Welcome home, Audra
Audra’s home. This time it’s going to be extra special.
The Broadway star (and winner of more Tony awards than anyone) today (Saturday, May 26) will get a key to the city and a street named after her. How cool is that? To top things off, she will sing for the first time with the Fresno Philharmonic in one of the highlight cultural events of the year.
(For those who haven’t figured out by now, I’m talking about none other than Good Company Players and Roosevelt High alum Audra McDonald, known with a first-name simplicity as “Audra” to this blog and a large number of fans throughout the area.)
To mark the occasion, I wanted to do something special, too, as a welcome.
The result is “Dear Audra.” I asked my readers to write brief recollections and appreciation letters.
I’m completely an Audra girl. I’ve seen you live three times (“Lady Day,” “Shuffle Along,” and your Modesto show) and I’ve been lucky enough to meet you when my mom and I stage-doored “Lady Day” in 2014.
I wanted to keep it cool and just ask for an autograph on my Playbill, but my lovely mother blurted out, “HI, WE’RE FROM FRESNO,” and you were sweet enough to have the most lovely and endearing conversation with us about how I went to your dad’s school, how we’re so proud of you, and all things Fresno. I couldn’t believe that you would take the time to do that, and it’s stuck with me deeply ever since.
Hearing your story on “Here’s the Thing” with Alec Baldwin struck an ever so personal and real chord with me, and I’m so so happy you’re here to share such a story with us.
I feel so lucky to have such an incredibly talented and humble, giving, kind role model for my theatre career. It’s a joy to be inspired by you.
You’re my favorite, Miss Audra! Welcome home.
Broadway and babysitting
We know you simply as “Audra.”
I, like others, insert the possessive pronoun “our” in front of you name. Why is that, I wonder this morning while rummaging through my collection of memorabilia – ticket stubs, souvenir programs, newspaper and magazine clippings, reviews, interviews, photographs. I’ve scattered them onto my bed – displaying a veritable fairy tale collage right before my eyes. Going back decades, some are wrinkled, yellowed – many of my favorites taken on the GCP stage in the Music Hall where it all started. Closing my eyes, I visualize the signature red tee shirt, black block letters spelling out your name. Double ponies. Ear to ear grin.
During your early years, I was on staff at Good Company Players, merely a voyeur, doing public relations, fundraising, working behind the scenes. Dan Pessano had been my drama teacher at Roosevelt and although I lacked sufficient talent to survive an audition, I loved being part of the theater scene and hearing audiences applaud talented casts and kids, one little girl in particular – the one with a big, nuclear voice. Despite squirmy arms and legs, everyone knew you possessed the “X” factor. Night after night, they echoed a “for certain premonition,” divine knowledge about your future.
“This child was born to be a star.”
And how right they were – you had a gift that even the critics would later confess comes along once in a lifetime.
“A lightning bolt and human firecracker.”
I remember hiring you one summer to watch my children when you were in high school and needed spending money. I needed a reliable sitter. Knowing full well there was magic in your DNA, I secretly hoped you would fuel their pint-sized imaginations, encourage them to sing, dance and dream. They adored you and how I loved coming home to a happy trio – albeit a messy house layered with props and makeshift costumes, dirty dishes stacked in the sink. At the time it never dawned on me that someday I’d be sitting in a New York theater whispering to the stranger next to me that the six-time Tony Award winning star “used to babysit my children.”
When your father died, I was traveling in Italy. My secretary e-mailed me a headline reading, “McDonald killed in a plane crash.” Devastated at the news, knowing Stan was your dad, my heart plummeted to my ankles. We had worked together in education and were dear friends/colleagues. A few months later, I flew to New York to watch you in “110 in the Shade.” How was it humanly possible you could sustain the exuberant role of “Lizzie” while grief-stricken? In your dressing room after the show, you showed me your father’s ring tucked beneath your shirt, hanging from your neck each night. Sharing our losses, it was a backstage moment I’ll never forget. Stripped of stardom, we were simply two people navigating unthinkable losses. I loved you for being so human.
This morning as I peruse your bio to pen this love letter, I am happily reminded we share the same birthday, July 3. Knowing in the grand scheme of things this probably means little, it is enough to remind me to keep working my own voice – not as singer or actor, but writer and author.
Leaning against my studio wall rests a signed poster from “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Your signature, “Much love, Audra McD,” catches the morning sunlight and corner of my eye. A few inches over are words taken from three of my favorite Audra interviews – each offering sage advice to anyone chasing outrageous dreams:
“I was taught that you have to work really hard, but not to put any boundaries on yourself.”
“Whatever is the scariest is what I end up choosing.”
When you accepted your sixth Tony Award, you graciously thanked the strong, courageous women whose shoulders you insisted you stood on night after night: Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee and Billie Holiday. I can only imagine those who will repeat these exact words someday – inserting your name.
You have trail-blazed an amazing path for future generations to emulate.
Welcome home, Audra.
Much love and admiration,
From the man himself
Audra, I’m looking forward to the concert, and as always I’m prepared to cry. You’ve been getting me since you were 9. I’ve been so lucky to be given so many extraordinary Audra moments on stage, but far more importantly I’ve had the chance to know the size of your generous, loving, welcoming heart.
