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9:45 am
Tue May 15, 2012

Audra McDonald: Shaping 'Bess' On Broadway

Originally published on Tue May 15, 2012 12:23 pm

Audra McDonald has starred in stage classics and on TV, where she played a leading role on the ABC drama Private Practice for four seasons. But the actress might be better known for her stunning voice and for her performances in the Broadway productions of Carousel, Master Class and Ragtime, which helped her rack up three Tony Awards before the age of 30. She won a fourth Tony for her performance in A Raisin in the Sun, putting her in the company of Broadway greats Gwen Verdon and Mary Martin.

Only two actresses (Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury) have more Tonys, and McDonald may soon join their ranks, having recently been nominated for her star turn in a new adaptation of the classic American folk opera Porgy and Bess.

McDonald, who plays Bess, says her own personal experiences with the Gershwin opera go back to her childhood. Her parents owned several recordings of Porgy and Bess, including one by the Houston Grand Opera and another featuring Leontyne Price. They also had a record of Sarah Vaughan singing Gershwin tunes.

"She sang 'My Man's Gone Now,' and I remember being struck because I knew Sarah Vaughan as this wonderful, incredible jazz artist, and I thought, 'How is she hitting those notes? I didn't know that she had that incredible range,' " McDonald tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"And that's the first time I heard that aria, and fell in love with it and her interpretation. And it was the first time I realized that someone could sing more than one style brilliantly."

McDonald took that knowledge with her to the Juilliard School, where she studied classical voice performance.

"I was missing Broadway and thinking that's what I wanted to do," she says, "but here I was studying classically. And I happened upon the Glyndebourne performance of Porgy and Bess, with Cynthia Haymon as Bess. And I listened to it incessantly. I memorized it from top to bottom and thought, 'If I have to sing opera, here's one I'd love to sing, and here's a role I'd love to play.' "

The role of Bess is a notoriously difficult one, says McDonald.

"There's very few quiet moments for Bess," she says. "They're all very big, very emotional and very rangy. And to commit to that night after night after night is very difficult."

Several of the numbers McDonald performs, including the classic "Summertime," have become iconic entries in the American songbook over the years. She says it was a hard number, at first, to sing.

"The last melody in the show, after an entire night of [Bess] singing and being raped and kicked and beaten and all of this stuff, is 'Summertime,' and it's a lullaby, and it's high, and it has to be high and pretty and sung to a baby," she says. "And it freaks me out that after all this, I have to sound high and pretty and fresh. And I'm always holding onto that baby, going, 'I know you're just a doll, but help me.' "

The song is a rare happy moment for Bess, where she's embracing motherhood and her own potential future.

" 'Summertime,' for me, is knowing that she's got to quiet this baby and have a bond with this baby, and making sure Porgy has a bond with this family and really trying to create this little family now," she says. "She's got a family for the first time in her life, and [she's] trying to create something safe and warm. And that's how I'm approaching the song when I sing it to the baby, and then it all goes to hell."


Interview Highlights

On stereotypes in Porgy and Bess

"[Author DuBose Heyward] really tried to get into their mindset, which was an incredible feat for that period, but it was still written at a time when blacks and whites were not commingling. So even though he researched as much as he possibly could, there were some aspects he couldn't possibly know. He didn't live it, and it wasn't a time when blacks and whites could commingle. But as African-Americans, we can bring something to it that is our own experience, which is a truer experience just by the fact that it can't possibly be anything but a truer experience because we actually are African-American. But people throughout the history of this piece have come down on both sides saying, 'This is stereotypical and this is archetypes.' "

On the Gullah accent

"We had a dialect coach, a very, very talented lady, come in and speak to us about this. And we decided that we would not use an authentic Gullah dialect because no one would understand. The authentic Gullah dialect is actually very clipped, and so it would sound almost Jamaican and be very odd to an American audience's ears. It's not the typical Southern dialect that we're used to. It has a much more percussive rhythm to it. So she said it was better to use a more authentic Southern dialect as opposed to this Gullah dialect."

On Stephen Sondheim's critical letter in The New York Times about the production before it began previews

"My agent called me and told me that this letter [appeared]. You know, you get certain calls and the phone rings in certain ways, and it just doesn't sound good. And that was one of those times. I was shocked. I knew how much Steve loves Porgy and Bess. He's never shied away from how passionate he is about this particular opera. And I think he is a genius; he is one of the great composers of American musical theater. And I respect his passion. But I know how I feel about this opera. I know how I've always felt about this opera. And I have never had anything but the greatest love and respect for this opera. So even if that's how it came across in the piece — or that's how it came across to Steve in the piece — there's not one iota of disdain for this opera in my heart. And that's apparent by my obsession with it over the years."

