Feature Q & A – Audra McDonald Hopes to Inspire

Audra McDonald. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Audra McDonald. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will host its 4th Annual Symphony Gala on Saturday, March 8, 2014 at the Woodruff Arts Center. Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of ASO’s Talent Development Program, this black-tie evening will include a must-see performance by Audra McDonald with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. All proceeds will benefit the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its Education and Community Programs. In this Feature Q & A, Audra McDonald discusses the gala, the concert, her music and more.

You’re headlining the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 Symphony Gala. What will you be performing?

The program is quite eclectic; some of the songs are from my new album, Go Back Home, but all are pieces I love to sing. My programs are a mixture of songs from the American musical theater songbook from about 1929 all the way up to 2011. I love introducing new material to my audiences, and there will definitely be something for everyone.

The ASO’s Symphony Gala benefits their education and community engagement programs, which include the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Talent Development Program. Why do you think supporting and advocating music education in the community is so important?

One of my main goals as a performer is to inspire young people to get involved in the performing arts. Music teaches children discipline and also the art of collaboration. These are tools that can be used in all different aspects of one’s life no matter what profession they end up choosing. For me personally, I learned to channel my energy into musical theater and consequently learned how to focus not only on the present but also the future. The performing arts also teaches tolerance, as we all have different views on what sounds or looks beautiful. Through arts education, we learn to appreciate our differences.

What are you looking forward to most about your visit to Atlanta?

Because of my tour schedule, I am usually in a city for a very short period of time.  While I wish I could go out and explore, I am usually sitting in my hotel room resting and preparing for my concert. I am excited to perform at the Atlanta Symphony Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It is a treat getting to perform with an orchestra as good as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Congratulations on recently being named Musical America’s 2013 Musician of the Year! How does it feel to receive this honor?

It was such an incredible honor to receive Musical America’s Musician of the Year Award. I remember flipping through the pages of Musical America when I was a student at Juilliard and would often turn to the directory for industry updates and information. Many of my musical idols have received this award, such as Leonard Bernstein, Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price, and Wynton Marsalis, and I am honored to be in their company.

When did you begin your career in the arts and what inspired you to pursue this career?

Singing and acting were my passions as a kid, and I was itching to get on stage from an early age. I was lucky to have parents who were supportive. Good Company director Dan Pessano and my mother both had a great impact on my career. Initially my parents introduced me to theater as an outlet for my energy, and I knew I wanted to be involved when I had my first chance to perform with the Good Company Players’ Junior Company. They taught me that hard work and discipline are so important, but just as important is to stay true to and celebrate who you are. It sounds cliché, but it’s true.

You were recently involved in the NBC production of the Sound of Music. Can you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like?

It was a huge challenge and it was a really ambitious project, but it was a wonderful and wild experience. It was a very diverse cast, and I had a lot of fun. It was a thrill getting to work with Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Laura Benanti and Christian Borle. While we performed on a soundstage and it was broadcast live, we approached it as if it were a staged night in the theater like a Broadway show, so I wasn’t nervous.

Your most recent album, Go Back Home, is the first album you have released in seven years.  What inspired this album?

This album is incredibly personal. If someone were to write a Broadway show about my life, this album would be it. I had tried a couple of times over the past seven years to get an album out, and it just wasn’t coming. And I thought, well, I’m not going to do an album until I have something to say. And when I look back on that now, I realize it’s because life was happening, and I was living life. And sometimes some people say as a performer, you go out and you give everything you have on stage or whatnot. And then you have to go and fill up again. For good and for bad, I think life filled me up again and it finally came together for me last winter when I was back in New York with my family and performing on Broadway.

How long did it take to complete the album?

It really took me seven years to figure out what I wanted to say. Once it hit me, it only took a few months to record, edit, and release it.

You worked with several different artists/songwriters while creating this album. What inspired these collaborations, and why were they important to you?

In choosing material for an album I don’t look at who has written it or where it has come from. Instead I ask does the song move me, can I connect to it and can I sing it. Most of the songs on Go Back Home are songs that I’ve been looking at and singing for a while and which have come together in a very organic way. It’s from the last seven years — themes that have been popping up in my life. Go Back Home is not only one of the song titles, it also has a lot to do with my coming back to the theatre, coming back home. When I heard “Go Back Home” I just thought this song speaks so much to what I’ve been through – my hopes and the things I was thinking about when I was laying in bed in California while shooting Private Practice and wishing I was back home in New York. “Go Back Home” not only means literally going back home to New York, but also going back home to the world of music and theater, and back home in terms of making albums again.

You have been consistently involved with several same sex marriage organizations. Can you tell us a little about your involvement?

Marriage equality is a cause I hold close to my heart. It’s the modern day version of civil rights. I am a beneficiary of the Civil Rights movement, and I want to do my part.

After playing Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC’s Private Practice for four seasons, was it difficult to transition back to Broadway for your role in Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess?

It was actually a fairly easy transition for me. My career started on a live stage, and so it felt nice to be back home in a theater on Broadway. I loved Private Practice, but needed to be home in New York with my family.

From stage to TV and beyond, you’ve been involved in so many different genres of performance. What’s your favorite, and why?

I really like the variety, which is why I don’t limit myself to one particular genre. All of us have multiple interests; it’s what brings us fulfillment on a human level. One nourishes and feeds into the other, when you’re singing, you’re also making acting choices, and when you’re filming a scene for television, for example, you find an almost musical rhythm to your interactions with the other actors. Singing makes me a better actor, and vice versa.

What kinds of projects do you have coming up? 

I am looking to head to Broadway again soon, but can’t really say anything right now. There is a project in the works, but my main focus right now is spending time with my husband and family.


Additional details about the Symphony Gala and the ticket packages — starting at $1,000 — are available at www.aso.org/gala.