Audra McDonald sings through 'Porgy and Bess' mess

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 photo, actress and singer Audra McDonald rehearses for her upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, in New York. McDonald is currently in the middle of her first concert tour in four years, which lands in Carnegie Hall on Saturday. The tour ends in December when she returns to Broadway in "Porgy and Bess."

Charles Sykes, Associated Press

NEW YORK — As deliberate as Audra McDonald is about picking songs for her concerts, what she says in between singing them is anything but considered.

"I just talk, which sometimes is good and sometimes is not good at all," she says, laughing. "I find that keeps me at my most honest, which then keeps me in the right frame of mind for each song."

The four-time Tony Award winner has even surprised herself by suddenly talking about shoes or what she ate for lunch. "For some people it's like, 'Oh, dear. I didn't know all that about you, and I didn't want to hear all that about you. I just wanted to hear your voice.'"

That voice is currently in the middle of her first concert tour in four years, which lands in New York's Carnegie Hall on Saturday and then takes McDonald to Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Pennsylvania by the end of November.

After that, McDonald will be heading to Catfish Row to help restart a new production of "Porgy and Bess" on Broadway. The reworked opera, now called "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," had a controversial out-of-town tryout this fall in Boston.

Directed by the American Repertory Theater's Diane Paulus and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deidre L. Murray, the show generated headlines when Stephen Sondheim complained that an American masterpiece was being violated.

McDonald, who will play Bess opposite Norm Lewis as Porgy and David Alan Grier as Sporting Life, has taken the controversy in stride. While surprised to see New York critics showing up in Boston to review a musical that is still being worked on, she understands.

"People have such passionate feelings about this piece," she says. "It's been part of our cultural language forever and it's just one of those things that everybody feels a bit of ownership in their own way. And God bless them all, as far as I'm concerned. Seriously."

Paulus says McDonald has thrown herself into the role of Bess with every fiber of her being. "Audra is the kind of actress who investigates every moment she is living on stage — and she is relentless in her search for truth on stage," Paulus says.

The controversy has found itself in McDonald's song selections for her concert, which usually include show tunes, classic songs from movies and pieces written expressly for her. But she won't be singing hits from "Porgy and Bess" such as "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" because most of Bess' songs are duets.

One song that McDonald, 41, has picked is "Go Back Home" from "The Scottsboro Boys," a musical that closed abruptly in December after playing just 49 performances following protests from people who never saw it.

The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical frames the 1930s-era story of nine black teenagers wrongfully put on death row as a minstrel show but then immediately subverts it by having an all-black cast. Some performances of the show drew protesters who refused to see it and claimed the musical was actually embracing the minstrel convention.

"I think about people reacting to 'Porgy and Bess' because of what they've heard without necessarily seeing the show, and what happened to 'Scottsboro Boys,'" she says. "Walk into the theater and see it. Then if you've got issues, yes, then by all means, march out of there and protest."

She also plans to sing a Sondheim song, "Moments in the Woods" from "Into the Woods" after discussing it with the composer, a sign that their relationship hasn't been destroyed over "Porgy and Bess."

"I know how passionate he is about that particular piece. That's no surprise to anybody," she says, then adds diplomatically about the musical: "We disagree in certain areas."

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