Singer/actress/multi-award winner Audra McDonald said she knew from the time she was 9 years old that show business was for her.
“I started acting with a local dinner theater company, beginning in their junior company and performing nightly before the opening of the main show,” McDonald recalled. “So convinced was I that music and acting were for me, that after high school I went to Juilliard to study classical voice.”
Born in Berlin, Germany, and raised in Fresno, Calif., McDonald, 41, will help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Kimmel Center, at 260 S. Broad St., when she takes the stage on Oct. 1.
“I’ll be performing songs by such musical greats as Kander and Ebb, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and many others. There will be something for everybody.”
McDonald said she was born into a musical family where everyone could sing and almost any one of the members could have become a professional performer. But it looks like it was this young woman who did what others could have done but didn’t do.
In fact, she was so successful in her field that by the age of 28, she already had won three Tony awards — for her performances in Carousel, Master Class and Ragtime. She was nominated for another Tony for her performance in Marie Christine before she won her fourth in 2004 for her role in A Raisin in the Sun, placing her in the company of other four-time-winning actresses Gwen Verdon and Mary Martin.
“I feel so very fortunate to have received all the awards. The Tonys have always been a very overwhelming subject for me. But one of the most surprising awards given to me was for Ragtime. I think that one shocked me the most,” she said.
Aside from her strong singing voice, McDonald has made many television appearances, both musical and dramatic. In 2001 she received her first Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie for the HBO film Wit. She’s also appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, among other shows. She recently completed a four-year stint on the television drama Private Practice.
A versatile performer, McDonald noted that she loves every phase of her career. “I love it all. Right now I’m performing in Porgy & Bess and waiting to open on Broadway in December, so I would say that’s one of my favorites and one of the hardest roles I’ve ever played.
“The challenge,” she continued, “is trying to understand this character, a very complex and difficult woman to understand., and then truthfully portraying her. It’s also the challenge of discovering all the inner truths of Bess, which is both very fulfilling and very difficult.”
For McDonald, working so hard is just part of the profession she’s in. “This profession doesn’t exactly wait for you, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along. Also, age becomes a factor. So I joke that when it’s time for me to retire, I’ll open up an animal sanctuary somewhere,” she said.
Inspired by her parents, who were educators, she was advised to always go after what she wanted. “My mother grew up in the South during the civil-rights movement, so both my parents were very intent on making sure my sister and I had the best possible education, because to them, that was the best thing you could have to make it in this world,” McDonald explained.
And, she added, her parents never discouraged her, but instead told her never to settle and to work twice as hard as everybody else to achieve a level playing field.
“They tried to keep me realistic, and pushed me really hard to do whatever I wanted to do and excel at it. That’s the same advice I would give to others trying to make it in show business,” she said. “Today, I think the most important thing is to be true to yourself, which means if there’s a role you think you can play, then do everything in your power to play it. Even if the whole world says no, don’t ever say no to yourself.” ••
For times and ticket information, call 215-893-1999.