Back To Paradise With Audra

Hockey has the hat trick. Horse racing has the Triple Crown. And the theater has Audra McDonald. McDonald is the only performer in history to win three Tony Awards for her first three shows: "Carousel," "Master Class" and "Ragtime." It's an amazing streak, especially for a woman who's only 29. But it's not exactly a picnic. "You feel a pressure to top it, to hit home run after home run," says McDonald. No wonder she's shipped two of her Tony trophies to her sister and plans to deposit the other with her mom. "I don't like to keep them out," she says. "I've been incredibly fortunate and honored to have won, but I have to take the pressure off myself. You can't win a Tony every time you step onstage."

We'll see about that. McDonald opened last week in a new musical called "Marie Christine," and Broadway is buzzing--and, in a few corners, bitching--about Audra's doing it again. For her part, McDonald seems bent on making Tony No. 4 as difficult to get as possible. "Marie Christine" is the first show in which McDonald plays the lead, and she's onstage for almost every minute of the two-hour production. What's more, she's portraying a turn-of-the-century, Creole version of Medea, that charming woman who kills her brother, her children and a few others, all because she's obsessed with a man--in this case, a white man. Not exactly material that gets audiences humming with joy. "It's scary. But Audra does things that are not about safety," says Graciela Daniele, the director of "Marie Christine." "She dares. And that's what makes her magnificent."

Because she's come so far so fast, it's tempting to think of McDonald as that myth called the Overnight Success. In fact, she started acting at 9 in the most unlikely of places--dinner theater in Fresno, Calif. "But we had a great dinner theater!" says McDonald. "That's where I learned most of what I know about performing." She wanted to skip college--"I fell asleep in the SATs. Literally"--but she went to Juilliard after her parents insisted she get an education. Just before her big break, she actually fainted during her fifth and final "Carousel" audition. But by then it was obvious that with her vibrant voice and irrepressible presence, she could do anything. She's even managed to sell more than 30,000 copies of her recent CD, "Way Back to Paradise," despite the fact that the songs are by largely unknown composers of edgy "new" music. "We thought we'd make an album and Audra's mom and the composers' parents would buy it," she says. "But if we've opened a few people's eyes to a form of musical theater, that's fabulous."

"Marie Christine" was written for McDonald by one of those promising composers, Michael John LaChiusa. He'd heard an audition--not the fainting one--in 1993 and was smitten. "My jaw fell right to my shoelaces," LaChiusa says. "I said to myself right there, 'I've got to write this remarkable woman a show'." "Marie Christine" is the most challenging showcase yet for McDonald. It's a difficult work about race, betrayal and the role of women. It's not always the most accessible, either. LaChiusa's complex songs often seem intent on avoiding sustained melody at any cost. But his rich gumbo of bluesy R&B, drum-backed folk tunes, minor-key dirges and full-throttle love songs gives McDonald's awesomely versatile voice the kind of propellent it needs to soar. She packs more emotion into one word-- "beautiful"--than most singers find in a lifetime. And when she exacts revenge on her lover (Anthony Crivello) by killing their sons, the tear that bounces off McDonald's cheek ripples throughout the theater.

How does a nice girl from Fresno get so far into the mind of a murderously obsessive woman that she sometimes can't talk when the show is over? "I identify with being set on fire by something. I've been set on fire by my career, by theater," McDonald says. But it's the racial aspect of "Marie Christine" that hits home. Despite winning several roles traditionally played by white actresses--Carrie in "Carousel," Grace in last month's TV version of "Annie"--McDonald says that many acting doors are still shut to her. Her success gets her auditions for lots of roles, but she knows that, especially in Hollywood, it's often just an empty PC gesture. And when she does manage to break down a casting barrier, life can still slap her in the face. "I still get followed around stores. My mother and I were trying to buy a photo frame in Los Angeles and this woman practically chased us out of the store, convinced we had pocketed the frame," McDonald says. "That's the only time that I think, 'Do I have to carry my Tonys around so you'll leave me alone while I shop?' "

Back To Paradise With Audra | News