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Sat May 18, 2013
Music Interviews

Audra McDonald, A Broadway Star Gone Roaming, Comes Home

Originally published on Sun May 19, 2013 7:24 am

In the seven years since her last album, Audra McDonald has kept busy. She spent several years in Hollywood, filming the television series Private Practice. She's gotten divorced and remarried, absorbed the shock of losing her father in a plane crash and watched her daughter, Zoe, grow up from a kindergartener to a middle-schooler.

Last year, McDonald returned to New York, starred in Porgy and Bess and won a fifth Tony Award. All the ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies are reflected on her new album, Go Back Home.

"This album is incredibly personal," McDonald says. "If someone were to have written a Broadway show about my life in the past seven years, these are the songs they would have used."

The first song on the recording is the title track, and it pretty much states the theme.

" 'Go Back Home,' for me, resonated with just having been away for the past five years and not only coming back to New York, but home, which is my daughter; home, which is the theater; home, back to love, and all that."

Like many of McDonald's previous albums, the new one mixes songs from Broadway legends — "Go Back Home" was written by Kander and Ebb — with some from a younger generation of songwriters. That includes Adam Guettel, Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza, whose "Migratory V" is featured here. McDonald dedicates that song to her late father, who was a pilot.

Songwriter Adam Gwon is another of the younger composers McDonald features on her album. He was in college studying performance when he picked up her 1998 debut, Way Back to Paradise. Today, he says that album is what made him want to become a composer.

"First, it made me realize that, 'Oh, people, like, write musical theater,' " he says, laughing. "And also, 'People write songs that can do these exciting things.' For that reason alone, having my song on this album is, like, mind-blowing, really."

Gwon's song "I'll Be Here" comes from his off-Broadway show Ordinary Days. In it, a woman tells the story of her past relationship to her current boyfriend. The climax occurs when she recounts what happened to them on Sept. 11, 2001.

McDonald says the song means something different to her: " 'I'll Be Here' has more to do for me, in my personal life, with watching kind of what my stepmom has had to go through in getting her life back after losing my dad six years ago so tragically, so quickly, so suddenly," she says. "And watching her try and let go, so that she can move on."

While Audra McDonald has a lot of vocal power, she chooses to use it sparingly. For her, it's all about something deeper.

"I think there's nothing wrong with someone going out in a concert like, 'I'm gonna just thrill you and give you chills' and all this stuff," she says. "But for who I am as an artist ... I'm most fulfilled when I feel like there's been a communion — something shared, something learned, something received, you know?"

McDonald's album ends with an old song by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green called "Make Someone Happy."

"It's a mantra for me," McDonald says. "At the end of the day, what's most important? Do I want to be in some fancy dress, you know, with a bunch of people that I don't know and hair and makeup and blah blah blah? Or do I want to be at home with my family, all on the couch with the farting dogs, playing a game of Sorry or playing Yahtzee? I'll take B every time."

Go Back Home comes out Tuesday. On Friday, Audra McDonald will host her own Live From Lincoln Center performance on PBS, featuring songs from the album.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And it's been seven years since five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald recorded a new CD. Her latest album, "Go Back Home," is just that, a return to her roots in musical theater. And she tells our man Jeff Lunden, all of the songs on this album are deeply personal.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Between her last CD and her new one, Audra McDonald has been busy. She spent several years in Hollywood, filming the television series "Private Practice." She's gotten divorced and remarried; absorbed the shock of losing her father in a fatal plane crash; and watched her daughter, Zoe, grow up from a kindergartener to a middle-schooler.

Last year, she returned to New York, starred in "Porgy and Bess," and won a fifth Tony Award. And all the ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, are reflected on her new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO BACK HOME")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Lying all alone, I'm thinking, staring at the stars, I wonder since I've been away, how lonely, when I'm gonna go back home...

This album is incredibly personal. It's - I think I - I liken it to if someone were to have written a Broadway show about my life in the past seven years, these are the songs they would have used.

LUNDEN: The first song on the recording - and its title, "Go Back Home" - pretty much states the theme.

MCDONALD: "Go Back Home," for me, resonated with just having been away for the past five years and not only coming back to New York, but home, which is my daughter; home, which is the theater; home, back to love - and all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO BACK HOME")

MCDONALD: (Singing) Where has it gone to? I don't know. But maybe times will turn, I pray so maybe someday...

LUNDEN: Like many of her previous albums, McDonald has found a mixture of songs from Broadway legends - "Go Back Home" was written by Kander and Ebb - to a younger generation of songwriters, including Adam Guettel, the Tony winner for "The Light in the Piazza," whose "Migratory V" is featured on the album. McDonald dedicates that song to her late father, who was a pilot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIGRATORY V")

MCDONALD: (Singing) We sail above the weather. We search the ocean floor...

ADAM GWON: Her first album, "Way Back To Paradise," was kind of the thing that made me want to be a composer.

LUNDEN: Songwriter Adam Gwon is part of the next generation of composers that McDonald features on her album. He first encountered her - and the young songwriters she has championed - when he was in college, studying to be a performer, and picked up her 1998 debut album.

GWON: First, it made me realize that oh, people like, write musical theater. (Laughing) And also, people write songs that can do these exciting things. And so for that reason alone, having my song on this album is like, mind-blowing, really. (Laughing)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE HERE")

MCDONALD: (Singing) 'Cause I'll be here at the corner of Bleeker and Mercer tomorrow at 7...

LUNDEN: Gwon's song "I'll Be Here" comes from his off-Broadway show, "Ordinary Days." In it, a woman tells the story of her past relationship, to her current boyfriend. And the climax occurs when she recounts what happened to them on 9/11.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE HERE")

MCDONALD: (Singing) He had to stop into his office that morning; and so I went walking uptown to this bakery I know, when I heard on the street what I thought was a joke till I noticed the sirens and saw all the smoke. So I'm running back home with this feeling of dread, to the voicemail he left with the last words he said...

And this song, actually - "I'll Be Here" - has more to do for me, in my personal life, with watching kind of what my stepmom has had to go through in getting her life back after losing my dad six years ago so tragically, so quickly, so suddenly; and watching her try and let go, so that she can move on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE HERE")

MCDONALD: (Singing) Yes, Jason, I will marry you. I will give you my heart. It has taken so long, but I'm ready to start. Right now, John's whispering congrats in my ear 'cause I finally let myself tell you that I will be here...

LUNDEN: While Audra McDonald has a lot of vocal power, she chooses to use it sparingly. For her, it's all about something deeper.

MCDONALD: I think there's nothing wrong with someone going out in a concert and just like, I'm gonna just thrill you and give you chills, and all this stuff. That's a wonderful thing, too. But for who I am as an artist, I think - for me, I'm most fulfilled when I feel like there's been a communion; when there's been something shared, something learned, something received - you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY")

MCDONALD: (Singing) Make someone happy...

LUNDEN: McDonald's album ends with an old song by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, called "Make Someone Happy."

MCDONALD: It's a mantra for me, you know. At the end of the day, what's most important, you know? Do I want to be in some fancy dress - you know, with a bunch of people that I don't know, and hair and makeup, you know, and blah, blah, blah; or do I want to be at home with my family, all on the couch with the farting dogs, just - you know, playing a game of Sorry, or playing Yahtzee? I'll take B, every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY")

MCDONALD: (Singing) Make just one someone happy, make just one heart the heart you sing to...

LUNDEN: Audra McDonald's new album, "Go Back Home," will be released on Tuesday. On Friday, she hosts her own "Live From Lincoln Center" performance on PBS, featuring songs from the album.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY")

SIMON: Can you hear the dog? This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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