Just three years later, she was appearing on Broadway in “The Secret Garden”; in 1994, she won her first Tony for “Carousel.” Today her name is a household word. Emmys, Grammys, operas, TV shows, blockbuster Hollywood films, solo albums and concert recitals—she’s covered all of that. She currently stars as Liz Lawrence in CBS’s “The Good Fight,” now in its fourth season, and will be playing Aretha Franklin’s mother in the upcoming biopic, “Respect.” In Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” she was Madame Garderobe, an opera diva transformed into a wardrobe.
In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts—the US’s highest honor for artists—and she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Catching up with her again in January was a thrill and felt briefly like closing a loop. Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck and completely shut down the theater district in New York. In response to the crisis, artists including Ms. McDonald refuse to be silenced and have been performing online from their homes—intimate glimpses of talent shared in an effort to do what the arts has always done: connect people and allow them a vehicle to share their strongest emotions. The performances also raise money for the Broadway community through The Actors Fund, which has set up a website to stream live webcasts twice a day.
The virus also hits each of us, including Broadway stars, in personal ways. The death of playwright Terrence McNally last week from the virus was a terrible and disturbing blow to the theater world. His many plays and musicals set the tone for stage culture, capturing the sentiment of the age.
Audra McDonald was often featured in those productions. In Mr. McNally’s 1995 “Master Class,” she appeared as a student of opera star Maria Callas played by the late Zoe Caldwell. The role won her a Tony and catapulted her to fame. She and Mr. McNally became close friends and she has since starred in other stagings of his work, including “Ragtime,” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”
“My dear sweet brilliant kind Terrence,” she said on Twitter. “The world is not nearly as sweet of a place without you in it. My heart is breaking yet again.”
In the interview below, only weeks before these events unfolded, it was clear that she remains a compassionate and strong woman, unmoved by celebrity, her emotions available for anyone to see. She dismisses the spectacular scope of her career as a function of her “hyperactivity.” In conversation, information flows from her in fire-hose recountings, over rocky struggles to find the right word and through sudden surges of emotion. (Listen to excerpts from the conversation in the first episode of the Review's podcast The Talk at Brunswick.)
Offstage, she serves on the board of Covenant House, a global shelter for homeless and abused young people. She won recognition from the Human Rights Campaign, the US’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, for her public engagement on equality and anti-bullying. She has a 3-year-old, a college-aged daughter and two stepsons.