No words …
First and foremost, huge fan. Your music and way of storytelling has always captivated me, to the point that no amount of words do it justice. Your stage presence is dynamic and you are unbelievably dedicated to what you do (doing Shuffle Along while pregnant? You are an actual goddess). But most importantly, I admire how much you inspire me. I struggle a lot with depression and many days have questioned why I’m here. I’ve had two failed suicide attempts and still struggle in coping with that, but you’ve inspired me along the way, since you too have struggled and are here and doing what you love. It’s a shame those in the arts seem to be affected more often than not, but I’d like to thank you for being one of the reasons I continue to push through. Thank you, and welcome home.
My name is Kailyn Sanders and I am 9 years old. I go to Bullard Talent and I am in the 4th grade. I am currently in the Junior Company and have been since I was 7. I have even been compared to you by audience members at Roger Rocka’s; that is a very big honor for me! I have seen you in many things, but my favorite was when you played Grace in “Annie”!! You have a very beautiful singing voice, and I want one just like yours when I grow up. You are my favorite actress, and I would love to meet you someday!! I want to welcome you back to Fresno.
Welcome back to Fresno, even for a day! I’ve had the joy of watching you grow up, seeing your talent grow richer on stage in our city, concerts in San Francisco and Warnor’s Fresno, and of course, on Broadway, where you have soared. Thank you for your passion for the arts, your extraordinary talent and your for making a difference in supporting many causes that will make a difference in our world.
We were thrilled when you extended your time performing in Shuffle Along and were wildly impressed at your ability to shuffle several months along! You are truly a gem!
Brad and Mandy Kendzora
Hi Audra! I was in Junior Company with you, “way back when”. My name, then, was Andrea Castellanos. I’ve been following your career, and want you to know that I am so proud of all of your accomplishments. You were always such a big personality, even when we were all still children. I knew that someday you would be a HUGE star! Congratulations!!!
Hi Audra! I am so excited you are coming back to Fresno! I’m looking forward to seeing you again as well as watching you in concert. You are such an inspiration and it is so neat to think you started here like all of us and made it in the big, bad world of theatre. You are so generous whether it be getting my mom and I (and friends) backstage to shows whenever we are in New York or to volunteering your time to the Juniors by Skyping and answering our questions. You are so humble and kind and motivate me to be the best performer I can be because there is hope (haha!). I hope you enjoy your time back at home.
Welcome home! When you were 16 my late husband and I saw you in Evita at Roger Rockas. What amazing talent! We commented to each other that you were Broadway bound.
With the highest Tony count of anyone, you still credit Fresno for developing your extraordinary talent and am looking forward to the May 26th concert. On Broadway I have seen you in Ragtime, Porgy and Bess, and Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill. I handed the stage manager a note before the performance of Porgy and Bess, saying I was from Fresno. When the play was over and you had the chance to change into civvies, graciously you welcomed my sister and me into the theater, we walked across the stage, and spent a few minutes chatting. No doubt exhausted, still you were gracious.
Thanks so much!
Louise G. Feinberg
The first time I met you was back in 1998. (Oh my god, Audra, it was 20 years ago. I keep getting older. You keep getting better.) You probably don’t remember it — you’ve probably done a thousand interviews since then — but for me, it is a treasured highlight, one of those truly indelible moments that stand out in life amongst the myriad bits of my existence. It was in your dressing room at the then-Ford Center for the Performing Arts on Broadway, where the musical “Ragtime” was in its final week of previews. You were a big deal then — you’d already won a Tony for “Carousel” — but not the superstar you are today.
Back in those days, when well-staffed regional newspapers like the Fresno Bee could afford to send a reporter and photographer to Broadway to cover a local gal on the way to the top, I was accompanied by Mary Lommori, a wonderful photojournalist. Before our scheduled interview with you, we got to see you “Ragtime.” It was Mary’s first time at a Broadway show. Because of that, I found myself living the experience through Mary’s eyes. In the second act, when your character, Sarah, reappears as a ghost in the haunting number “Sarah Brown Eyes,” I turned to look at Mary, and her expression was rapt attention. (Later, I learned that the creative team added the song because they were enamored of you and wanted to give the audience a chance to see her again after her character dies in the first act.) Mary had come to the show with few preconceived notions, but everything about it — the power of the vocals, the intensity of the acting, the grandeur of the sets, and, most important, the fierceness of the emotion — made it a lasting experience.
One thing that stands out about the interview afterward was your friendliness and willingness to share, even when you could have been recharging your batteries in the break between the matinee and evening performance. Especially when it was the final week before opening night, with critics in the audience at every single performance. But even in a high-stress environment — and “Ragtime,” with so many moving parts and last-minute creative changes, was a doozy — you were generous with her time.
The other thing I remember was your performance in “Ragtime.” I was astounded. Your singing was stunning, of course. But what really hit me was your acting. You embodied Sarah. You made you believe. I felt your pain. And when you and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang “Wheels of a Dream,” I shared not only in Sarah’s joy but in her hope for an America that could become a better, shining place.
There would be other times to hear you sing live, including your big hometown concert at Warnors Theatre, an unforgettable “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” (in Los Angeles), and your tour de force performance at “Lady Day” on Broadway. But there’s nothing quite like the first time. In the years following, whenever I’ve attended a Broadway show with a first-time audience member, I’ve always thought of the look on Mary the photographer’s face during “Sarah Brown Eyes.” She’d been transported to another place. How many similar looks have you inspired, Audra? Too many to count.
Thank you for singing.
♦ Dedication of the Audra McDonald Theater at Roosevelt High School, 11 a.m.-noon Saturday, May 26. Free.
♦ Concert with the Fresno Philharmonic, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Saroyan Theatre. Sold out.
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