On performing at the first legal gay wedding in New York City

"I've been a real loud active voice in the movement to get marriage equality. And I had gone up the month before to Albany, when they were days away from that historic vote, to rally and to see who I could talk to, and just be another face out there saying let's do the right thing here. ... I had read a beautiful story in The New York Times about the couple who were getting married, and that Mayor Bloomberg was going to preside over their wedding at Gracie Mansion. And my friend called me and said, 'They'd love to have you come and sing.' And I was floored. I was so honored. And I cried like a baby at that ceremony. And I brought my daughter. And it was a very moving moment and a very teachable moment having my daughter there. And as far as she was concerned, it was just another wedding. She doesn't really see the issue, which is great. So that's how it came about. It was a beautiful day."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Audra McDonald, is nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Bess in "Porgy and Bess." This new Broadway production is up for 10 Tonys. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley said this about McDonald's performance: And when she sings, ah, it's a God-touched voice that turns suffering and ugliness into beauty.

"Porgy and Bess" is an opera by George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Hayward, who wrote the novel and the play that it's based on. Although it's an opera, "Porgy and Bess" was first brought to life on Broadway in 1935, and, although it's an opera, it's given us songs that have become standards, like "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "There's a Boat that's Leaving Soon for New York" and "I Love You, Porgy."

"Porgy and Bess" is set in a fictional, poor, African-American fishing community named Catfish Row on the South Carolina coast. Three characters disrupt the order of this hardworking community: Bess and her man, a stevedore named Crown; and Sportin' Life, a pimp and drug dealer.

When Crown kills a man in a fight and hides out from the law, Bess needs a man. So she takes up with Porgy, who's crippled, and thinks of himself as less than a man. It's an act of convenience for her, but she falls in love with him. Here's the song in which they declare their love for each other. It's from the soon-to-be-released Broadway cast recording, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."

Singing with Audra McDonald is Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PORGY AND BESS")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) Porgy, I's your woman now. I is, I is, and I ain't never goin' nowhere 'less you shares the fun. Dere's no wrinkle on my brow, nohow, 'cuz I ain't goin'. You hear me sayin', if you ain' goin', wid you I'm stayin'. Porgy, I's your woman now. I's yours forever, mornin' time and evenin' time, summer time and winter time.

NORM LEWIS: (As Porgy) (Singing) Mornin' time and evenin' time and summer time and winter time. Bess, you got yo' man. Bess, you is my woman now and forever. This life is just begun. Bess, we two is one now an' forever.

AUDRA MCDONALD AND NORM LEWIS: (As Bess and Porgy) (Singing) (unintelligible).

MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) Mornin' time and evenin' time, summer time and winter time.

LEWIS: (As Porgy) (Singing) Mornin' time and evenin' time, summer time and winter time.

GROSS: Audra McDonald, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your performance. Congratulations on the Tony nomination. It's such a magnificent score. I know so many of the songs as pop songs. It's really so wonderful to hear them performed in the context of the opera. Would you just tell us, like, your personal history of "Porgy and Bess," what this opera, what the songs from it mean in your musical and personal autobiography?

MCDONALD: Well, Terry, my experience with "Porgy and Bess" goes back to when I was a child, and my parents had the Leontyne Price, William Warfield record with Leontyne being very sassy on the cover in her red dress. And I listened to that a lot. And they also had the Houston Grand Opera recording with Clamma Dale and Donny Ray Albert.

And then I went to Juliard, and while I was studying there, I was very depressed because I was studying classically, classic voice, and I was missing Broadway and thinking that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to do musical theater, but here I was studying classically and feeling like I was missing something.

And then I happened upon the Glyndebourne performance of "Porgy and Bess" that had just been released, the recording had just been released with Cynthia Haymon as Bess. And I listened to it incessantly. I memorized it from top to bottom and thought wow, well, if I have to sing opera, here's one I'd love to sing, and here's a role I'd love to play.

And I had a friend who was in that particular recording - in that production and on the recording - and he was a teacher's assistant at Juliard in my ear training class and was married to Cynthia Haymon, and I asked - he played Mingo. And I asked him about it, and he told me all about working with Simon Rattle and how incredible the experience was.

And I said: What about Bess? And he said it's a voice-killer. He said it's a very difficult role and a voice-killer. And I remember hearing that, and just going oh, oh.

GROSS: Is he right? Is it a voice-killer?

MCDONALD: It's pretty close. It's very difficult. There's very few quiet moments for Bess. They're all very big, very emotional and very rangy, and to commit to that night after night after night is very difficult.

GROSS: Can you just give us an example of one of the twists in one of the songs that makes it so difficult?

