The Dynamic Audra McDonald: Stage Powerhouse, TV Star, and Fierce Queer Ally

Also: Dusty Ray Bottoms is on top in "Cleopatra."

One of the most diversely talented performers of our time, Audra McDonald is not only a Broadway lover’s treasure, but she’s regularly visible to the masses as lawyer Liz Reddick-Lawrence on The Good Fight. (She played the same role on The Good Wife, of which this series is a spinoff). But on November 12, New Yorkers can see Audra in the flesh again as part of the Broadway @ The Town Hall series. At the event, host Seth Rudetsky (the actor-writer-deconstructionist) will prompt the star to tell stories from her life and sing various songs and snippets. I just got Audra on the phone to do the same (minus the singing; I wanted her to save her voice for tonight.)

Hi, Audra. What will you be doing at Town Hall?

I’m of a certain age that I can remember Phil Donahue and Rosie O’Donnell’s shows, where there’s an interview, then a performance, then an interview, then a performance. With Seth Rudetsky, you’re not quite sure what you’re going to sing. He doesn’t tell you in advance. In between songs, he talks to you and interviews you about your career.

And that’s what I’ll do right now. Your character in The Good Fight has been repurposed, as the kids like to say, yes?

She showed up in The Good Wife as a bit of a nemesis and friend, in quotes, of Julianna Margulies’ character. They found a great way to plug her back into the world here. It was pretty easy to slide me in, and it’s been great. I took the job for a couple of reasons—because it’s always great to be able to work in the city you live in, as opposed to flying back and forth to L.A., which I did for years. Also, it was an opportunity to work with Robert King, a fabulous writer, and Christine Baranski, whom I’ve known forever.

Let’s talk Broadway. Shuffle Along (2016) was a lavish, star-studded musical about the making of a landmark 1921 black show starring Lottie Gee, the actor-singer that you played. The result was ambitious, but how do you look back on it—as a success or a work in progress?

What do I think about that? I was very proud of what we ended up with. It was a show trying to accomplish a lot and say a lot and educate and be entertaining, and I think it very much achieved those goals and was starting to find an audience. I realized these people [the show’s subjects] are not only my ancestors because they’re African American, but they’re my theatrical ancestors. The doors they knocked down and the trials and tribulations they went through are the reason I’m on Broadway today, and that’s why I wanted to be part of it. It was like having the most amount of sugar with energy injected into your veins. It blows your mind right open. And I got to tap dance.

Speaking of African American people blazing theater trails: When you played Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel in 1994, there was some grousing, and I actually got into a fight with a theater writer who said, “But there were no black people in Maine.” We’ve come a long way, no?

We have and we haven’t. The thing is, there were black people everywhere. I was watching John Leguizamo’s show Latin History for Morons on TV last night, and it was the same thing for Latin Americans and brown people. They were everywhere.

So true, and aside from that, people don’t usually traipse around singing show tunes anyway. It’s theater!

Exactly—and running up to heaven…

And coming back down to sing some more. By the way, I’ve never seen you miss a mark or hit a wrong note, and I’ve seen you perform many times through the years. Have you ever?

Every minute of every day. It’s always happening.

I mean on stage.

The interesting thing is it’s part of Seth’s MO. You’re not sure what you’re going to do. He might say, “Sing this” or “Sing that.” A couple of years ago, he made a funny story about how in fourth grade, I sang “The Rose” after a whole show. I thought it was a great song and said, “Can I sing ‘The Rose’?” But it was totally inappropriate, and I messed up the lyrics. Also, I passed out in Carousel and I passed out mid-song at a Rosie O’Donnell celebration at the Pierre.

That doesn’t really count as fucking up! Did you ever think you were LGBTQ or just an ally?

I’ve always been an ally. I have friends and family that are LGBTQ. I worked at a dinner theater in Fresno and was exposed to the LGBTQ community at an early age, and it’s always been a part of my life. To not be an ally is wrong, for me. I don’t want to judge other people. I can’t not be an ally when their civil rights are being trampled.

Thank you. Now, this is something that’s bugged me, and I’ve never had the nerve to go up to you and ask it. You were sensational as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (2014). But why didn’t you sing “Good Morning Heartache,” one of Billie’s best-known laments?

You’ll have to ask Lanie Robertson, who wrote the play. He wrote it years ago, in the ‘80s, before I got ahold of it.

Paging Lanie. Meanwhile, one last question: You have six Tonys, two Grammys, and an Emmy. One little Oscar and you’d be an EGOT. What are you going to do about that?

(Laughs) I have no clue. Can you get an Oscar for cleaning up the set afterward? That would be an incredible thing.

Carry On, Cleo

There’s a party going on over at Chelsea Music Hall, a new venue underneath Chelsea Market, where a runway-like stage—and a golden throne—are the audiovisual destination for a seated and standing audience of revelers. The show is Cleopatra, a swirling explosion of energy, choreography, singing, rapping, leather, lace, and glitter.

The backing music is played by a live DJ, and your MC is RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10 star Dusty Ray Bottoms, who warns the crowd, “Don’t get too drunk and talk to the show, Becky,” though Dusty is just kidding. In fact, the audience becomes so involved that some of them are brought up for a “Walk The Nile” voguing contest (the winner gets a dinner of shots), as well as for blindfolded and handcuffed lap dances from the tireless cast of desirables.

But there’s also a plot—which Dusty insinuates herself into, while singing, shticking, and fourth-wall breaking—and the center of it all, as Cleo, is NYA, a wonderful singer and presence who’s sort of Beyoncé meets Nicki Minaj, and who gets to say the immortal line, “My palace is no place for your dick measuring contest.”

What’s more, Christian Brailsford is delightfully shirtless as Marc Antony, though the bad guy, Octavian, wears a suit as he urges us to “Make Rome Great Again,” and…well, let me not give it away like I did when I hit legal age. Jeff Daye did the music, he and Laura Kleinbaum the lyrics, and JT Horenstein directed and choreographed—and by the way, they’re planning to bring in a roster of Drag Race stars as the MC. Start casting in your minds now. Which drag queen would be the best queen of denial?

All About Steve

Kickass queens populate Widows, a tough Steve McQueen film bringing together women whose dead hubbys’ criminal actions have left them desperately needing cash. At a luncheon at MoMA, McQueen said that as a kid, he identified with the female characters in the Lynda La Plante-written British TV series, mainly thanks to the way they were judged on their appearance and were deemed incapable.

I wondered how McQueen cast Cynthia Erivo as the group’s no-nonsense driver, and he said his casting director recommended he see her in The Color Purple on Broadway. He did and found Erivo “electrifying, a life force. You identify with her in a real way, and that’s what makes a star.” He added that Michelle Rodriguez didn’t want to play a subversive woman, but she came around, and he also remarked that Viola Davis can do anything—“even an underwater musical.” (Maybe she can do The Esther Williams Story—if Audra isn’t interested.)

As for his stunning Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, did anyone ever tell him they couldn’t watch it because it was so disturbing? “No,” he told me, “but I read that people said that. But they must have seen it at home because we sold so many DVDs. It got to the point where you had to see it because it became a cultural point of conversation.”

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.