Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald | Credit: Allison Michael Orenstein

If you look at Audra McDonald’s trajectory, it seems obvious that she was destined for greatness, but that doesn’t mean the path proved easy. Still, the singer and actress made Tony Award history as the first performer to sweep the awards in all four categories, and she was previously the youngest actor to win three Tony Awards. She is the first male or female performer to win a total of six competitive Tonys. She won two Grammy Awards, too, both in 2008 for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in the categories of “Best Opera Recording” and “Best Classical Album.” In 2015, she received the National Medal of Arts. As McDonald said in an interview with The Munro Review “I was taught you have to work really hard, but not to put any boundaries on yourself.”

She was born into a musical family, and her aunts toured as the McDonald Sisters gospel group in the 1970s. She acknowledged lessons learned during her childhood in Fresno, California, when she thanked the city’s Good Company Players “for raising me and telling me that I could be a performer.” Even then, people knew that McDonald would become a star. In an open letter to McDonald in The Munro Review, former Good Company Players staffer Armen Bacon wrote, “you were the one with a big, nuclear voice ... everyone knew you possessed the ‘X’ factor. Night after night, they echoed a ‘for-certain premonition,’ divine knowledge about your future.” In 2018, Fresno gave her a key to the city and named a street after her. She left home to attend Juilliard to study voice and entered what would be a dark period that later gave way to light — the year after she graduated Juilliard, she won her first Tony Award at the age of 24.

In a New Yorker profile, McDonald said, “I’ve always had this sort of overdrive — I’m doing theater. This is what I want to do — I want to perform.’ As long as I’m pursuing that in some way, then I feel OK”

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald | Credit: Allison Michael Orenstein

The classically trained lyric soprano’s first solo album was released in 1998, and her opera debut was in Houston Grand Opera’s 2006 one-act production of La Voix Humaine. She went on to perform on TV in dozens of shows such as Private Practice and The Good Fight, television films including Annie, Wit, and A Raisin in the Sun, later reprising her role as Ruth Younger in the film version with a performance that earned her an Emmy nomination in 2008. McDonald has also appeared in numerous feature films over the years.

In 2020, she was set to play Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, but then the pandemic struck. At the end of March 2020, she and husband Will Swenson contributed their duet of “Smile” in a one-night-only benefit for the Actors Fund to support entertainment industry members in need during the pandemic. In April 2020, she joined Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski for a virtual celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday in a performance called “The Ladies who Lunch,” which was part of a larger celebration that also raised money for ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty).

Later in June 2020, along with fellow performers Billy Porter, Phylicia Rashad, and Wendell Pierce, McDonald co-founded Black Theater United, an organization with a mission to inspire reform and to combat systemic racism within the theater community and nationally. The organization is centered on the four pillars of awareness, accountability, advocacy, and action.

Choosing an Audra McDonald sampler is no easy matter. With six solo albums, a dozen or more cast recordings, and appearances on a score of other albums, it’s hard to know where to start, but here are some of our favorite McDonald performances available online.

“(When I Marry) Mister Snow” as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel at the Lincoln Center Theater (1994)

During McDonald’s audition for the role of Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, she fainted on-stage while singing, according to IMDB, but later clinched the role. The New York Times reported that “[w]hen the casting director heard her sing, he ran downstairs to get the theater’s resident composer, Michael John LaChiusa. Ms. McDonald sang again and the composer said that one day he would write a show for her.” (La Chiusa would go on to write the title role of Marie Christine for McDonald, one she performed on Broadway in late 1999 ino early 2000). She won her first Tony Award for her portrayal of Pipperidge in 1994 in Carousel” in the category of “Featured Actress in a Musical.” Choosing her for Carousel was described as colorblind casting, as the role up until then had primarily featured white performers — in her 1994 Tony Award acceptance speech, she thanked director, Nicholas Hytner “for trusting her” and for “nontraditional casting.” “(When I Marry) Mister Snow” gives a glimpse into the singer at the start of her career.

A Scene from Master Class with Audra McDonald and Zoe Caldwell

The Tony-Award winning play by Terrence McNally was inspired by a series of master classes Maria Callas gave at Juilliard. McDonald demonstrated her acting chops in the role of Sharon, and performed in Master Class from 1995 to 1997, alongside Zoe Caldwell (the namesake of McDonald’s oldest daughter) who played Callas. McDonald earned a Tony Award in the category of “Featured Actress in a Play” for her work. In this scene, Caldwell and McDonald engage in wicked repartee as they discuss the role of Lady Macbeth.

“Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime, with Brian Stokes Mitchell at the Kennedy Center Jessye Norman Tribute (1997)

McDonald starred as Sarah in the original cast of Ragtime from 1998 to 2000. With music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally, the musical is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, which depicts the hopes and dreams of several American families in turn-of-the-century America. McDonald inhabited the role of Sarah in this rousing duet, so full of hope that it makes the listener believe in a better day. She later went on to win a Tony Award for “Best Actress” for her portrayal of Sarah.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Duke Ellington, Carnegie Hall’s 120th Anniversary in 2011

McDonald joined an all-star line-up to celebrate Carnegie Hall’s 120th anniversary in 2011. With conductor Alan Gilbert at the helm, McDonald’s performance marries musicality and drama.  

“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, performed on The Rosie Show

As Bess in the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in 2012, she garnered a Tony Award for “Best Leading Actress.” Her portrayal of the role on the musical album of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess earned her an Emmy nomination for “Best Musical Theater Album,” even as this re-imagining of the opera for the musical theater stage sparked ire from Sondheim and traditionalists.

“God Bless the Child” from Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill on “The View 22 (May 2014)  

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill chronicles the last few months before Billie Holiday’s premature demise. If you closed your eyes and could only listen in, the particular tonality of Holiday’s voice is resonant in McDonald’s depiction: She steps into the part completely. When she won the Tony Award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play” for her performance, she broke the record for a performer winning the most Tonys. In her acceptance speech, she gave tribute to the women’s shoulders she was standing on — Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, and Billie Holliday, of whom she said, “You deserved so much more than you were given on this planet. This is for you, Billie.”

McDonald as the host of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Live from Lincoln Center), PBS (2014)

In an ensemble cast, McDonald stands out. Listen in to her contribution to the quartet piece of “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Live from Lincoln Center) on PBS, where she plays the beggar woman. With music by the New York Philharmonic, McDonald won an Emmy for Outstanding Special Class Program in 2015 for her role as the host.

“Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music, at the Kennedy Center (February 2019)

Breathing fresh life into a beloved song, McDonald’s voice soars in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” as she urges listeners to “follow every rainbow til you find your dream.”