MCDONALD: As a good example, I would use "What You Want With Bess," where she's singing with Crown, and she's on Kittiwah Island, and she's trying to get away from him so she can catch that boat and get back to Catfish Row. And she's struggling to get him off of her, and she has been singing in her middle voice, like (singing) now and forever, he can't live without me, he would die without me. Crown, won't you let me go?

And it's fairly loud, but it's in a duet moment. And then after all of that struggle, at the very, very end of the duet, she has to hit her highest, hardest moment. And there's been so much physical struggle that has happened up and to that point that by the time you get to that moment, for me I feel like I have run a marathon, and that's when I have to hit my highest, you know, longest sustained note, and it about kills me every night.

And I always wonder am I going to get there, am I going to hit some note a fourth lower? I never know. It makes the moment exciting for me because it's a challenge.

GROSS: Have you ever missed that note in a performance?

MCDONALD: Oh yes, it happens. Doing a Broadway show eight times a week, everything happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: And yes, I have missed the note. I've gone too high.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: And I've not gone high enough. And then on other nights, I actually hit the note.

GROSS: Well, you know, I love that song, and I love the performance of the song on the new cast recording. And, you know, it's interesting because this has become one of my favorite songs from the show, again this is a duet between you and Crown, and Crown is the man you've been with for several years at this point, and he's this, like, really hulking kind of guy.

I mean, he's a big man, a really strong man and a very tough man. And I think it's probably fair to say your character's been a prostitute over the years, and she's kind of getting older and feeling kind of used up. And so she's - she at this point wants to get back to Porgy, but Crown, who has committed murder and is hiding out from the law, wants Bess to come back with him, with Crown.

So your character Bess is trying to get away from Crown. He's trying to grab her. And eventually you give in.

MCDONALD: Bess gives in for a couple of reasons. Of course there is a huge sexual attraction to Crown. There has been from the beginning. And also, Crown is someone who has, you know, for better or for worse taken care of her. But she spends the entire scene trying to get away from him. The whole song is saying won't you let me go, I belong to Porgy now, I'm for him.

And physically, and just through argument, she's been trying to get away from him, and she finally just gives in because she's fought him off. She realizes the boat has (technical difficulties), and she's given up basically. So she just succumbs out of hopelessness, actually.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear an excerpt that will include the ending of "What You Want With Bess," and this is my guest Audra McDonald, and Phillip Boykin is Crown from the new Broadway cast recording of "Porgy and Bess."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PORGY AND BESS")

MCDONALD: (As Bess) Crown, let me go. You can get plenty of other women.

PHILLIP BOYKIN: (As Crown) (Singing) What I want with other women? I got a woman, and that's you, see.

MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) What you want with Bess? She getting old now. It takes a fine young gal for to satisfy Crown. Look at this chest, and look at these arms you got. You know how it always been with me, dese five years I been yo' woman.

(As Bess) (Singing) You could kick me in the street, and when you wanted me back, you could whistle, and dere I was, back again, lickin' yo' hand. There's plenty better lookin' gal than Bess.

BOYKIN: (As Crown) (Singing) What I want with other women? I got a woman, and that is you, Bess.

AUDRA MCDONALD AND PHILLIP BOYKIN: (As Bess and Crown) (Singing) (unintelligible).

MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) What you want with Bess? Let me go, Crown, the boat.

BOYKIN: (As Crown) You ain't goin' nowhere.

MCDONALD: (As Bess) Take your hands off me. Take your hands off me.

BOYKIN: (As Crown) Come on, Bess. Bess.

GROSS: That's my guest Audra McDonald as Bess with Phillip Boykin as Crown in the new Broadway cast recording of "Porgy and Bess," and both of them are nominated for Tony Awards.

You know what I've been wondering? Like when you're singing, you know, at full throttle in a duet, like you do with "What You Want With Bes" in "Porgy and Bess," and you and Crown are singing opposite each other, I just think, like, the airwaves must be pulsing so much because you're very physically close together, and you're both singing full-out, heavy volume, and, you know, it fills the theater.

Can you, like, physically feel each other's voices?

MCDONALD: Absolutely. Not only that, it's a strange sensation because your head is filled with so much sound, and there's so much sound - I mean, for me when I'm singing with Phillip it's because he's got such a big, ginormous, rich voice. This is going to not make sense, but I can't hear. It all becomes sensation. Like I physically cannot actually hear what's going on. It becomes just what's the sensation in my body and around me.

But because of all that sound, and then the blood is pumping, and you're, you know, you feel the sound vibrating, a normal sense of hearing kind of goes out the window, and it becomes more about sensation.

