What do you get when you put together Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Taye Diggs and dozens of other great Broadway stars on one stage? The answer: A Musical Celebration of Broadway Honoring Audra McDonald, a beautifully conceived tribute to the Tony Award-winning superstar that was the centerpiece of the Drama League's 2013 Benefit Gala at the Pierre Hotel. As Tony winner Zoe Caldwell, one of the evening's speakers, rightly declared: "What a marvelous, thrilling night of talent."
The show's director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, started the evening with a bang as nine-year-old Grace Capeless (A Christmas Story, The Musical) wowed the house by impersonating a 10-year-old McDonald, belting out the 1970s pop hit "Brand New Key" and the classic "Birth of the Blues" with alarming aplomb.
Co-hosts Taye Diggs and Phylicia Rashad then made brief introductory remarks, with Rashad calling McDonald a "genius," while Diggs – who later co-starred with McDonald on ABC's Private Practice – earned laughs by recounting his first meeting with the actress during rehearsals of Lincoln Center's award-winning production of Carousel. "I wasn't impressed… until she started singing," he recalled.
Just minutes later, the audience was in stitches again as five of McDonald's former leading men – Bobby Steggert, Anthony Crivello, Eddie Korbich, Phillip Boykin, and Norm Lewis – paid tribute to McDonald's five Tony-winning roles by putting their own marks on her most famous roles, ranging from Boykin's brilliant take on Lady Macbeth's aria (sung by McDonald in Master Class) to Lewis switching seamlessly into falsetto during "I Loves You Porgy/Bess, You Is My Woman Now" (from The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess). Midway through Lewis' rendition, he was interrupted by none other than McDonald's husband, Broadway star Will Swenson, who rose from the couple's table to perform his own version of, "I Loves You, Audra." As Swenson told me earlier in the evening, he had kept his participation in the show a secret from McDonald, telling her he had to leave their home that day for a "lousy audition" while he was actually at a rehearsal. "It's a good thing she didn't ask me too many questions, because I'm a terrible liar and one should never lie to Audra, because she can always tell," said Swenson.
The remainder of the show featured musical highlight after musical highlight, including old pal Seth Rudetsky's hilarious deconstruction of three McDonald performances, former Annie co-star Victor Garber's touching rendition of that show's "Something Was Missing," Michael Arden's breathtaking rendition of Steve Marzullo's "Some Days," and Mary Testa's sizzling "I Can Cook Too."
A major hit of the evening was a delicious piece of special material sung by Tony Sheldon about how his partner, Tony Taylor, became obsessed with McDonald when they met during the pre-Broadway run of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (in which Sheldon co-starred with Swenson). And now that Taylor is back in the couple's native Australia, all he does is ask about Audra. "She is an instrument of evil and destruction," quipped Sheldon.
Later on, McDonald's longtime friend and frequent co-star Patti LuPone flubbed some lyrics during Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" – "I am really messing this up," laughed LuPone midway through the number – but one felt the love between these two legends all the way in the back of the ballroom. And history was made when two of McDonald's most adored co-stars, Lewis and Brian Stokes Mitchell, sang on stage together for the first time, duetting on a medley of "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime and "I'm On My Way" from Porgy and Bess.
There were also a few touching speeches: director Lonny Price praised McDonald's skill as an actress, mother, and best friend; actress Judith Light and New York State Senator Tom Duane spoke about McDonald's tireless efforts in favor of marriage equality; and Tyne Daly lamented that she was "the only person up here who has never worked with Audra," later quipping that "If you had been born 30 years earlier we could have done Cagney & Lacey together."
After final remarks by Caldwell – a moving and often hysterical recollection of how the two stars met and bonded during the original production of Master Class (McDonald later named her daughter after Caldwell) – McDonald finally made her way to the stage. Looking gorgeous in a sleek Tadashi dress and James Martin jewelry, she seemed slightly overcome by all the attention. After thanking the Drama League, all the participants, and the audience for taking part, McDonald offered us the greatest thanks of all: a stunning a cappella rendition of the simple Larry Markes and Dick Charles ballad "May You Always." "It's all I could think of to sing because it's truly a song of gratitude," said McDonald.