On recordings and in the show “Marie Christine,” Audra McDonald champions the New Theater Music. Sure, she can make it sing, but will audiences listen?
November 7, 1999
By Jesse Green
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Innumerable stories beneath Lincoln Center, below its stages, its dressing rooms and even its garage, Audra McDonald is at work in a vast concrete bunker, doing something that involves ancient passions, modern technology and the overarching threat of a bomb. She is singing new music, for a new Broadway show.
The show, called "Marie Christine," is set at the end of the 19th century; when it opens officially on Dec. 2 it will be among the final narrative musicals of the 20th. Pessimists can be forgiven for thinking that it may be among the final narrative musicals ever, now that most Broadway musicals are glop operas or dance revues instead of "book shows" like 'West Side Story" and "Guys and Dolls." Shifting pressures in American society, in the music industry and in the hearts of artists themselves have combined to collapse the rich vein that produced those classic midcentury shows, or perhaps that vein was merely dug out. In any case, what is being rehearsed here is both a tribute to the immense craft of the old form and a tearless funeral for its popularity.
Right now, McDonald and her costar, Anthony Crivello, are working on a duet called "I Don't Hear the Ocean," and McDonald is trying to get her tricky entrance right. "No! No! No! Too early!" she barks at herself, though she is off by less than an eighth note. Michael John LaChiusa, who wrote the music, lyrics and book for the show, calmly asks her to try again; this time she gets it, but you see her counting the beats in her head. She stews for a moment, giggles, takes a swig from the requisite Jeroboam of water. Then, on the third try, the trick is absorbed, and she vanishes into the music like a card up a magician's sleeve.
Perhaps the most telling sign of McDonald's oversize talent is that she can vanish into this music at all. She is not, even standing still, a small personality ‑ more like a party favor about to pop. And the music is rarely welcoming in any familiar way. Ignoring almost every rule of the classic Broadway song, LaChiusa has composed a score with more melisma than a Joan Sutherland album, no interest in the pop market and only a trace of Bernstein and Gershwin. If many of those men's songs became standards, LaChiusa's are nonstandards, shaped eccentrically to the dramatic moment and filled with the jumpy phrases, careening melodies and sudden U‑turns that have become emblematic of something we might as well call the New Theater Music. Songs in this style ‑ by LaChiusa and composers like Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jeanine Tesori and Jenny Giering ‑ are pitched high emotionally, pitched everywhere physically and are, in short, very difficult to sing.
For some, they are also very difficult to hear. Bald lyrics, amoebic forms and high‑flown theatrics unanchored by craft can make innovation seem like artlessness. But McDonald believes in the music and is capable of making others believe in it too ‑ even the composers, who may not otherwise get much affirmation. Indeed, for her 1998 debut album, 'Way Back to Paradise," she picked a totally contrarian collection of 14 songs by the New Theater Music gang, abjuring standards altogether. Why?
"The standards tended to be general," she says. "But we've seen a lot of stuff in this century, and what we've seen has to be addressed more specifically in our music. How many 'You broke my heart, baby' songs have we heard? But now it's, 'You broke my heart because you left me while I was getting ready to have an abortion, and somehow that brought me closer to faith.' That's specific ‑ and complicated. And that's something I respond to."
So, surprisingly, has the public; her album sold an astounding 30,000 copies in its first month of release. No wonder, back at rehearsal, LaChiusa holds on to McDonald's voice as long as he can. It's as if he's got Ethel Merman on his side: a star talented enough to build a show around (as Cole Porter built "Anything Goes" around Merman) and charismatic enough to make it sell. "Again with that phrase?" he asks. This time McDonald just lets it pour out: the one word "beautiful," over and over, as if singing could make it so.
But what Lincoln Center is producing this fall is not "Anything Goes." "Marie Christine" is nothing less than an American "Medea," a meditation on race and voraciousness ‑ if not an opera (dreaded word!), then something at least as ambitious. It is also, for all involved, a big gamble. The producers know that most of the younger composers' shows have not been financial powerhouses; whether they have been artistic successes is an open question. Still, McDonald has put three years into developing "Marie Christine."