GROSS: My guest is Audra McDonald. The cast recording of "Porgy and Bess" will be released next week. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Audra McDonald. She's nominated for a Tony for her performance as Bess in "Porgy and Bess." Now, in our previous interview, which was recorded I think around 2000....

MCDONALD: Oh, it's been that long?

GROSS: Yeah, too long. So you were saying that when you really young, you wanted to audition for "Showboat," and your parents said to you no, the characters in that are stereotypical African-Americans. The songs are very nice, but you shouldn't be a part of that production.

MCDONALD: Yes.

GROSS: And so you didn't audition. And it is a great show.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: It's a beautiful show, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah, with magnificent songs. But anyway, you know, I understand what they meant by that. Did you have any of that feeling at all about "Porgy and Bess," or are you, like, completely - obviously the show means so much to you and always has. Any reservations at all about the way the characters in it are portrayed?

MCDONALD: Well of course, and I'm not the first person to say this that, you know, regardless of the fact that DuBose Heyward - and he did do something incredibly revolutionary by portraying, especially at that time, when the novel was written, these characters in a way that was considered incredibly humane and three-dimensional and, you know, really trying to be an insider's look at this life and not just having African-Americans as an outsider that comes into, you know, a story that's based on Caucasian people, just as servants or whatnot.

He really tried to get into their mindset and their daily lives and their hopes and their dreams, and so that was an incredible feat at that time period. But it was still written at a time where blacks and whites were not commingling. It wasn't even legal.

So even though he researched as much as he possibly could, there were still just some aspects that he couldn't possibly know. He didn't live it, and it wasn't a time when blacks and whites could commingle so he could really experience it.

But people through the history of this piece have come down on both sides saying, you know, this is stereotypical, and this is archetypes. Sidney Poitier had an issue with having to do this, to play Porgy in the movie. Famous social historians have talked about it, Harold Cruse.

Grace Bumbry, who was the first person to sing Bess at the Met, when the Met finally did "Porgy and Bess" in, I think 1985, with Simon Estes, and she had issues with it, as well.

So yes, I saw that there were issues that I had concerns with, but at the same time, I thought there was a lot to work with and help sort of fill in, I guess, to make these characters as human as possible and not just stereotypes. And for me, the manna was going back to the novel.

I found so much information about Bess that was left out of the opera...

GROSS: Yeah, we should explain that DuBose Heyward wrote a novel called "Porgy" that - and then did a play called "Porgy" and then...

MCDONALD: Yes because of his wife Dorothy. Dorothy was the one who pushed him to turn it into a play, and she co-wrote the play with him. And the play was very successful, and then George Gershwin got a hold of the play and the book and said I want to do this. But a lot of stuff was left out of the opera that was - a lot of historical information about these particularly characters, you know, that I thought was incredibly useful.

It was actually very helpful to go back to the novel.

GROSS: So give us an example of something that you thought that was maybe a little problematic or stereotyped or, you know, not fully formed in the opera that you feel you were able to bring something to and be more expansive about because you read the novel so many times and got to know Bess as she was described in the novel.

MCDONALD: Bess just kind of pops on the scene, and we know very little about her history. We know very little about Crown's history. But in the novel, DuBose Heyward gives us a lot more sort of clues into Bess, for example that she has a scar, this ugly scar on her left cheek.

When we first see her, she - I don't know the exact quote, but it's something about, you know, the eyes of utter degradation, the acid of utter degradation was in her face. Throughout the novel, we find out that she's been struggling with her, you know, addiction to happy dust for a while. In the novel, she gets into a fistfight with the women of Catfish Row because she gets high on happy dust.

She gets thrown into jail. While she's in jail, they say that they've seen her before in that jail, the white cops, like we've seen her before. It's hard to tell with these women, but we're pretty sure we've seen her before. A lot of these things, for me it was just, like oh, well, that's a bit of a background. We see that she's very haughty in her carriage even though she's a dog in the way she's treated. There's still a haughtiness to her carriage.

So all of that just gave teeny, tiny little clues, you know.

GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned the scar on her face because as I recall, I saw the opening night of the previews in Boston, and then I saw it on Broadway about, I don't know, a few weeks after it opened. And I didn't remember seeing a scar in Boston; I did remember seeing it on Broadway, but I think I only saw it, like in the first act. Did it fall off one night?

MCDONALD: Oh, that's interesting. No, no, it's a solution. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: It's a solution that you wipe on your face that then dries and grabs your skin and pulls it together. So it looks like your skin has been indented and cut. So it's - we experimented with different placement in Cambridge, and we found that in Cambridge, we were placing it in a place that was too in line with my cheekbones. So it just looked like, you know, like I had really great cheekbones or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: So we had to change the placement to make sure that it read more as a scar. And throughout the show, I start out very heavily made-up, and I take lots of my make-up off as the show goes along. So maybe it starts to look a little lighter because the rouge comes off, the heavy eye make-up comes off. So by the end, Bess has no makeup on at all, not even any lipstick.

