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Between Two Coasts with Audra McDonald

The five-time Tony winner on her new hosting gig, Carousel, and being on both sides of the country in one day. logo

Audra McDonald
(© Tristan Fuge)
Broadway's Audra McDonald flew eight hours for a performance before an audience of television critics, of all things. Accompanied only by her piano player, McDonald, 42, announced to her Pasadena hosts that she had left the East Coast at 8 a.m. and was to return that evening. Six songs and some banter later, the five-time Tony-Award winner was gone.

McDonald (Porgy and Bess, Ragtime) appeared courtesy of PBS, for whom she will host the Emmy Award winning Live from Lincoln Center series of musical performances running from February to May. Upcoming episodes will feature the music of Kander and Ebb, Broadway vocalist Kristin Chenoweth, Grammy Award winner Josh Groban, and more. (Fittingly, the last show of the series will spotlight its own host.)

After her live performances of "Stars and Moon" and "Can't Stop Talking About Him," but before the return car to the airport arrived, TheaterMania stole a few moments with McDonald to talk about Smash, her new hostess role, and the best year of her life (so far).

What is your process for picking songs for your shows?

It's a gut reaction I have to material immediately. Yesterday I was working with my music director and he played three seconds of a song I never heard before--I wanted it. That's not passing judgment on songs I do not sing. I feel a connection to many songs that I won't sing because I don't think they are right for me! There is something in my gut that immediately responds. There's no science to it.

We've just started a New Year. What year, in your opinion, was your best year so far?

I can think of two, specifically--2001, when my daughter was born, and this past year, when I got to do Porgy and Bess and then joined Live at Lincoln Center, which was a huge deal for me. And I got remarried [to fellow Broadway headliner Will Swenson], so the past year has been my biggest!

What do you think of the TV series Smash?

I think it's great. Between Glee, Smash and now what is happening with Les Miz, it's wonderful that musicals, and that theatrical idiom, is making its way back into a more popular medium, and reaching people.

For a while I felt like all people talked about was, 'Is musical theater dying? Nobody's interested anymore, we've got American Idol now!' But it seems to be making a comeback. I'm all for any show that celebrates that. You have something like Smash or Glee that young kids can explore, and then Live at Lincoln Center. They can turn on their television without having to pay for anything and see incredible musicians, singers and dancers, and experience excitement of it happening live.

Do you do TV to support your passion, which is live performance?

I choose things that challenge me. I was afraid of the camera--that's why I chose to do Private Practice. It's not like I left the theater. I literally was shooting Private Practice while finishing up 110 In the Shade. I'd go from the theater straight to the airport. I wanted to experience a new medium. After four years in front of the camera, you get it!

Did you develop a new audience as a result of working on Private Practice?

Yes. I'd go to the airport and people would say, "Naomi, Naomi!" That is something I never experienced on Broadway.

You have talked about watching [opera diva] Beverly Sills on Lincoln Center What do you remember seeing her in?

My mom had a cassette tape of Beverly Sills and used to sing [along] to it every morning. She would play it in her Mazda-RX7 as she took us to school. I didn't really love opera, but with Sills I felt connected, because I felt connected to her. She was such a consummate performer, such an accessible performer. She was a true American opera star. Even though we don't look anything alike or sing alike, I felt connected to her.

How many stages have you performed on in Lincoln Center?

I've performed on every single stage. And I've lived at Lincoln Center. I lived in the Julliard dorms as well, so it literally is my home.

What came first: classical music, musical theater, or acting?

I came from a really musical family. I studied classical piano because my grandparents were piano teachers, but started doing musical theater at age nine in Fresno, California, and went to a performing arts high school. That was my life. I auditioned for Julliard because I wanted to live in New York, and I wanted to be on Broadway at the time. Julliard seemed like right way to get there.

What is the secret of your success?

I auditioned a lot, and it happened really quick. I auditioned for summer stock. Then I auditioned for The Secret Garden on Broadway and got cast in the national tour instead. While I was on the road I got an agent, and the agent said, "They're doing a production of Carousel, colorblind casting, at Lincoln Center. Why don't you go in for it?" Carousel did it. It happened quickly, but there are a lot of other things that happened in the process.

Did you think you'd be hosting at Lincoln Center twenty years later?

That's a kind of crazy thing—hosting. It's going to be hard to stand around when I'm hosting that particular [Carousel in staged concert with the New York Philharmonic] episode not to burst out into song!

How are you keeping up the energy for your Lincoln Center shows?

You do it because you love it. We've done three shows since New Year's Eve. They're marathons, but its stuff we believe in, in terms of the Lincoln Center's mission to bring this to the public. You just do it until you drop because it's what you love.