"She doesn't need to be doing this," says the show's director and choreographer, Graciela Daniele. "She could be doing anything" – by which Daniele might mean Hollywood or modeling or "Madame Butterfly." "But she never takes the easy path. If anything, she is too serious, too hard‑working, to the point I sometimes worry about her. But you can't really tell her not to do it." For Daniele, who is something of a den mother to the New Theater Music coterie, the arrival at just the right time of a diva to spearhead the movement must have seemed like a godsend. When she first heard McDonald, at an audition in 1993, Daniele felt as if she were "encountering a force of nature." Ira Weitzman, producer of musical theater for Lincoln Center, was also there. Hardly believing his ears, he drew a big star next to the new girl's name.
What was it they heard, or saw? A singer fresh out of Juilliard, recognizably in the Broadway tradition, yet with something completely new about her as well. She was Julie Andrews but black, Barbra Streisand but trained, Ethel Merman but svelte. She did not seem to recognize categorical boundaries ‑ certainly not imposed ones of race and genre, nor the technical ones of high and low and the craggy ditch between. Even the click at the border between silence and singing was smoothed in her voice. She was always singing, behind her eyes, except when she fainted, as she did during one of those early auditions. "She kind of wilted to the floor quite gracefully, almost like choreography," Weitzman recalls.
The fainting, oft‑reprised, has only enhanced McDonald's mystique, which adds to the expectation that she be some kind of millennial Merman ‑ albeit a stunning, 29‑year‑old Merman with a lush, flexible soprano and the ability to tinker with semiquavers. If this makes the stakes for her dangerously high, she has not shied away from upping the ante herself. She has won a Tony Award every other year since that first big audition: for "Carousel" in 1994, for "Master Class" in 1996 and for "Ragtime" in 1998. More recently, she has sung with a half‑dozen major orchestras, appeared in several nationally telecast concerts on PBS, filmed Disney's remake of "Annie" (which will be broadcast tonight on ABC), made her dramatic debut in the television movie "Having Our Say" and sung 'Wonderful Town" at Royal Albert Hall in London. Her cabaret show was rapturously reviewed, and she has just finished recording a second album (some new songs, some standards), due out in February.
When I recite this much‑abridged list to her over lunch, McDonald laughs. "I do push myself to the limit," she admits. "Not out of masochism, but out of loving what I do. And I did take a vacation after the London concerts" ‑ a cruise with her boyfriend (and bassist), Peter Donovan. But even the vacation, her first in years, was productive; by the banks of the Arno at dusk one day, Donovan, on bended knee, proposed.
As McDonald flashes the resultant ring, her sophisticated facade melts into girlish excitement, and the tragedienne turns into an ingénue. At once, I see where everything started for her: not in a desire to become an evangelist for new theater songs, but in the giddy role‑playing of a star‑struck, musical child.
"Barbra Streisand! " she exclaims. "Judy Garland! 'Dreamgirls'! Patti LuPone! I wrote Bernadette Peters a fan letter saying something stupid like, 'We both have curly hair!' I was such a musical‑comedy cliché. Of course, I had all the influences. If you were a McDonald or a Jones" ‑ her mother's family ‑ "you'd better sing well or you might get sent back." Five aunts toured as the gospel‑singing McDonald Sisters; at home, in a middle‑class, mostly white neighborhood of Fresno, Calif., there was an electric organ in the back, a piano in the front and a record player playing, it must have seemed, everywhere. Not just Streisand but also Chopin nocturnes, Sarah Vaughan, "Depuis le Jour."
If her musical influences were extreme and romantic, that suited an extreme and romantic personality. "I was a very sensitive, very dramatic, very hyper child," she says. "I'd kick my teachers, run away from school, tear around the house screaming, 'The world's coming to an end!' Instead of putting me on Ritalin, the doctor said, 'Channel the energy."' So when a dinner theater called Roger Rocka's Good Company Players was holding auditions, Audra sang "Edelweiss" and got cast as an alternate in the junior troupe.