She goes - as she's sort of transforming into, you know, a softer woman, she loses all that harshness.

GROSS: Ah, OK.

MCDONALD: The solution is really hard on my skin. So I have to keep switching it. So people who have seen the show a couple times say wait a minute. It's like the hump. What hump? That hump was on the other side. The scar keeps kind of switching cheeks.

GROSS: Audra McDonald will be back in the second half of the show. She's nominated for a Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." The new cast recording will be released next week. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Audra McDonald. She's nominated for a Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." She's won four Tonys for her performances in "Carousel," "Ragtime," "Master Class" and "A Raisin in the Sun." The cast recording of "Porgy and Bess" will be released next week.

This production has been, you know, relatively controversial, as these things go. And one of the reasons why, in the previews in Boston, the intention was to change the ending of "Porgy and Bess." In "Porgy and Bess," at the end, Bess leaves with Sportin' Life to go to New York, where she's probably going to become a prostitute, and, you know, just get super-addicted to drugs. And she leaves behind Porgy. And I'm not going to get into the reasons why. But in the production in Boston, at least the very first night of previews, that was changed. So instead of leaving Porgy, she invites Porgy to come with her to New York.

MCDONALD: Yes.

GROSS: And instead of rejecting the happy dust that she's addicted to, she kind of shoves it aside, and her willpower overtakes the weakness to succumb to that. Now, I saw the opening night of previews in Boston. So I saw...

MCDONALD: Our very first performance...

GROSS: Yeah.

MCDONALD: ...ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I saw those changed endings, those controversial changed endings. And I think you all abandoned that, maybe, by the next night.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: Before we even officially opened. Yeah, we were experimenting, and the actual ultimate ending was not - is not any different. Bess leaves Catfish Row, and then Porgy leaves Catfish Row to go after her. It was never that they walked off into the sunset hand-in-hand. But Suzan-Lori Parks and Diane Paulus were looking to experiment with certain things, and the Gershwin estate had said, you know, be bold. Let's, you know, see where we go with this, and we'll shape.

And that was the whole point of being an out-of-town tryout, to experiment to experiment with certain things. And certain things felt right, and other things didn't. And so we continued to experiment on a daily basis. And then even after we came to our, you know, how they say you freeze a show, by the time the critics came for our opening, our actual official opening night - just not our official preview first opening, but our opening night, which happens, you know, some weeks after all the previews have gone - we continued our run, but took a break but knew that once we got to New York, we were going to experiment with other things, as well.

GROSS: So let's get to this famous Stephen Sondheim letter.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Before the show even started previewing, there was a feature story written in The New York Times about the show that quoted you and the writer and the director - you know, the writer who adapted it, and the director. And Stephen Sondheim wrote this, like, scathing letter in response. And you're not supposed to review a show before it opens. He said: I'm not reviewing the show.

MCDONALD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I'm just talking about what the creators of this adaptation said about the show.

MCDONALD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so let me quote something that he said. He said he found dismaying, quote, "the disdain that Diane Paulus, the director, and Audra McDonald," -you - "and Suzan-Lori Parks" - who wrote the adaptation - "feel toward the opera itself." And he criticized you personally for saying that Bess is quote, "often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character."

And he wrote: Often? Meaning, sometimes she's full-blooded, and other times not? She's always full-blooded when she's acted full-bloodedly, and she was, by among others, like Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say the opera has the making of a great love story that I think we're bringing to life. Oh, well, who would've thought there was a love story hiding in "Porgy and Bess" that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?

And then he went on to describe...

MCDONALD: I'm loving your line readings. They're really good.

GROSS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And then he went on to describe your voice as one of the glories of the American theater. So he obviously, you know, loves you in spite of not loving these quotes. But how did you first find out about this letter, which was the talk of everybody who loves Broadway?

MCDONALD: Mm-hmm. My agent called me and told me that this letter had...

GROSS: Bad news

MCDONALD: Yeah. You know, when you get certain calls, you know, the phone rings in certain ways, and you go: That ring just doesn't sound good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: And that was one of those times. And, you know, I was shocked. I knew how much Steve loves "Porgy and Bess." He's never shied away from how much - how passionate he is about this particular opera. And, you know, I think he is, you know, he's a genius. He's, you know, one of the great composers of, you know, American musical theater. And I respect his passion. But I know how I feel about this opera. I know how I've always felt about this opera. And I have never had anything but the greatest love and respect for this opera.

