The Life and Times of Queen Audra McDonald

I know for a fact that I am not alone in saying that Audra McDonald is one of my absolute favourite musical theatre actresses and inspirations (in my eyes, it's Audra and Sutton Foster who never cease to amaze me) and I know that it is fact when I say that McDonald is one of the most successful and most prolific Broadway actresses of both this generation and in history in general.

If you didn't know this already, Mrs Audra McDonald is the only actor in history to win a Tony Award in every competitive acting category possible, as well as having the most competitive acting Tony's a single person has ever won. So, to celebrate the incredible news that Audra is going to make her West End debut by reprising her sixth Tony-winning performance in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill this June (more on that later!), I thought I'd take you all through the life and times of Momma Broadway herself...

McDonald was on July 3rd 1970 in West Berlin before moving to California where she was raised by her two parents along with her younger sister. She was famously diagnosed as being hyperactive (something she references in her sixth Tony acceptance speech) and because her parents disagreed with medicating her, they put her into acting classes. She later graduated from the Roosevelt School of the Arts program and The Julliard School. By the time she was 28 years old, Audra McDonald had already won herself three Tony Awards in the space of just five years - a feat only three other actors have ever achieved and none of them at such a young age. She was nominated for her performances in: Carousel at the Vivian Beaumont Theater as Carrie (Featured Actress in a Musical), Sharon in Master Class at the John Golden Theatre (Featured Actress in a Play) and Sarah in Ragtime at the Ford Center of the Performing Arts/Lyric Theatre (Featured Actress in a Musical). She was later given her fourth Tony nomination for her performance in Michael John LaChiusa's new musical Marie Christie for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, but she lost to Heather Headley for her performance in Aida. She won her fourth Tony four years later for playing Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (Featured Actress in a Play), which tied her with Angela Lansbury as being the actor with the most Tony Awards for performance. 

Audra McDonald also reprised her performance in A Raisin in the Sun for ABC in 2008 alongside Phylicia Rashad for which she was nominated for her second Emmy Award (her first Emmy nomination was for the HBO film Wit alongside Emma Thompson). A year before though, McDonald starred in a Roundabout Theatre Company revival of 110 in the Shade for which she wasn't given any Tony attention, but she instead won a Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Musical, which she shared with Donna Murphy. It was during previews of this show that she found out her father had died in an experimental plane crash in California. Fast forward to 2012 and McDonald was awarded her fifth Tony Award and her first in a leading actress category: Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance as Bess in the revival of The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess alongside Norm Lewis - funnily, Lansbury had won another Tony by this point so they were both still tying with the most competitive acting Tony's! Two years ago though, as I was watching live from my computer screen here in the UK, Audra McDonald was awarded her sixth and latest Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical as a nod to her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. This made McDonald the most Tony-awarded actor in history, as well as the only actor to every win a Tony in all four eligible performance categories. 

As well as all of this time McDonald spends on Broadway, she has also recorded five incredible solo albums starting in 1998 with 'Way Back to Paradise', an album that was filled with many different modern musical theatre pieces from composers like LaChiusa, Guettel and more. On screen, she's had several successful roles beside Wit with Emma Thompson including Daddy Warbucks' secretary in the Disney remake of Annie, Law & Order and four seasons of Private Practise as Naomi Bennett. She also starred  as Mother Abbess in the 2013 NBC live production of The Sound of Music, and she won an Emmy for hosting Live at Lincoln Center which she shared with the show's producers. With this Emmy win, McDonald now only needs an Academy Award to hold the prestigious EGOT prize (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony) - she won two Grammy awards for being lead vocalist on the cast album for Porgy & Bess, and for her vocals on the operatic album 'Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany'. She also has a daughter called Zoe who is named after her close friend, four-time Tony winner Zoe Caldwell, and is married to fellow Broadway actor Will Swenson - she currently lives in Croton-on-Hudson in New York.

So what's in the future for Audra McDonald? Firstly, she's taking on the role of Lottie Gee in a star-studded new Broadway musical about the creation of the revolutionary 1920s musical Shuffle Along called 'Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed' (try saying that three times fast!). Previews for the show start March 14th at the Music Box Theatre. McDonald will however take a leave of absence from the show through summer as she will bring her aforementioned Tony-winning performance as Billy Holiday in Lady Day to London. When I found out the news that she was bringing the show to London last Thursday night, I genuinely cried... it's a long story, but I'm delighted to say I'll be seeing not only the first performance in the show's run, but also the final Wednesday matinee (and who knows when else I might see the show inbetween!?). She's also playing Garderobe in the 2017 Disney live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast as well as starring in the HBO special of the Broadway production of Lady Day.

It's an exciting time to be an Audra McDonald fan and I'm sure it's even more exciting to be Momma Broadway herself. Let's hope that her West End debut this summer brings her a long-overdue Olivier Award - that'll be one to add to the collection!

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