"It was an incredible education," she says. "They did 10 musicals a year, and we kids would do cabarets before each, things like Irving Berlin songs. Songs of World War II. I mean, I was singing “White Cliffs of Dover” at age 10! That's crazy! So before I was out of my teens I'd basically absorbed the Broadway songbook. I was always thought of as a geek in my school because I wasn't terribly into the Go‑Go's or Devo. That was not what was thrilling to me. Not like 'Cornet Man' and 'Losing My Mind"" ‑ show tunes about unreliable men and unrequited love.
The musical theater famously exploits the talents of the precociously tragic, but it also assuages their disappointments. If you are a geek or a sissy or if your parents divorce (as McDonald's did when she was 14), come to the cabaret, old chum. In its spotlighted intimacies and high-kick cohesion, the life of the stage can always provide a refuge and a family: a family filled with tensions and disappointments like a real family, but in the end, trumpets up, presenting a happy, unified face to the world.
Perhaps not quite a unified face. Fresno in the 70's and 80's was fairly well integrated, McDonald says, but Roger Rocka's was not. It was one thing for a black child to sing songs as part of a cabaret, another thing for her to take a "white" role in the main production. "When they did 'The Sound of Music,"' McDonald recalls, all the kids in the junior company auditioned for it, but it was clear there was no chance in hell for me and my sister." Conversely, when she was cast in "The Miracle Worker" as "the one little dimwitted black girl," her parents forbade her to play the role. Nor would they allow her to audition for "Showboat," with its ragbag of tired (if tuneful) stereotypes. "I was so upset with them, but they said: 'These parts are demeaning. You will thank us later.' And I do. Because even now things are not as different as they might seem."
With anyone less talented, you might suspect sour grapes ‑ and McDonald was eventually cast as Evita at Roger Rocka's. But the apparently unbroken skin of her success is not so smooth when seen from the inside; we know what parts she got (her Broadway debut was as Carrie in the archetypally white "Carousel"), not what parts she lost. "Let's just say I auditioned for 'Beauty and the Beast,"' she hints. "Ha ha ha."
At first, I think she means she couldn't land the lead role of Belle, but, in fact, she couldn't even get into the ensemble of dancing cutlery. "No black forks!" she intones. "No black forks!"
She's joking, but… “Look, I shouldn't say that, because Disney has certainly cast a lot of black people since then." ' Indeed, in Disney's TV production of "Annie," McDonald plays Grace Farrell, whose love interest, Daddy Warbucks, is played by the white actor Victor Garber. "Amazingly, this is still controversial. So I don't think we've really turned a corner. I think it's just that I have personally been very lucky."
She won't say more; it would be unseemly for someone who has been so successful to complain. But the complaint is obvious. Though "colorblind" casting was a coup in "Carousel," it hasn't exactly fueled a Broadway revolution. Yes, she has arrived, but only by picking her way through a minefield of nonopportunity, a field that would be for the most part clear if she were white. Could it be that her embrace of the New Theater Music has as much to do with inclusiveness as taste? If you grow up singing "Funny Girl" but no one will ever cast you as Fanny Brice, you look for people doing work that might welcome you, and what they are doing will not typically be "Funny Girl" but "Medea." In that sense, McDonald's experience as a black performer parallels the experience of post‑Golden Age theater composers; rejected by the pop market, they turned away from traditional Broadway fare and went all arty.
Because "Marie Christine" was written as a vehicle for McDonald, it would seem to erase the issue. But, in fact, for LaChiusa at least, the show actually underlines the problems ‑ and opportunities ‑ of race. "It is a show about race, of course, as was 'Medea' in the first place," he says. "In our version, Marie Christine has a French father and Haitian mother. She runs away from New Orleans to Chicago with her white husband, only to be abandoned, with disastrous results." Theatergoers beware: it looks as if McDonald, who in "Ragtime" failed to murder her baby, will have more success this season.
