Soprano Audra McDonald is literally a performer without equal. She has earned a record six Tony Awards — in all four acting categories — for her roles in the musicals “Ragtime,” “Carousel,” and “Porgy and Bess” and the plays “Master Class,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and “Raisin in the Sun.” She also has two Grammys, an Emmy and the prestigious National Medal of Arts, conferred by President Barack Obama in 2016. The award recognizes McDonald “for lighting up Broadway as one of its brightest stars.... In musicals, concerts, operas, and the recording studio, her rich, soulful voice continues to take her audiences to new heights.”
So it’s no wonder that Uihlein Hall was filled with adoring fans on Wednesday evening, when McDonald appeared with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as part of their pops concert programming. Traveling with her own music director and conductor Andy Einhorn, as well as a bassist, percussionist and pianist, McDonald and the small combo took center stage, while the MSO musicians filled in around her. What followed was an evening of extraordinary music from the Great American Broadway Songbook, brought to life by a woman who not only has an exquisite, classically trained voice of enormous range and color, she also has a deep emotional understanding of each set of lyrics, transforming songs into heartfelt messages that resonated clearly throughout the hall.
Of course the exciting part about seeing a famous performer live is getting to know her — just for a little while — as herself, rather than as an actor assuming a role. And McDonald’s exuberant personality bubbled over between songs as she interacted with the audience. Funny and authentic, strong and opinionated, her stories acknowledged her undeniable talent and her amazing career, but also revealed pedestrian foibles, embarrassing moments, and firmly held beliefs. It’s hard not to be awed by reminiscences of winning a jazz competition at 13, moving to New York City at 17, and making friends with Broadway luminaries like Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Cook. But it’s heartening to hear that she also struggles with parenting (she has three teenagers and a very precocious toddler at home), has had her heart broken, and has lived through embarrassing moments, like forgetting the words to a song, while performing at a gala in front of the composer.
Through her program and her conversation, other priorities became clear. McDonald’s first song of the night was “I Am What I Am,” from “La Cage Aux Folles,” which she commented was only appropriate for Pride month, recognizing and celebrating the LGBTQ community. In a genius pairing, she later sang a mash up of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific,” and “Children Will Listen,” from “Into the Woods,” both dealing with racism and our responsibility to the next generation to work for equality.
She spoke lovingly of her mentors and the women who had blazed the trail for black performers, such as Lena Horne and Billy Holiday. In the same breath, she talked of the importance of nurturing young talent, highlighting the work of relatively unknown composers, such as Adam Gwon, Jeff Blumenkranz, and Kate Miller Heidke. She even gave a shout-out to the television networks that recently began producing live musicals, to introduce a new generation to classic works. (She was lauded for her performance as the Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music” on NBC, a part McDonald admitted she never dreamed she’d be able to play, since that show is rarely performed with colorblind casting.)
The only disappointment that fans may have harbored after the concert, was the McDonald did not perform many songs from the shows she’s most well known for. Of course her rendition of “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” was transcendent – a study in control and purity of sound, but there were no songs from my favorite, “Ragtime,” on the program. And while, yes, she does have an album to hawk — a live recording with the New York Philharmonic captured at the beginning of this tour — I appreciated that she chose to perform many songs that were obscure, or had fallen out of favor. The quirky “Vanilla Ice Cream,” from “She Loves Me,” showed off McDonald’s comic side. And her selections of “Chain of Love,” from the Broadway flop “The Grass Harp,” and “Simple Little Things,” from “110 in the Shade,” showed her musicianship, as one who could see gems hiding in less commercial works. I cringed when she announced she’d be singing a song from the wildly politically incorrect “Annie Get Your Gun,” but once again, she chose a beautiful, lesser known piece — “Moonshine Lullaby” — a forgotten jewel from a score filled with outdated stereotypes.
Although we all enjoyed McDonald’s euphoric rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from “My Fair Lady” — and were even invited to sing along -- three highlights of the evening came from pieces I was completely unfamiliar with, that swept me away. “I’ll Be Here,” from “Ordinary Days,” is the wrenching story of a woman recovering from the loss of her husband after 9/11. The lullaby “I Won’t Mind,” from the unfinished musical “The Other Franklin,” had audience members grabbing for tissues, as they listened to the story of an aunt who wished she was more involved in her beautiful niece’s life. And the completely surprising, delightful, irreverent “Facebook Song,” elicited loads of laughter. The song harnessed one woman’s indignation when, after a painful split, her ex asked her to friend him on social media. If you’ve ever wondered if four-letter words could be sung in a graceful, operatic way, the answer is emphatically yes.
A few of the numbers were supported only by McDonald’s trio, giving the music a more intimate feel, but most were beautifully buoyed by the impressive MSO, providing a breadth and depth of sound that smaller Broadway pit orchestras can’t achieve.
Concluding the concert, she offered a contemplative, almost melancholy version of “Make Someone Happy,” that McDonald referred to as her personal mantra during the “dark, scary times” we’re muddling through now. Her one encore was another nod to gay pride and the “love is love is love is love is love,” sentiment articulated by Lin Manuel Miranda — “Somewhaudere Over the Rainbow,” from “The Wizard of Oz.”