The Broadway revival of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess closed in September 2012, but its star, Audra McDonald, says she's just now recovering from the role — both emotionally and physically.
"The character Bess has quite a physical role. She's thrown around a lot, and you spend a lot of time on the floor and getting up off the floor and being beaten, all that stuff. There's that, and our stage was a raked stage ... so you're standing at almost a 45-degree angle the entire time," she says. "Those two things combined can be a big stress on your joints and your legs. So I'm getting all that back together, and the ol' gray mare ain't what she used to be."
Even with her powerful, Juilliard-trained operatic voice, McDonald says the role that earned her a fifth Tony Award was a challenge. The role of Bess, which is known for classics "Summertime" and "I Loves You, Porgy," is a notorious voice-killer with stratospherically high notes and big emo- tional moments.
"[The show] ended, and then a week later I got married, so I was kind of planning a wedding at the same time I was closing a show. After the wedding, then I fell down for a good long time," she says. "Porgy and Bess was a very draining show ... I wouldn't have traded it for the world and it was an incredible experience, but living Bess' life for over 250 performances was a strain — an incredible one."
McDonald will sing and be interviewed onstage Saturday as part of the Broadway at NOCCA series. She's been to New Orleans before, once to research her role in Marie Christine, Michael John LaChiusa's musical retelling of Madea set in the city, and another time on vacation, when she and her now-husband "ate way too much food and had way too much fun."
McDonald has had Tony-winning turns in plays and musicals, having won three Tony Awards by age 28 for roles in Carousel, Master Class and Ragtime. She later won a Tony for A Raisin in the Sun (the Broadway production that starred Sean "P. Diddy" Combs) and then for Porgy and Bess.
"Every [Tony] has been a shock, no matter what people say — 'We predicted it,' 'We knew,' or 'Of course you won,'" McDonald says. "You never know; anything can happen. So every single one of them has been a shock, an honor, exciting and a joy, overwhelming — all of it."
Although she always wanted to perform musical theater, McDonald studied classical voice at the Juilliard School. The training is apparent in McDonald's voice, a disciplined soprano, and it is perfect for Porgy and Bess, a show that combines the worlds of musical theater and opera.
"I went to a performing arts high school, and what I wanted to do was musical theater. I wanted to be on Broadway. I worked at a dinner theater and I did a lot of musicals there," she says. "For me the sidetrack came with going to Juilliard and studying classically. That seemed, at the time, to me like I had gotten off my road. It turns out I was actually where I needed to be, but at the time I was very confused."
Offstage, McDonald starred in the ABC series Private Practice, the spinoff from Grey's Anatomy. She says working in television can be more difficult than doing a Broadway show.
"You're getting new material sometimes while you're filming. It's changing that quickly. Also there's no continuity with television ... You've got to have your emotions, your arc, your beats plotted out way ahead of time because you never know where in the story you're going to drop in and be like, 'All right, the point where you find out they've died? We're doing that right now. And the point where you meet them? We're doing that tomorrow.' It's about being ready at a moment's notice, whereas with theater you get preparation to get into your character, and as soon as it starts it's a moving train — you can't stop it. In that sense theater can be easier."
Shortly after her New Orleans appearance, McDonald will release her solo album Go Back Home, a compilation of songs from both well-known and emerging musical theater composers. It's her first album in seven years.
"I knew I was really behind in getting [an album] out, but the main reason I was behind was because a lot of stuff happened — my dad passed away, Private Practice happened, I got a divorce, a lot of stuff was going down," she says. "I didn't quite have anything to say, as far as an album was concerned. It wasn't coming to me, what the album needed to be. And then slowly it did."
"These songs are very personal to me. It's probably my most personal album in that all of [the songs] deal with certain themes I've dealt with in my personal life for the past seven years," she says. "If they were all put together they'd be the musical of my life for the last seven years."