It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in April 2012, and I was walking with my husband along a side street in New York City’s theater district. We were scouting for cocktails before the evening performance of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess starring Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald, when, lo and behold, Audra McDonald appeared on the sidewalk in front of us. Two tall men (a.k.a. safety gays) were with her, and she was leading a big dog on a leash.
Years of work in the industry in Los Angeles had trained me to play it cool around celebrities, but McDonald is different. She is the rarest kind of superstar — one who seems like the kind of down-to-earth regular person who might walk her dog between the matinee and evening performances of her latest Broadway triumph. It’s part of the reason why her most ardent fans (me) and even people of limited means (again, me) will go to great lengths to be in her presence. Now here she was, waiting for us to decide which side of the sidewalk we would use to pass by.
OK, maybe our quest for cocktails was not our first such quest of that afternoon. I was definitely feeling a little liquid courage. I just couldn’t resist saying something.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m James, and this is my husband, Eric. We live in San Francisco. We’re coming to see you this evening. It’s my second time seeing this production. I saw it about a month ago, and your performance was maybe the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage.” Seriously, it was stunningly good. As Ben Brantley wrote in the Times, “For devastating theatrical impact, it’s hard to imagine any hurricane matching the tempest that is the extraordinary Audra McDonald’s Bess at the moment she is reunited with her former lover, Crown.” McDonald is the only performer ever to win Tony Awards in every single musical and nonmusical acting category. She is just that good in everything she does on stage.
“Oh, thank you,” McDonald said to me, notably not avoiding eye contact or making subtle signals to the guys to step in between us. Emboldened, I continued.
“But how can Eric and I sustain our marriage if I’ve seen the best thing ever and he hasn’t? Eventually it could drive a wedge between us, so we had to make a special trip to New York City so we can both see the best thing ever.”
“Well, that’s no pressure,” she said.
“Oh, please, no pressure at all,” I said. “Have a great show. We’re in Row M on the left side if you want to give us a little wave.”
Now imagine my excitement at being granted an officially sanctioned phone call with Audra on behalf of the Independent about her July 9 concert at Provincetown Town Hall. We jumped right into the subject of fans who consider themselves instant friends.
“I want people to come away from meeting me feeling like it was a good experience,” said McDonald. “I try to be as open as I can. That intimacy onstage in concert is important. I certainly don’t want to feel like a faraway entity.”
Offstage, McDonald is heavily involved in the causes close to her heart. She’s one of the founding members of Black Theatre United, a group that formed during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. The group’s mission statement, “A New Deal for Broadway,” demanded reforms for BIPOC and marginalized artists in all areas of the theater industry.
“There’s still a lot to be done,” said McDonald. “There’s a greater awareness now of these issues, and people can’t fall back to what was before or it will be noticed.”
For the last decade, she’s been on the board of Covenant House New York, which provides food, shelter, and social services to homeless youth. One of the ways McDonald raises money for Covenant is through Sleep Outs, nights of voluntarily sleeping outside on the streets of New York City to raise public awareness of America’s 4.2 million homeless youth.
“I believe in this mission,” said McDonald. “And it isn’t just about sleeping out on the street. You spend time in Covenant House listening to their stories, learning how they’ve survived, seeing how they have flourished and thrived with help.”
I asked her what the appeal was in coming out to the end of the Earth to sing at our town hall.
“It’s not the venue,” she said. “It’s the audience. I love Provincetown, and town hall has good acoustics. I will always keep coming back.”
Her upcoming performance will again feature Seth Rudesky at the piano interviewing McDonald and choosing songs from her repertoire at random for her to sing. Rudesky accompanies most of the artists in the Broadway@Town Hall/Art House series. The shows are not quite concerts and not quite full interviews, but the result is typically a funny, intimate event.
There was one almost-bombshell revelation near the end of our conversation. In a recent concert at the London Palladium, McDonald debuted her version of “Rose’s Turn,” the grand finale of the musical Gypsy. Mama Rose is, as McDonald reminded me, the King Lear of musical roles. Is McDonald planning to take on this epic challenge? While she didn’t outright acknowledge that some sort of plan is in the works, she confirmed that it is a role she wants to do. Would Will Swenson, her super dreamy Broadway star husband, play Herbie opposite her Rose? McDonald’s answer was definitely not no. Eat your heart out, New York Times. Everything’s coming up Audra.
Ticket for Sunday’s performance range from $75 (sold out at press time) to $200, meaning a pair of the best seats will set you back $426.98 with service fees.
Broadway at Town Hall
The event: Audra McDonald, with Seth Rudetsky
The time: Sunday, July 9 at 8:30 pm
The place: Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St.
The cost: $75 to $200 at brownpapertickets.com