This year's Drama League tribute could've been called "In Awe of Audra," as friends described honoree Audra McDonald
. The notes this operatic singer hits. The record five Tony Awards she's won. The time and energy she gives to her daughter, her friends, and her civic cause, marriage equality. I say, looking at her hunky husband of three months, Will Swenson
(who played the leads in "Hair" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert"), she has hidden talents as well. "I have lots of stories," he told me when asked for an anecdote, "but none that I could tell that you could print."
"Audra, you is my woman now," he piped in, during one of the Drama League's opening numbers. Her fifth Tony was for Bess in "The Gerschwins' Porgy and Bess" last year. The others were for "Carousel," "Master Class" (opposite Zoe Caldwell), "Ragtime," and "A Raisin in the Sun" (opposite Sean Combs
). Her four year run on "Private Practice" just had its series finale.
"There's nothing she can't do," said Director Lonnie Price ("Sweeney Todd
" with Patti LuPone
, "Candide" with Kristin Chenoweth
, "Sondheim! The Birthday Concert") setting the evening's tone. He remembered directing her early on, she had told him she could play piano and dance on point. "It's not a matter of can she play it, it's what do you want?"
Tyne Daly quipped that she was "angry" about her working relationship with Audra. (Photo: Rob Rich/SocietyAllure.com)
"Audra, you might want to think about Pope," deadpanned Marie Testa ("Xanadu"). "You'd look fantastic in that dress."
"I sleep with a pill, she's got Bill," sang Jane Houdyshell ("Follies," "Dead Accounts").
"I'm very angry," Tyne Daly
told us before the show. "You see I have never worked with Audra McDonald. I've come here because I'm her fan. We keep paralleling each other." For example, Daly was performing in "Ragtime" in Avery Fisher Hall the following week. And Audra worked with Tyne's brother, Tim Daly for four years on "Private Practice."
Other stars on stage included Patti Lupone, Brian Stokes Mitchell
, Taye Diggs, Phylicia Rashad
, Julie White
, Victor Garber
, Judith Light
, Swenson's "Priscilla" co-stars Tony Sheldon
and Nick Adams
, and the legendary stage presence Zoe Caldwell, McDonald's daughters namesake.
Caldwell recalled how when producers first tried to convince her to star in "Master Class," saying they were "trying for Audra McDonald," she said, "who?" But, then, came to revere her talents to the point that "whenever there was a night when Audra was not playing, I was no good as a lead." During out of town tryouts, one night when Audra asked her several times to come to her dressing room and close the door, "I thought, she's giving me notes!" Did the build-up payoff? Audra wanted to know, "Did you ever use the pill."
After the requisite love and thanks to friends and The Drama League, McDonald mused, "A little bit tonight, I kept thinking, 'Is this it? Am I going to get hit by a bus?' I'm a little dark that way."
Obviously, in a good way.
Bobby Steggert and Judith Light came out to honor Audra. (Photo: Rob Rich/SocietyAllure.com)