SALT LAKE CITY — Actress and singer Audra McDonald is accustomed to performing throughout the world, from Broadway to concert halls across the U.S., on both the big and small screen.
But when she’s performing in Utah, McDonald said it feels like she’s performing for her family — literally.
McDonald, who holds the record for the most Tony wins by an actor or actress with six awards, is married to Provo native Will Swenson, a Broadway star in his own right who is recognized by locals as the lead in the film “The Singles Ward” and who also happens to be the grandson of Ruth and Nathan Hale, founders of both Hale Center Theater Orem and Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy.
“There’s a lot of Hales and Swensons out there (in Utah) … and a lot of times, with the sheer enormity of Will’s family, I do feel like a lot of the audience is family,” McDonald said with a laugh during an interview with the Deseret News. “But I feel very much at home and I feel quite welcomed by the community, so there’s a comfort.”
McDonald will be performing for both her literal and figurative Utah family again as she takes the stage of Abravanel Hall with the Utah Symphony March 23-24.
McDonald’s fondness for performing in Utah extends several years before her marriage to Swenson in 2012 — she appeared as the featured soloist at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert in 2004, three years before she met Swenson — but that fondness has only amplified since.
“I have to say, when I came out (to Utah) and sang years before I knew and met Will, I felt quite welcomed and it was a very warm feeling from the audiences before that,” she explained. “I always look forward it; it’s just become more so since I’m kind of related to Utah in a very special way now.”
McDonald said she and Swenson try to make it to Utah at least once a year to visit family between the two performers’ busy schedules — Swenson recently wrapped up a stint as Earl in Broadway’s “Waitress” and McDonald appeared in Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” last year as Madame Garderobe in between stops on her busy concert tour. And day to day, the two work hard to carve out family time wherever they can.
“Will and I are so incredibly busy that any moment that we are not busy is family time,” she said. “We don’t get to hang out with our friends all that much and they totally understand, but if there’s a free moment that we have, it’s family time.”
The couple welcomed a daughter, Sally James McDonald-Swenson, into their family in October 2016, who joined the busy family dynamic with McDonald’s daughter, Zoe, 17, and Swenson’s sons, Bridger, 17, and Sawyer, 14.
“Some days it feels like air traffic control, just like, ‘You’re here, you’re here, you’re there, you’re there, who’s home?’ It’s crazy but everybody’s doing great,” McDonald said.
McDonald, whose other accolades include two Grammy Awards, an Emmy and a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, said her role as wife and mother has a significant impact on her performances.
“The truth of my life resonates quite deeply in my art, and all of that, especially now, is about my family,” she said. “They influence every part of it, from song selection to the emotion that comes up while I’m singing to lessons that can be learned by certain songs that I sing that can be taught … .” For her upcoming concerts with the Utah Symphony, that influence will resonate through a program that will include work from composers as varied as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin and Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown.
“I do everything from the Great American Musical Theater songbook,” McDonald explained. “I think the oldest song I’m singing was written in 1929, and the newest song I’m singing, I think, was written in 2008, and everything in between.” Although Swenson’s schedule won’t permit him to visit Utah with her on this trip, McDonald hopes to spend any downtime she may have with his family while she’s in the area.
“One of my favorite things to do is just hang out with Will’s family, and especially since I’ll have the baby with me, it’s time for the family to spend a little more time with the youngest and newest grandchild,” she said.4 comments on this story
Beyond that, McDonald said she’ll likely make a traditional stop for a bite to eat.
“The other big thing we do is my father-in-law is always like, ‘Well, we’ve gotta take you to In-N-Out Burger,’” McDonald explained with a laugh. “We don’t have In-N-Out Burgers here in New York, so they always take us to In-N-Out so we can get our fix while we’re there.”
If you go …
What: Audra McDonald with the Utah Symphony
When: March 23-24, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $23-$103