Broadway star Audra McDonald is regularly titled a legend, and it’s a title she fully deserves.
With a record number of Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards perfectly placed at home, she’s a fierce figurehead for many on the Great White Way — including the LGBT+ community.
A voice of healing for many following the horrific attack at Pulse Orlando, the LGBT+ champion helped fight for marriage equality in America, alongside supporting Hillary Clinton in the recent election.
“In a way that they’ve always been there for me, carried me and onward, how could I not turn around and do the same for them in any way I can?” Audra exclusively told GT about why she’s regularly on the frontline of pro-LGBT+ campaigning. “Especially when I see the community being disenfranchised and their rights or their voices not being heard.
“I’ve always been a part of the family and that community – you come after them, you’re coming after me!”
About to star in Disney’s new imagining of Beauty and the Beast, alongside bringing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill to London, Audra will return to the West End with a series of concerts this April.
In a UK exclusive interview, GT spoke to Audra about her return to the West End, receiving the National Medal of Arts by President Obama, and why the LGBT+ community is, and will always be, family.
Audra, you’re coming back to the West End…
I love London and as excited as I was to have a baby, I was devastated that I couldn’t come last time, but now I’m thrilled now that I get both! [Laughs]
Tell us a little about these upcoming concerts. What can we all expect?
They’re different as they’re hosted by Seth Rudetsky who I’m sure you all know. Seth and I have known each other for two decades. It’s as if we were on an appearance for The Tonight Show, but this show goes on a little bit longer and also will have interviews, talking, but also singing from me as well.
I perform a number, we talk for a little while and then more. It’s very loose, and I never know what Seth is going to ask me, nor never quite sure what he’s going to ask me to sing. He has a list of stuff and he decides what we do. I never know what I’m going to sing or where! [Laughs]
— Leicester Sq Theatre (@lsqtheatre) January 18, 2016
That must make it as exciting for us as it’s you, no?
And your husband Will Swenson will be joining you…
Will is going to be joining me for those concerts. We’re excited about that, and will be bringing our whole family. Might turn it into a mini vacation. [Laughs]
You’ll be like the Von Trapp family singers!
YES! [Laughs hysterically] It will just be us that will be on the stage, our other kids wouldn’t hear of it!
Is there a chance we’ll hear all our own favourite songs from you throughout your rather lengthy career?
You never know! It’s such a loose sort of environment, and the dangerous thing about working with Seth is — and this is an absolutely compliment — he can play anything! It’s never one of those things where you don’t have the music. Seth is always like, ‘I can play that!’ [Laughs] You just never know or can say that the dog ate my homework as Seth’s got the homework.
Imagine if you took suggestions from the audience…
Oh my good God, I’d never even thought about that. Oh, yeah! If people are brave enough to speak up then Seth will probably listen.
Your Twitter handle has the term equality listed in it, and you became a Broadway figurehead for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in America. What is it about the LGBT+ community that finds you fighting for others rights?
Some of the closet people in my life, that have carried me through the roughest times in my life, have been members of the LGBT+ community, starting from one of my closest friends that I met when I was 11-years-old. In a way that they’ve always been there for me, carried me and onward, how could I not turn around and do the same for them in any way I can? Especially when I see the community being disenfranchised and their rights or their voices not being heard.
For me, it’s about being there for a family I’ve always been part of, and even thought I’m not LGBTQ, I feel like I’ve always been apart of the family and that community. You come after them, you’re coming after me! I’ve always felt that way about it.
As many become concerned with possibility of having their rights removed under the newly elected administration, is this a time to use music for healing and solidarity?
Absolutely, as it’s necessary for now. There’s a feeling in music of being human in so many ways. This a time for a lot of people, when you’ve got an administration that seems to be punching down in so many ways, to use music as almost as self-care and protection. It’s necessary now, and that’s why communities are coming together.
When you’ve got six Tony’s, two Grammy’s and an Emmy at at home, which we’re sure you have in your loo…
[Screams of laughter]
Does that add add extra pressure for you to deliver in all that you do?
The expectation to deliver is there not only for the people but for myself. I hold myself to a certain standard and I want to do my best, always. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that no one is perfect and no one can deliver 100 percent, 100 perfect of the time. I’ve learnt to embrace imperfection a little more than perhaps I have in the past.
I tell you what, this past year with Shuffle Along, I didn’t get Tony nominated and people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happening to Audra McDonald?’ Everybody was asking if I was OK, and I was fine! It’s great because, in some ways, it’s a load off. It doesn’t always happen every time and nor should it. Do you know what? I’m fine. At the time, nobody knew that I was pregnant and I had other things to think about.
An unforgettable day. Thank you, @barackobama. ・・・ #repost @whitehouse "It’s what’s so great about this country—that there is no single, set way to contribute. All of us belong. All of us have a story to tell. Even when you think your story is too different, too strange, too unique—there’s someone out there who’s been waiting their whole life to hear that someone else has a story like theirs. What a great gift all of you have given us." —President Obama on the importance of the arts and humanities. Today, the President awarded the National Medals of the Arts and Humanities to 24 honorees including @AudraMcDonald, Mel Brooks, Philip Glass, Isabel Wilkerson, and Terry Gross.
Your work isn’t just celebrated on the stage. You were awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama. That must be a career highlight?
OH MY GOD, it was incredible! I was my husband and my step children and my daughter with me, and I was hugely pregnant. It was about trying not to give birth in The White House because I was close to my date.
In the actual ceremony, the military person reads the citation and the president stands with your medal and puts it around you. I’d known President Obama for a long time, but this was quite a formal thing, but they’d lost my citation so skipped over me. Obama realised and said, ‘What a minute? We’re missing someone!’ [Laughs] There was a scramble to find it and at the last minute they did.
What was hilarious to me was that I was trying to hard to keep it all together, and then that happen. When I went up there and when we were stood side-by-side, Obama looked at it and said, ‘You just had to have something happen, didn’t ya?” [Laughs] It ended up being a light and fun moment to what at first I was trying to be serious about. Everything messed it up and made it imperfect, as such making it perfect for me.
When you get awarded accolades by the president of your country, and have the collection of awards that you have, do your dreams change? What’s left on your bucket list?
For me, I don’t have specific goals. It’s about evolving as an artist. I want to evolve as an actress, as a singer. I want to continue to grow and try and age line a fine wine. I look at Meryl Streep, not that anybody can touch her, but I look at her career and how she continues to challenge herself and to find work that will stretch her and make her evolve. She’s already as perfect as perfect can be, but in her eyes there’s still work to be done.
I feel that same way in that I want to continue to grow. Whatever medium of art takes me in that direction, that’s what’s most important to me. Whether it be film, television, another role on stage or concert work, I’m open to it all as long as it involves evolution.
And finally, are you ready for the gay men of London to come screaming at your door?
Oh that’s.. [Fits of laugher] I would love that! I really hope so. I’ll come screaming at their doors.
Audra McDonald in Concert will run at Leicester Square Theatre on 12, 13, 14 and 15 April.
Tickets can be found here.