Audra McDonald, born on July 3, 1970 in West Berlin, Germany, went on to establish a career as one of Broadway's preeminent stars, winning several Tonys for productions that include Carousel, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess. She has also maintained an illustrious recording career with several solo albums and starred in the TV series The Bedford Diaries and Private Practice. In 2014 she portrayed Billie Holiday in the play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, later receiving the sixth Tony of her career and thus setting a record. In 2016, McDonald returned to the Broadway stage in the revival of Shuffle Along.
Background and Early Career
Audra McDonald was born on July 3, 1970 in West Berlin, Germany, with the family stationed there as part of her dad’s military work. They eventually moved to back to the states, settling in Fresno, California.
McDonald came from a thoroughly musical clan, with both of her parents being musicians and her aunts forming a touring gospel group during the 1970s known as The McDonald Sisters. The young McDonald took to performing during her elementary school years, doing local theater work along with her sister Alison. Audra eventually attended a performing arts high school and went on to Juilliard in New York City, graduating in 1993.
Acclaimed Star of Stage
McDonald was highly ambivalent about her time at Juilliard due to being pushed in a classical direction when she felt more at home with contemporary works. Suffering from a deep depression as well, at one point she attempted suicide and had to be hospitalized. She eventually recovered and got her big break while in school when she joined the Broadway cast of The Secret Garden as part of the chorus, going on to tour with the production. She was later part of the original cast for 1994's revival of Carousel, playing Carrie Pipperidge. For this role McDonald won her first Tony Award in the category of featured actress in a musical.
McDonald’s stage career is a testament to her magnificent vocal abilities, nuanced interpretations of various musical styles and dedication to craft. She is the first actress to have won three Tonys before the age of 30, and has starred in a variety of projects that range from musicals to straightforward dramas to plays with songs. Some of the productions she has starred in are Master Class (1995), Ragtime (2000), Marie Christine (1999), Henry IV (2003), A Raisin in the Sun (2004), 110 in the Shade (2007) and Porgy and Bess (2012).
McDonald has also starred in operas and performed with some of the world’s most renowned orchestras. She launched a successful recording career as a solo artist with her debut release Way Back to Paradise in 1998, followed by several more albums: How Glory Goes (2000), Happy Songs (2002), Build a Bridge (2006) and Go Back Home (2013). She has been featured prominently on many of the official cast album recordings of her stage work as well.
Film and TV Work
McDonald made her film debut in the avant-garde drama Seven Servants in 1996. She then carved a successful path in TV, starring as one of the lead characters in Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First One Hundred Years (1999), and later in the Mike Nichols’ drama Wit (2001). She eventually reprised her earlier Broadway role as Ruth Younger in the 2008 ABC-TV version of A Raisin in the Sun, based on the Lorraine Hansberry play.
McDonald has also done series work, playing Prof. Carla Bonatelle in the short-lived The Bedford Diaries (2006), and then Dr. Naomi Bennett from 2007-11 on the Shonda Rhimes series Private Practice. McDonald later portrayed Mother Abbess in the 2013 live screening of The Sound of Music on NBC.
Array of Awards
As of 2014, the vocalist/actress has won two Grammys for Best Classical Recording and Best Opera Recording, both for the album Weill: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She has been nominated for three Emmys as well, though her stage work has garnered huge accolades.
McDonald has won a record-setting six Tonys, more than any other performer in history. She is also the award's first grand-slam artist, winning in all individual performance categories. She has won Tonys in featured actress categories for both musicals (Carousel, Ragtime) and plays (Master Class, A Raisin in the Sun) and as a lead actress in a musical (Porgy and Bess). She won her sixth Tony in June 2014 for her lead role in the song-driven play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, where she portrays jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. The project later aired on HBO.
In 2016, McDonald returned to the Broadway stage as the character Lottie Gee in the revival of Shuffle Along, a trailblazing work created by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and originally produced in the 1920s.
In September 2016, President Barack Obama presented McDonald with a National Medal of Arts. At the ceremony, President Obama said McDonald was being honored "for lighting up Broadway as one of its brightest stars. An unforgettable performer, she has won six Tony awards. In musicals, concerts, operas, and the recording studio, her rich, soulful voice continues to take her audiences to new heights."
McDonald was married to musician Peter Donovan from 2002 to 2009. They have a daughter, Zoe. After her divorce from Donovan, McDonald married fellow actor Will Swenson in 2012. They are expecting their first child together. McDonald has been actively involved in the LGBT marriage equity movement.
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