Review: Audra McDonald wows in live performance, even on Zoom
Update: I just learned that, thanks to popular demand, the window for watching Audra’s appearance on “The Seth Concert Series” has been extended! You can buy a ticket (for $25) and watch any time through 11:59 p.m. Saturday, July 18.
I’ve seen Audra McDonald perform live in a variety of formats, from handsomely produced Broadway shows and intimate cabaret settings to slickly produced national awards telecasts. But never before have I seen her on Zoom, or whatever software that Seth Rudetsky is using for his online concert series, thanks to the pandemic.
But there she was on Sunday night, live from her own home, with a “Carousel” poster on the wall and other theater memorabilia behind her. (The original Coalhouse Jr. doll from “Ragtime” at one point made an appearance in her arms, to my delight.) Audra sweated without air conditioning (she’d turned it off because of the whoosh), took off her glasses when she sang because she doesn’t like to see herself when she’s performing, lunged out of frame for a drink of water, forgot the occasional lyrics, and told a few show-biz war stories. She laughed and cried.
I was entranced.
That said, it wasn’t the greatest technical presentation you’ll ever see of the six-time Tony Award winner and raised-in-Fresno Broadway beacon. Was the sound quality tenuous at times? The fixed camera angle too boring? The lighting as rudimentary as a junior high school play?
Yes to all, of course. But that low-key presentation is what made the concert so refreshing, compared to the glossy perfection of much of what we see on the small screen these days.
(And when it came to the most important technical issue, everything seemed to work perfectly in terms of a synchronous experience between piano and singer, even with each streaming from different locations.)
Here’s what I loved most about the experience: the eye contact.
In a Broadway theater, a performer never looks at you unless she is breaking the fourth wall. In a televised appearance, a performer like Audra might occasionally look directly into the camera when using a teleprompter, say, but most of the time she’s doing the seasoned-performer thing by directing her gaze at different parts of the venue. Same with a live concert.
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In a Zoom-type situation, however, there’s a lot more opportunity for a personal optical connection with the audience. This really struck me late in Sunday’s concert when Audra was singing Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon,” one of her standards. As she sang, I made it a point to lock my eyes with hers. It was revelatory. I felt how her character changed — starting out chirpy, moving to cocky and cynical, giving a spin through elated, and then, finally, a haunting sense of emptiness. The blankness in Audra’s eyes at the end of that song — for just a sliver of time — was devastating.
And this all took place in, what, three minutes? And with rotten production values!
Now this was acting.
Rudetsky’s concert series is a cheery Broadway tradition, and his homespun shift online for the pandemic plays on the host’s strengths. He and Audra are old friends, and not in the “I just met you in the Green Room and we’re best buddies” mode of late-night talk-show hosts. That ease and camaraderie came across on Sunday.
For Audra fans, the song list included many numbers from her latest album, “Sing Happy,” as she offered such tunes as “I Am What I am” from “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Summertime” and “Climb Every Mountain.”
Lest she get too inspirational, she also sang the hilarious (and quite profane) “Facebook Song,” which sums up what many people have felt when an ex-lover sends a friend request.
Another song from the album: a medley of “Children Will Listen” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” that offered a swirl of lyrics that seemed especially appropriate in a time of reckoning with racial discrimination.
Indeed, Audra used the medley to address those issues, including the challenges she has faced over the years as a Black actress and singer.
She told the story of how Disney demanded a reshoot of a scene in the TV movie of “Annie,” in which she played Grace, assistant to Oliver Warbucks (played by Victor Garber).
Following Sunday’s event, Rudetsky on Tuesday wrote about the conversation for Playbill:
You have to remember, it was filmed in 1999, meaning it wasn’t that long ago. She was cast as Grace, the assistant to Oliver Warbucks, played by Victor Garber. After they finished filming, they were then told they had to come back and re-shoot the final scene. Why? Because Oliver Warbucks proposes to Grace (by showing her a ring) and the powers-that-be (she wasn’t sure exactly who) were nervous that a white man proposing to a black woman wouldn’t do well in certain markets. Again, this was 1999.
They wanted to have an alternative ending that did not include Daddy Warbucks proposing to Grace. Audra said that the entire cast, crew etc. were called back. She added that not only did everyone have to come back to work, which was a huge expense, but they were called in on a Saturday. Meaning, the budget was paying everyone extra money for coming in on a weekend. And it was simply because Audra was Black. She was devastated and angry. But she didn’t have any power to say anything.
Here’s the good part: Director Rob Marshall shot just one perfunctory take of the new ending. As Rudetsky writes: “When the film finally came out, as Audra suspected, the ‘new’ ending was not used and they had to keep the ending where Victor proposed to her.”
As Audra told the story, I could sense her frustration — and even a flash of anger. I could see the steel there.
During the show, Rudetsky remarked that many people think she had it easy all these years as a Black performer.
“And I didn’t,” she replied. “I have had an amazing trajectory that has blown my mind. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard work or that there were battles along the way.”
She told other stories, too, ones filled with humility. (How about when she forgot the lyrics at a Sondheim tribute concert?) She recalled her time at Juilliard, which was tough for her — “I didn’t want to sing opera; I was singing music I didn’t want to sing” — and not getting picked for a master class with Barbara Cook. She volunteered to be an usher so she could attend, and she remembers sitting there, sobbing, at the missed opportunity.
(Later, of course, Cook became a mentor and friend, and Audra would go on to tell the usher story at Cook’s memorial tribute concert at Lincoln Center.)
In other words, the evening was a typical Audra concert: gorgeous songs interspersed with funny and touching insights, performed by a woman who can somehow be simultaneously Olympic-god like in her musicality and yet be completely accessible as a person.
So what if this time she didn’t have a professional lighting designer?
In other words: Audra conquered Zoom.