Ovations for the Songbird’s Message Driven Repertoire

Audra McDonald, photo by Allison Michael Orenstein

Producer Sam Goldwyn supposedly once said: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” The movie mogul presumably believed that motion pictures are not the appropriate medium for artists to impart a philosophical or political perspective in. In fact, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s motto, which appeared superimposed around the head of a roaring lion, was “Ars gratia artis,” which translated from Latin is: “Art for art’s sake.”

Audra McDonald seems to disagree with Goldwyn’s dictum, that implies talents should not express their worldview through an art form. “I pick songs based on their messages,” the soprano unabashedly proclaimed to the rapt throng at L.A.’s sold-out Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Apparently, the audience agrees with McDonald’s POV, and not Goldwyn’s verdict.

For about two decades I’ve been reviewing performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion – including McDonald with Patti LuPone in 2007 in Brecht and Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and in a 2013 one-night-only concert – and I’ve never seen any performers receive as enthusiastic a reception as Audra earned on Dec. 2. The heartfelt applause and well-deserved cries of “Bravo!” reverberated throughout the august hall where, as McDonald, a self-described girl from Fresno, marveled that Academy Award ceremonies have taken place, not to mention operas, ballets, concerts and so much more, where she herself now wowed ticket buyers overcome with elation.

Upon taking the stage after a lengthy instrumental piece played onstage by the full LA Opera Orchestra, the elegant Audra, gorgeously clad in an over-the-shoulder gown, told the aud she’d take us on a musical odyssey through “the Great American Songbook. What did you expect? That I’d sing Country Western songs?” quipped McDonald, a six-time Tony Award winner who attained renown for her legendary performances on the Great White Way in classics such as Carousel, Porgy and Bess and Ragtime. The multi-talented Audra is also a gifted actress on the big and little screens, where she can currently be seen as SNCC’s Ella Baker in the Civil Rights saga Rustin and in HBO’s gorgeous series about class and race, The Gilded Age.

As an example of McDonald’s message-driven repertoire, she opened crooning composer/lyricist Jerry Herman’s “I Am What I Am.” No, this title is not derived from Popeye cartoons, but rather from the musical version of the gay-themed La Cage aux Folles, which opened on Broadway in 1983. The notion of self-acceptance is especially poignant at a time when the LGBTQ community is coming under attack for “deviating” from a supposed mainstream heterosexual “norm.”

The African-American songstress also sang a number from The Wiz, a musical that had a special resonance for McDonald, because this 1974 musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz with an all-Black cast encouraged the young Audra to believe there was space on the stage for performers of color (along with tin men, scarecrows and cowardly lions), too. After concluding the song she exulted: “Representation matters!”

McDonald also performed Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” a Julie Styne standard from “Funny Girl” and much more throughout the ebullient show.

McDonald’s sparkling, spontaneous-sounding repartee ran throughout the approximately two-hour tour de force with one intermission (and costume change into another lovely gown). Accompanied by a guitar, after singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” Audra pointed out that Kermit the Frog’s sweet Muppet ditty was really a plaintive plea against prejudice. She went on to perform one of Broadway’s greatest odes for tolerance and against racism, a personal favorite of mine, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s immortal 1949 South Pacific, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, singing:

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate—
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

The screen version of South Pacific was the first movie I ever saw and songs like this, along with “Happy Talk” and “Bali Hai,” inspired me to move from the island of New York to the islands of the South Seas, so McDonald’s peerless rendition of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” as part of a medley had a special personal meaning for me. As did her version of my favorite hit from West Side Story, “Somewhere,” aka “A Place for Us,” composed by Leonard Bernstein (currently depicted by Bradley Cooper in Maestro), with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

As Audra reached somewhere in the vocal ether for the high notes, she almost made me burst out crying, with the sheer longing for racial harmony and peace derived from Arthur Laurents’ relocating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, from Renaissance-era Verona to 20th century Manhattan, and turning the Montagues and Capulets into warring Puerto Rican and Caucasian gangs. Transforming a Veronese balcony into a New York fire escape – where Romeo/Tony woos Juliet/Maria – is nothing short of sheer genius. After finishing the song, McDonald implored theatergoers to “listen” to “Somewhere’s” wistful lyrics, with a “message that’s more relevant than ever.”  

The singer urged her listeners to “live in the moment” and ended on an upbeat tone, performing a rousing rendition of composer John Kander and lyricist by Fred Ebb’s Cabaret. Encouraging all to embrace joy, even in our troubled times, McDonald’s encore, which she belted out with glee, was “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Perhaps there was a not-so-subliminal message in selecting this beloved tune, as it was Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign song and has been the Democratic Party’s unofficial anthem. 

Throughout the wonderful evening, McDonald was accompanied by her music director and conductor, Andy Einhorn (who she jokingly referred to as her stage “husband”), Jeremy Jordan on piano, Gene Lewin on drums and Mark Vanderpoel on bass, as well as the 50-ish piece LA Opera Orchestra, rendering a soaring sonorous symphonic sound that perfectly complemented the full-throated soloist’s singing.

Well, in our time of wars abroad and a fascist menace at home, we might not actually be enjoying “Happy Days” now (and I doubt the Democrats could restore them), but at least with the uplifting message of togetherness, tolerance and hope McDonald sent, fans got to experience a joyful night. As she proclaimed before the curtain dropped, “We’ve got to get back to humanity.”   

McDonald’s vocal cords and harmonious chords conveying luminous, lofty ideals are a far greater messenger than Western Union ever once. Audra’s effervescent concert offered surcease from woes, a balm for soothing seething souls in a perilous period, as evinced by the thunderous standing ovation deservedly showered upon McDonald and her musical cohorts. A splendid time was had by all at the Dorothy Chandler.

Photos by Lawrence K Ho, Robert Milliard