McDonald sang another first act finale from a musical with a Jerry Herman score: the rousing “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly! Einhorn was the musical director of the show’s 2017 Broadway revival.

After talking a bit about her family — she humorously admitted to worrying about her 21-year-old daughter, who is traveling in Paris — McDonald dedicated the next two selections to anyone who has been marginalized.

The first song in this duology was the wistful “Bein’ Green,” which was written in 1970 by Joe Raposo, for Sesame Street. Somewhat in contrast to the fervor with which McDonald delivered several of the other selections, the sincere rendition of this song was comparatively understated.

This was followed by a medley of the anguished, bitter “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II wrote for South Pacific; and the cautionary anthem “Children Will Listen,” which Stephen Sondheim wrote to conclude Into the Woods.

McDonald acknowledged that those two songs have appeared in a medley before (Mandy Patinkin juxtaposed them on his 1995 album Oscar & Steve). She also noted that, although the songs are from different eras, fundamentally they convey the same message. She soberly added that it is a message that needs to be heard, especially now.

Next, McDonald sang a number she performed at the 2021 Met Gala: the title number from Cabaret. Written by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, the exuberant song’s words echo “Before the Parade Passes By” in proclaiming a need to end seclusion.

In addition to Carroll, McDonald expressed admiration for two other significant African American women: Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, and performer Leslie Uggams. This led into the rueful and passionate “Being Good isn’t Good Enough.” Written by Styne with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the number originally was sung by Uggams in the musical Hallelujah, Baby!

This was followed by another song by Styne, Comden, and Green: “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi. McDonald’s rendition of the benign number is understated at the beginning, but becomes rather fervent. The singer seemed to use more expressive hand gestures for this selection than in several of the others.

McDonald recounted her experience portraying the Mother Abbess in the 2013 telecast The Sound of Music Live! She recalled with amusement that in between her scenes, she received text messages from her daughter, who she said had kind words for the cast (particularly the children). But McDonald added that after she sang, her daughter wrote: “Where are the dryer sheets? I want to do laundry.” This anecdote led into the finale, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

The singer joked that the opportunity to perform at McCarter was worth driving in New Jersey, and that the next selection really was the end, because “I have a lot of left turns to make.” Einhorn sang a duet with McDonald for the encore: a medley of “Get Happy” (music by Arlen, with lyrics by Ted Koehler) and “Happy Days are Here Again” (music by Milton Ager, lyrics by Jack Yellen).

McDonald and Einhorn clearly have a strong rapport, which was particularly on display here. It was a fun conclusion to a concert that amply demonstrated why McDonald is one of the most important musical theater performers today.

To learn about McCarter Theatre’s upcoming events, visit mccarter.org.