So I know in my heart that even if that's how it came across within the piece, or whatever - that's how it came across to Steve within the piece, there is not one iota of great disdain, any sort of disdain for this opera in my heart. And I think that's apparent by just my obsession with it over the years.

GROSS: Did you feel personally betrayed? This could have so damaged the show. Like, you all survived it.

MCDONALD: Yeah.

GROSS: But it could have just, like, killed it, because everybody, myself included, has such respect for Sondheim.

MCDONALD: Sure.

GROSS: So, you know, like, who wouldn't be interested and value his opinion?

MCDONALD: Sure.

GROSS: And but it was just so, not only dismissive, but rejecting of the entire idea of what you were trying to do. And you performed in a tribute to Sondheim. It's on his songs for years.

MCDONALD: I've sung "Happy Birthday" to him more times.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And, obviously, he didn't call you first and say, hey, be prepared. Don't take it personally...

MCDONALD: No. No not at all. No.

GROSS: ...but here's this letter I'm sending to The Times. So did you feel betrayed?

MCDONALD: Well, I mean, it didn't feel great to get, you know, kind of slapped around by Sondheim in such a public fashion. But at the same time, I know my relationship with Steve, and my relationship with Steve is, you know, despite this letter, still, I think, a positive one. And I adore his work, and I will continue to sing his work. And this is obviously something he feels very passionate about and I feel very passionately about this opera. And, in the end, if it gets people talking about theater, that's fine. I mean, it got people talking about it.

In the way yes, it could have been very damaging to us. I mean, we had people coming to review the show on the first preview, which is just unheard of - not opening night, the first preview. You're not supposed to review a show on the first preview. That's just unfair, and that's not how it's supposed to work. But because of his letter - you know, and then people would come to the show with the letter and his - a couple of people came to the show with Stephen Sondheim's letter in their hand asking questions afterwards, shaking the letter at us, too, which you just sort of go, OK. All right. If we're going to be passionate about it, that's great. And, you know, everybody has their, you know, their opinions, and they're all passionate and wonderful. That speaks to the glory of the piece, I think.

But, at the end of the day, we made it to Broadway. And, you know, I'm still singing Sondheim, and we move on, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Audra McDonald. She's nominated for a Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." The cast recording of "Porgy and Bess" will be released next week.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Audra McDonald, and she's nominated for a Tony for her role as Bess in the new Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess." The cast recording is about to be released.

Let's hear another song from the new cast recording of "Porgy and Bess." And this time, I think we should hear, like, what's probably the most famous song as a pop song with a life independent from the opera or show, and that's "Summertime."

Now, "Summertime" is first sung by the character of Clara, but you get to reprise it later in the show. And you sing it quite beautifully. And as we'll hear, in this production, there's an accordion behind you, which I think is very effective.

MCDONALD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: This show - this song has been sung so many, so many, so many, so many times...

MCDONALD: Yes. It's I think it's the...

GROSS: ...in every context imaginable.

MCDONALD: It's the most-covered song, I think...

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.

MCDONALD: ...American song we have.

GROSS: And I'm sure you want to bring something fresh to it when you're singing it, you know, in this production. How did you approach the song so that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...you know, seriously, so that...

MCDONALD: No. No. No. I'm laughing because, yes, I did want to bring something fresh to it. But in terms of, like, being another very difficult moment for me, I've been doing an entire night of heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, hard, hard, hard, full-throttle singing. And then the last, sort of, melody that I have to sing in the show after an entire night screaming and being raped and being kicked and beaten and all this stuff is "Summertime," and it's a lullaby and it's high and it has to be quiet and pretty and sung to a baby. And it freaks me out every night, because like, oh, after all this I've got to sound high and pretty and fresh...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: And I'm always, you know, right before the moment, holding onto that baby, going OK, I know you're just a doll, but help me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: But yeah, you know, it's - I love it because, you know, it's a moment, it's a happy moment for Bess. It's a tentative happy moment for Bess, where she's embracing motherhood. She now has this child. She really feels like she's going to be able to have the happy ending. She thinks Crown is dead. She...

GROSS: And it's another woman's child, another woman who has died. Yeah.

MCDONALD: It's another woman's child who has died. But that woman has handed the child to Bess and said you take care of my baby until I get back - actually, a side note. This is something that we borrowed from the novel, as well. So in the opera, of course, we hear Bess, take care of my baby for me till I get back. In the novel, a couple of days, I think, after the storm, where the young lady is lost and Bess now has the baby, some of the other ladies of Catfish Row try and come and take the baby from Bess.

And Bess says to them: Has Clara come back from the dead? No, she hasn't. What were her last words? Her last words were for me to take care of this baby. So until she comes back from the dead and says someone else take care of this baby, this baby belongs to me.