We are sitting in LaChiusa's apartment above a bodega on the Upper West Side; amid his keyboards and computers he has set out mint iced tea and a tray of sweets as if it were actually New Orleans. 'When any artist can make herself understood by a general public," he says, "then something is shared that is highly meaningful. Audra does that. I am black and I'm touching you. She projects the complications of race, and what I love about her voice is exactly that chameleon aspect, the variety of things she can do with it. It's so American, by which I mean mongrel: some this, some that. I identify strongly with the idea of mongrelism, because that's what my music is, too." As if on cue, a wave of salsa floats up from the street. "This may be strange, but maybe I can express it this way."
LaChiusa plays a 1929 cut from a CD featuring the singer Victoria Spivey. The number is "Dirty T.B. Blues" ‑ less a song than a sneer with melody. Then he plays a cut of Maria Callas singing "Numi, Venite a Me," from Cherubini's "Medea" ‑ all line and artifice.
"It's odd to say," he whispers with his eyes shut, "but Audra is somehow both of them."
That melding ‑ of European and American, of "legit" and "belt" vocal styles ‑ did not come easily. For a Broadway baby, the strictly classical culture of Juilliard was torture. The gift, once a private joy and solace, now had to serve an external agenda; natural expressiveness had to be corralled by technique. At this point, McDonald seems to have managed a fine equilibrium. The fainting, diagnosed not as nerves but low blood pressure, seems at last to be under control ‑ but to the extent that it symbolized escape from an overwhelming pressure to perform, it still hovers dangerously over her career. For a high‑strung person, a unique talent exacts a unique price, and the price for McDonald may be a sense of responsibility that in the long run may be too much to bear.
To whom are McDonald and the composers she champions responsible? The score to "Marie Christine" is beautiful, sometimes simply in the way that all newborns are beautiful and sometimes in the traditional way, too. But it is hard to imagine a 10‑year‑old girl in Fresno today, even if she somehow learned to love a Broadway that is largely reduced to crockery and cats, warbling one of LaChiusa's polyrhythmic ballads the way McDonald once warbled "Edelweiss." And without those warbling girls, what will happen to the next generation of musicals?
Joel Abels, who as a child performed with McDonald in Fresno, is now the director of a children's musical theater there. His most recent season featured chestnuts like "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." I ask him which of the new musicals he could imagine staging for the 11 to 18‑year‑olds in his company. "Marie Christine"? No. "Hello Again"? No. "A New Brain"? No. "Floyd Collins"? No. "Parade"? No. "Ragtime"? "Maybe," he says, a bit doubtfully.
"Once on This Island"?
"Yes! That we could do."
Not that providing fodder for children's theaters should be an artist's goal. And any realist will have long since stopped mourning the end of the era in which Broadway culture was the same as popular culture. But listening to the score of "Marie‑ Christine" and all the others, I wonder how the musical theater will ever get itself out of the narrowing box of its own aspirations.
"Maybe I'm just a cockeyed optimist," LaChiusa says, laughing at his own Hammerstein reference, "but I believe that sophisticated theater music will cross over again. And the way to do it is to go even further. Be more experimental. Look, we're talking to an audience that's already treating the theater as a luxury item like silk sheets, not as an everyday resource. So as long as that's the case, why not put more threads in it?"
"You see musical theater as an elite art form," I say, "instead of popular entertainment."
"Exactly," LaChiusa says.
In "Master Class," the playwright Terrence McNally has Callas utter what could be the creed of the new‑musical elites: "People are forgetting how to listen. If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating." McDonald, for whom the rarefied dangers of "Marie Christine" are exactly the point, puts it more modestly, if ambivalently. "In the end, you can't be responsible to the larger culture," she says. "You can only sing the music that's there before you."
Jesse Green, a regular contributor to the magazine, is the author of "The Velveteen Father: An Unexpected journey to Parenthood."