Audra McDonald stars in ‘Broadway at NOCCA’ series

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald

Barri Bronston

Special to The Advocate

When the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Institute (NOCCA) began putting together plans for a “Broadway at NOCCA” series, organizers had big dreams as to whom they wanted to bring to Lupin Hall, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts’ main performance venue.

They dreamed big, and they got big, as in five-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald, who will make her New Orleans concert debut Saturday night, May 18, at NOCCA.

One could say that McDonald’s name is synonymous with the Tony. She tied the record of Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris for the most Tonys last June when she won her fifth statue – her first for leading actress – for her role as Bess in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”She has two Grammy Awards to her credit, two Emmy nominations and a bevy of other accolades from Drama Desk Awards to Outer Critics Circle Awards.

McDonald participated in a similar series at the Art House Theatre in Provincetown, Mass., where Mark Cortale is artistic director. Cortale manages New Orleans actor Jeffery Roberson, also known as Varla Jean Merman, who along with NOCCA Institute Marketing Director Richard Read persuaded Cortale to bring the series to New Orleans.

Read said he saw one of the shows in action during a summer trip to Provincetown and thought, “How can we get this to New Orleans? It was a perfect fit for us. We have a beautiful concert hall, and fantastic artists who do master classes with our students.”

The NOCCA Institute, the fundraising arm of NOCCA, kicked off the series in January with two-time Tony Award-winner Patti LuPone. Two-time Tony-winner Sutton Foster and two-time Emmy winner Megan Mullally followed. The series concludes next month with Megan Hilty, star of NBC’s “Smash.” Next up is McDonald, who says she is thrilled to be part of the New Orleans series.

“The audience definitely can expect a good time,” McDonald said in a recent telephone interview. “It’ll be a fun, casual event with conversation and a lot of singing.”

McDonald will present concerts at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., performing songs from her Broadway shows, including “Carousel,” “Ragtime, “110 in the Shade,” and “Porgy and Bess.“

Joining her on stage will be pianist and host Seth Rudetsky, host of “Seth’s Big Fat Broadway” on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. Rudetsky, who described himself as Broadway-obsessed in a Boston Globe article last year, will interview McDonald in a format that promises to give the audience a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a Broadway star.

As excited as McDonald is for the concert, she said she is equally delighted to be working with NOCCA’s musical theater students. She will teach various skills and techniques, but also talk about the theater world and what students can expect if they pursue a theater career.

“When I work with students, I try to emphasize the importance of being themselves, try not to replicate someone else, to figure out what’s unique about them and go from there,” McDonald said.

She also lets them know that there is more to theater than Broadway.

“If you have the belief in yourself, get on the stage anywhere you can,” she said. “The communication between audience and performer is magical, whether you’re on stage at the Y, at a church or on Broadway.”

Born into a musical family, McDonald received her classical vocal training at the Julliard School in Manhattan. A year after graduating in 1993, she won her first Tony for her featured role in “Carousel.” Over the next four years, she won two more – one for “Master Class” in 1996 and for “Ragtime” in 1998. She won her fourth Tony for “Raisin in the Sun” in 2004 and last year for leading actress for her role in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”

In addition to her Broadway credits, McDonald has made a name for herself on television, most recently as Dr. Naomi Bennett on the ABC medical drama “Private Practice” from 2007 to 2011. She earned two Emmy nominations – one for her performance in the HBO film version of the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Wit” and another for her reprisal of her role in “A Raisin in the Sun” in a made-for-television move adaptation.

But her résumé doesn’t stop there. It includes operas, albums and concerts as well as an advocacy role in the marriage equality campaign Freedom to Marry. She recently completed shooting a CBS pilot called “The Ordained,” a crime drama, and on May 21, her first album in seven years, “Go Back Home,” will be released. Last year, she was named the new host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “Live From Lincoln Center.”

With a schedule like that, the NOCCA Institute feels fortunate to have landed such a consummate talent. In fact, Read says, the entire series has been a major coup for NOCCA students as well as the New Orleans community at large.

“This is the first year,” he said, “and we’re already in plans for year two.”