We thought that was a really powerful thing. And so Suzan-Lori Parks added that to our show, which is not - those words, or that scene, is not in the opera, but we thought that was a very powerful and an important thing to add, to see that, you know, Bess says no, no, no. This is mine - which I think really shows that she wants this and she's going to hold onto this.

So "Summertime," for me, is knowing that she's got to quiet this baby and trying to bond with this baby and making sure that Porgy feels a part of this family, and just really trying to create her little family now. She's got this family for the first time in her life. It's something safe and warm, and that's kind of how I'm approaching the song when I sing it to the baby.

GROSS: So is it - was...

MCDONALD: And it all goes to hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: Crown comes back. It all goes to hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Was it easier to sing "Summertime" on the cast recording, because it's not the end of a really long, hard night of singing?

MCDONALD: No, because we did it after the end of a very long, hard night of recording the album. We recorded the album in two days, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, gosh. OK.

MCDONALD: But, you know, in some sense, yes, it was, because I could just stand there in the booth and focus, you know, in my mind and stand still and not have to worry about, you know, anything else but the moment. And I could do three or four or five or six or 5,000 takes until I got it right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So here's Audra McDonald singing "Summertime" from the new cast recording of the Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

MCDONALD: (as Bess) (Singing) Summertime, and the livin' is easy. Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-lookin'. So hush, little baby. Don't you cry. Don't you cry.

GROSS: That's Audra McDonald on the new cast recording of "Porgy and Bess," from the new Broadway production, which is nominated for lots of Tonys. And Audra McDonald is nominated for a Tony for her performance.

So after the show opened, you were on "The Colbert Report."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And you sang a duet of "Porgy and Bess" with Stephen Colbert.

MCDONALD: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm just going to play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

STEPHEN COLBERT: (Singing) One of these mornings, you're going to rise up singing.

MCDONALD: (Singing) Ooh.

COLBERT: (Singing) Then you'll spread your wings...

MCDONALD: (Singing) Spread your wings.

COLBERT: (Singing) ...and you'll take to the sky.

MCDONALD: (Singing) Ooh.

COLBERT: (Singing) But until that morning...

MCDONALD: (Singing) Tell your story, whitey.

COLBERT: (Singing) ...there's nothing can harm you.

STEPHEN COLBERT AND AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Ooh, with daddy and mama standing by. Oh, standing by.

GROSS: OK. So that's Audra McDonald and Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report." That was so much fun. So how did you and Stephen Colbert work out how you were going to do "Summertime"?

MCDONALD: Well, it was not planned. That's the funny thing. I went in to do a sound check. And it was on my day off, so it was a Monday, and I was feeling a little exhausted after singing eight shows and knowing that I had to come in and sing "Summertime" on TV in a pretty dress. And I love "The Colbert Report." I love Stephen Colbert, and I watch "The Colbert Report" religiously.

So, in the sound check, you know, I was singing. And then he came in during the sound check and he listened, and then he was very complimentary afterwards. And I just said, man, I wish you'd sing this with me. Come on. He was, like, what? I was like come on. He was like, uh - because he kind of started singing along a little bit as a joke. I was, like, seriously. You want to sing this with me?

He was, like, well, what would I do? So I was, like, you will? You will? So I said, just come in and sing. He's like all right, all right. So he's talking to the pianist like, OK, tell me what to sing. Tell me what to sing. And so it just kind of happened on the fly in the sound check, and then he said, OK. I'll do it.

But the whole tell your story, whitey, that just kind of came out in the moment in the interview, because you don't really do a pre-interview with Steve, you know. You just start the interview. And so in the interview he had said to me, in talking about what's politically correct, he's like, you know, making a joke about saying, you know, we don't like to be called that.

You can call us - I can't remember what he said - or white or whitey, but that's what we like to call each other. You can't call me whitey, but, whatever. So then I just ran with it and said it when we were singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, that was very funny.

MCDONALD: He's such a fantastic man.

GROSS: That was very, very funny.

MCDONALD: It was so much fun. Yeah, it was fun.

GROSS: My guest is Audra McDonald. She's nominated for a Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." The cast recording of "Porgy and Bess" will be released next week. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Audra McDonald. She's starring as Bess in the Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess." The new cast recording is about to come out and Audra McDonald is nominated for a Tony for her performance. So, changing the subject, here, one of your accomplishments is that you sang at the first legal gay wedding in New York. Mayor Bloomberg, I think, helped preside over it.

MCDONALD: Yes.

GROSS: How did you get the honor of singing at that first legal gay wedding?

