“Queen of Broadway”. It’s a title thrown around quite a bit. In my opinion, there are numerous queens of Broadway, and each has a solid claim to that title. Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone are probably the top two names that come to mind when you hear that title, but there are plenty others: The Times hailed Kelli O’Hara “Broadway musical’s undisputed queen.” O’Hara has not had quite the same level of success as Peters and Lupone, but does that matter? Indeed, how do you even measure and quantify such an honorific title?
Well, if we are going off of award wins, that title belongs to Audra McDonald: an Emmy, Grammy, and six-time Tony -winner, she is the most decorated star in Broadway history (star, period, not just woman).
I’ve seen my share of Broadway queens: O’Hara in The King and I, Lupone in Company, Lea Salonga in a solo concert, and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes. I was supposed to see Peters in a solo concert a few years back but the tour was sadly cancelled. As a musical theatre nerd, there is nothing quite as wonderful as seeing musical icons in the flesh. Younger icons, Sierra Boggess and Ariana Debose are both soon to bless London with their presence, and I hope to be there for that!
But back to McDonald. Whilst she is, arguably, the Queen of Broadway, many are more familiar with her as a film and television actress. Her film appearances include Beauty and the Beast and Respect. On TV, she is best-known for her lead roles in two successful spin-offs: Dr. Naomi Bennett in Private Practice and Liz Reddick in The Good Fight. She later reprised her role of Bennett in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and she had previously played Reddick in an episode of The Good Wife.
The Good Wife and The Good Fight are two of my all-time favourite series. The Good Fight is a rare example of a spin-off/sequel being even better than the original. Whilst the original is very much a political/legal drama, the latter perfectly blends political satire with political thriller – and McDonald shines in every single scene, even though she has only been with the series since its sophomore season. She stars alongside fellow musical icon Christine Baranski, and the series used to star fellow star of the theatre, Cush Jumbo OBE.
Audra McDonald Sings the Great American Songbook
The concert, which was filmed for future film distribution, was split into two acts. McDonald was supported by the 40-piece London Musical Theatre Orchestra, with Andy Einhorn the production’s Musical Director.
McDonald came onstage in a gorgeous red gown. She oozed beauty and grace – as she always does. I believe she opened the concert with ‘I Am What I Am’ from La Cage aux Folles (though, to some, the Gloria Gaynor cover is more recognisable). Opening the concert with this song (or singing it so early on) was basically a more tasteful way of yelling “gay rights!” McDonald immediately positioned herself as an ally of the unashamedly queer audience.
Perhaps the third song of the set was ‘Stars and the Moon’ from Songs for a New World. A little-known musical theatre song from a little-known musical, many in the audience (myself included) were thrilled that she was singing it. She previously recorded a studio version of the song, and whilst I much prefer Sutton Foster‘s sassy rendition, McDonald’s elegant cover is completely captivating.
Similarly, whilst my favourite rendition of ‘Bein’ Green’ (aka ‘It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green’) is Mandy Gonzalez‘ child-like cover, McDonald brings a sense of maturity and experience to the song. This is another song that McDonald has previously recorded in the studio. The song is actually the signature song of Kermit the Frog; it is just another example of the socio-political brilliance of Sesame Street and The Muppets.
As if we did not already know that she is a varied and versatile vocalist, McDonald sang everything from ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady to ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from Gypsy. The latter had the audience roaring.
Whilst one of my favourite McDonald renditions is ‘Maybe this Time’ from Cabaret, she decided to close the second act with the musical’s title song – and she gave Liza Minnelli a run for her money. The richness of her voice added depth to the lyrics – which are already very deep, so we, the audience, were basically drowning, but we had no desire to breathe!
Speaking of breathing, McDonald’s breath control in this song was particularly incredible. The last note had the entire audience leaping to their feat, clapping ferociously, and roaring with admiration. It is, without a doubt, one of the most mesmerising performances I have had the pleasure of witnessing.
But this was not just a concert; McDonald pulled back the curtain and allowed us to get to know her. Her vocal prowess and splendid stage presence were accompanied by an effortless and ease that made for a personal performance, contrasting the spectacular staging we were greeted with upon entering the auditorium.
Whilst it might be surprising to some, McDonald is actually hilarious. In between songs, she had the audience in hysterics. In fact, before singing ‘Cabaret’, she told us that she had sang it previously, at the request of a certain someone. She never wanted to touch this song, for it is so iconic and has been sang by so many legends (as if she is not one herself) that singing it is difficult. However, the woman who requested it is not somebody you say “no” to. The woman in question? None other than Anna Wintour, aka the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, aka The Devil who wears Prada!
She hilariously referred to Wintour as “that girl” and the Met Gala as “a party she was throwing at the Metropolitan Museum”. McDonald does not take herself too seriously – nor others.
Whilst I told my friend, Valeria, to dress smartly because it would be quite the classy evening, I was quickly proven wrong. In fact, McDonald even said, “Don’t come to my concerts for class” – much to the audience’s surprise (and delight). Musical concerts can be so profound and intimidating. One can be forgiven for considering McDonald the embodiment of elegance, but she wanted us to have fun – lots of it!
Whilst some of the in-betweens were humorous, others added context. She gave precise writing credits, determined to share recognition, and addressed her emotional connection to each song. She honoured writers, composers and colleagues, even sharing a few anecdotes of working with well-known people in musical theatre, including the late, great Stephen Sondheim.
She spoke passionately about a few socio-political issues, including race and racism. She referred to the mantra that Black parents drill into their children’s heads: “We’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far.” That is one of my favourite quotes, the sentiment immediately recognisable to most people of colour, even if they have not heard those exact words. McDonald has worked four times as hard to get twice as far as her White counterparts, becoming the most decorated star in Broadway history – and, arguably, the Queen of Broadway.
Whilst the concert was billed as Audra McDonald Sings the Great American Songbook, she took quite the lax approach to it, even singing some British songs (and she addressed this unashamedly).
The concert was a rollercoaster; McDonald took us on quite the ride, and whilst it lasted a couple of hours, none of us wanted to get off. She sang two songs in the encore, but we wanted more. Alas, everything must come to an end – but this concert will live on in my memories forever. Whilst photography and filming were not allowed (even for press ), we were allowed to take some snaps at the end of the second act and then again at the end of the encore. If you’re gutted you missed out on seeing McDonald make a rare UK appearance, make sure to watch the recording when it is released (date and distributor TBC).
You can also catch McDonald in The Good Fight, which is currently airing its sixth and final season on Paramount+.