On Audra McDonald

For Audra McDonald’s birthday

My good friend Ted and I were once talking about Audra McDonald and her performance of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in the live televised version of The Sound of Music, and what a powerhouse it was. You can see Carrie Underwood, receiving the power of McDonald at close range, and you can see Underwood almost shattered by what was going on, what was coming at her. It’s hard to look at anyone other than Audra, but I was deeply touched by Underwood. She is barely holding on. Even with McDonald’s performance, it is Underwood’s reaction – as a fellow performer – which is the true tribute. Unfortunately, I can’t find the live version on Youtube, so McDonald performing it at the Kennedy Center will have to do. I honestly thought I never needed to hear that song ever again. Or, hell, even once. I’m not a fan. But McDonald revitalizes it singlehandedly.

Audra McDonald’s voice is one of the great instruments of our time.

But we must not forget her acting and how her acting elevates her voice into a truly transcendent space, similar to what Judy Garland could do, what all the great singers can do. In that regard: I want to talk about McDonald’s live performance of “Maybe This Time.” I consider it to be a high watermark of live performance.

Sometimes it’s helpful to compare/contrast, although some seem to dislike it, assuming you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Believe me. I am not. Kristen Chenoweth has a phenomenal instrument, and she also can act. However: when Chenoweth sang “Maybe This Time” on Glee, she – in my opinion – dodged the entire point of the song. It’s a deep song: you MUST deal with the lyrics, you must FEEL those lyrics, otherwise … who cares.

I really dislike her version of it because she does not want to deal with the emotions of the song. In my opinion, she can’t relate to the self-loathing (“Everybody loves a winner, so nobody loved me”). Chenoweth is invested in herself as a “winner.” Which, of course, is great, good for her. But as an actor you can’t care about that if the moment calls for something else. “Maybe This Time” is brutal, and trying to weasel out of the song’s implications is a fake. “Maybe This Time” is not a song of plucky triumph, but that’s the way Chenoweth plays it, down to the last show-off note. Natasha Richardson didn’t have a phenomenal voice, but her performance of the song when I saw her on Broadway, was so painful it was a harrowing experience sitting through it. I’m not exaggerating: I could barely stand to be sitting there watching. I wrote about it here, when Richardson died. Liza Minnelli’s version was different from all of these (I go into the differences in the Natasha Richardson piece). Minnelli played as hard as she could Sally’s delusional state, her self-willed belief in her own amazing-ness, and it’s insanely disturbing and thrilling. The song can take different interpretations, but you can’t DODGE anything while singing it: you have to FACE it.

Back to McDonald: watch the clip above. Boy, does she FACE it.

Watch how she lets the song build, and not just the song itself, but the song’s story, and the emotions the song unleashes. The song is working ON her. As the song climbs the scales, she is not in the driver’s seat, the song pulls her up and up and up. (And of course, it’s not that simple: she IS in the driver’s seat. This is her brilliance as an actress and a performer. She is controlled enough with her instrument that she can craft it, and she does it in a way where it doesn’t look crafted at all.) The song seems to be taking her where IT needs to go. McDonald does not compromise the voice, ever: it’s clear as a bell, every note perfectly placed, no strain, no sloppiness. She is in exquisite control of her voice. Her voice is how she gets her feelings out. So often with great instruments, the feelings and/or the sense of the lyrics ARE compromised in order to get the sound out. We see this time and time again, we see this on American Idol, where the kids somehow think that SMILING while singing “Stormy Weather” is in any way a valid choice. There is such a thing as a wrong choice. It doesn’t matter if you have amazing pipes if you don’t understand THE JOB.

McDonald’s voice is so good, with such a breath-driven mix of head voice and chest voice, it can do anything go anywhere, and in the case of “Maybe This Time” the voice is such that it can TAKE the emotions exploding out of her by the end.

Audra McDonald is a vessel. Powerful things pour through her. She is powerful enough to TAKE it. She creates her own reality when she sings, and she brings us with her. She sweeps out of the way anything between her and the song, and anything between her and us.

But watch her face during the performance. Watch what’s going on with her, through the whole thing but particularly as she approaches the end end, from minute 2:47 on.

The voice is in control, the feelings are not.

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7 Responses to On Audra McDonald

  1. tracey says:

    Good God. Bawling.

    To your point about American Idol, I may actually watch this season for the first time in many seasons ONLY because Harry Connick, Jr. is now one of the judges. I’ve seen him as a guest coach before and he does not mince words with these kids who don’t think about the lyrics. He’s simultaneously encouraging and unrelenting in his insistence on finding MEANING in the lyrics. So I may just tune in for that.

    Well, that, and — let’s face it — the fact that I’m hopelessly in love with him. Yeah. So I guess there’s that too.

    • sheila says:

      So glad he’s gonna be a judge. He was right on the money with his comments last season – and how those “licks” are RUINING singing if they are not backed up with understanding of lyrics and emotional intent.

  2. Melissa says:

    Audra McDonald is simply amazing. She was by far the best thing about “The Sound of Music.” Carrie Underwood’s reaction to Audra singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” seemed to me to be not only a reaction to the song itself, but perhaps also a reaction to being in over her head in the part, with an hour still to go. It seemed like not only was the Reverend Mother giving her strength to Maria, but Audra was directing her strength into Carrie. It made me feel sympathy for her, when up to then I’d just been pained by her performance. A good singing voice alone isn’t enough to make someone successful in a musical, if someone isn’t a good actor as well. The reverse can sometimes work — Richard Burton in “Camelot” and Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” being classic examples, but the other way around? Not so much. Of course when the acting and the voice are both great, as with McDonald or Julie Andrews, for example — heaven.

    I’ve never watched American Idol before, but now that Harry Connick is a judge I’m tempted. When I read his comments earlier this year, I cheered. He was so right! You have to respect the lyrics and understand what you’re singing about. I’m curious to see if he’ll be able to influence the performers on the show for the better. I really like him. I had a huge crush on him as a teenager and he was my gateway into loving standards and jazz.

    I should perhaps mention that I’m not saying any of this as a singer, myself, just as someone who doesn’t like having things I love butchered. ;-)

  3. Amy says:

    Just wonderful. She is fearless.

    If anyone reading hasn’t seen it yet, her performance of Bernstein/Sondheim’s “Tonight” with Mandy Patinkin on the DVD “Leonard Bernstein’s New York” is the nuts. None other is needed.

  4. ted says:

    Of course, the day after our lovely evening, I went on youtube and watched this too for the 1st time and was completely awed. I love the combination of the beauty of her instrument and the anger of the character at herself – being willing to dream, yet again, and knowing she won’t win, and feeling stupid for it. The character is so multi-layered and despairing and the performance is so full, and open. And your comparisons with the other versions are terrific. I woke up this morning with this song playing in my head.

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