MCDONALD: A friend of mine who is a Broadway producer contacted me, and I had read the beautiful story in the New York Times about the couple that was getting married, and that Bloomberg was going to preside over their wedding at Gracie Mansion. And this friend called me and said: They'd love to have you come and sing.

And I was floored. I was so honored. And I cried like a baby at that ceremony. And I brought my daughter. And it just - it was a very moving moment. It was a teachable moment for me, too, to have my daughter there. And as far as she was concerned, it was just another wedding. You know, she doesn't really see the issue, which is great. But - so that's how it came about. It was a beautiful day.

GROSS: So how did marriage equality become an important issue for you?

MCDONALD: For me, it's a civil rights cause, and I'm obviously a child of the civil rights. I'm a benefactor of the civil rights movement. You know, I'm getting married in October, and as recently as, you know, 1964, it would have been illegal for me to marry my fiancee because, you know, he's Caucasian and I am not.

So it just seems like, you know, something that I just didn't feel like I could sit idly by. And I have so many friends, so many dear friends that are in loving, committed relationships, you know, that have families, that have children. And I have family members that are homosexual. And I just see it as a civil rights issue. And so it just seemed to be a very important thing to fight for.

GROSS: And your reaction when President Obama decided to support gay marriage publicly?

MCDONALD: Yes. Yes. I lost it. I was - we were - I'll never forget it. It was a Wednesday, and we were in the middle of doing, you know, our first show of the day, a matinee. And I burst into tears, I was so happy. And I was in the middle of changing, doing my intermission changeover. And I started to think about gay youth and how the gay youth in North Carolina must have been just despairing, you know, on the day previous.

So when Obama made this announcement because of the marriage ban that was passed in North Carolina and just thinking about all these, you know, spate of suicides we've been having, teen suicides and young kids killing themselves over being bullied over, you know, being afraid to be gay and being taught that it's wrong and they're bad, and now they don't have any civil rights as far as it's concerned. And so I just started thinking about all the lives that have potentially been saved because the president came out, kind of like a superhero in their corner, and said, no. I'm with you. I'm with you. I support you.

So as soon as I got my wig on, I ran downstairs. They just made the five-minute call to places for act two, and I ran downstairs and I grabbed the intercom and I said: You guys, you guys, you guys. Obama just came out in support of marriage equality. And then I was the happiest victim in act two.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: It was going to be hard for me to stay in character, because I'm going to be thinking about this. Bess is smiling an awful lot when she shouldn't be. So...

GROSS: Well, you said you broke out into tears in intermission...

MCDONALD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...when you got the news. Did that affect your voice or your makeup?

MCDONALD: Always. At that point, Bess doesn't have much makeup on, anyway. But yes, absolutely it did. It always - you know, if you're crying and you're singing, your chords tend to swell up and, you know, you get a lot of - can you say mucus on NPR?

GROSS: You can say that. Yes.

MCDONALD: Sure you can.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: Mucus flies everywhere. So it's - you know, you just learn to sing around it, you know.

GROSS: Well, it's great to have you on Broadway again.

MCDONALD: Thank you.

GROSS: Congratulations again on your Tony nomination...

MCDONALD: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: ...and on your performance in the show in general. One more thing: You mentioned your fiancee. I imagine you're getting - you'll have a wedding soon, large or small.

MCDONALD: Yeah.

GROSS: Will somebody be singing at your wedding? If so, who, and what will they sing?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: We have lots of very, very, very talented friends, so there's a few that we are in touch with. So we're still working on that. We're going to have the kids sing, but they're charging us. Our children are charging us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: They're 11 and eight, and their first quote was $100 apiece. I can't believe them.

GROSS: That's so funny. Are you going to let them get away with that? Are you going to pay them?

MCDONALD: No. We talked them down. We're, like, what do you mean? We pay for your music lessons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: They're like, no, $100. And so it was like, look, Mommy. People pay you to sing. So we talked them down to $30 apiece and a root beer float. So that's what they get.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on the forthcoming wedding.

MCDONALD: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you so much for coming back to our show.

MCDONALD: Thank you, Terry. It's such a pleasure. I love listening to you as I'm commuting back and forth to Westchester. You make the afternoons go easier. Thank you.

GROSS: Audra McDonald is nominated for a Tony for her performance as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." Here she is with Norm Lewis singing "I Loves You, Porgy" from the new cast recording which will be released next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVES YOU, PORGY")

MCDONALD: (As Bess) (Singing) I loves you, Porgy. Don't let him take me. Don't let him handle me and drive me mad. If you can keep me, I wants to stay here with you forever, and I'd be glad. I wants to stay here, but I ain't worthy. You is too decent to understand. So when he seen me, he hypnotize me when he take hold of me with his hot hands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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