Four-time Tony Award®-winner Audra McDonald (b. Berlin, Germany, July 3, 1970) is an American singer and actress, known to television audiences as Dr. Naomi Bennett on Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy. But her stage, screen, concert, and recording accomplishments place her among the brightest stars in entertainment history.
Audra Ann McDonald was raised in Fresno, California, the elder of two daughters. The family was musical: five aunts used to tour as the McDonald Sisters in a gospel quintet in the 1970s. As a child Audra was thought to be “hyperactive” and encouraged to study acting to work off some of her excess energy. At Theodore Roosevelt High School she was in a special School of the Arts program, and worked with the Junior Company of the Good Company Players, directed by Dan Pessano. She went on to the Juilliard School of Music in New York as an undergraduate, studying classical voice, and finished in 1993. She met her husband, bassist Peter Donovan, at Juilliard.
At the age of twenty-eight McDonald had already won three Tony Awards®. She got her start on Broadway as a replacement in The Secret Garden before she was even out of school, and in 1994 was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in the revival of Carousel at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. This performance brought her the grand slam of theatre awards for a newcomer – the Tony® for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical, and the Theatre World Award.
Although Audra McDonald sang in her role as Sharon in Terrence McNally’s Master Class (which won the Tony®, incidentally, in every category for which it was nominated), the play was not a musical as such, and the Tony® that she won in 1996 was for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Zoe Caldwell, who as Maria Callas won Best Actress, became such a friend and example that Audra named her baby daughter, born in 2001, after her.
The third Tony Award®, again for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, came in 1998, for Ragtime, making her the youngest actress ever to be so distinguished. What is more, the three awards were achieved within the short span of five years, a record equaled only by Shirley Booth, Gwen Verdon and Zero Mostel.
Audra McDonald first appeared on film in Seven Servants with Anthony Quinn in 1996, The Object of My Affection in 1998, and Cradle Will Rock in 1999. Thereafter, she focused primarily on television, first as a dramatic actress in Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years (1999), then as Miss Grace Farrell in the musical Annie (1999), and as nurse Susie Monahan with Emma Thompson in Wit (2001), for which McDonald was nominated for an Emmy®.
Back on Broadway, earning another Tony® and another Drama Desk nomination in 2000 for Marie Christine, a musical written especially for McDonald by Michael John LaChiusa, she won a fourth Tony Award® (in a Play, again) in 2004 for her role in A Raisin in the Sun.
In 2005 Audra McDonald sang with Patti LuPone in an Emmy®-winning Live from Lincoln Center telecast. Her appearances in television series, begun with the political drama Mister Sterling in 2003, continued with The Bedford Diaries (2006), Kidnapped (2006), Grey’s Anatomy (2009), and Private Practice (2007–2009). An adaptation of Raisin in the Sun broadcast on television in 2008 earned her a second Emmy Award® nomination. Meanwhile she has been a frequent guest on variety and talk shows.
McDonald has not neglected her operatic and classical talents. At Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in 2005 she sang a new song cycle, The Seven Deadly Sins, by Michael John LaChiusa and six other composers. She made a thrilling debut at the Houston Grand Opera in 2006 in a double-bill consisting of François Poulenc’s monologue-opera La Voix Humaine and a new companion piece to it by LaChiusa, Send. In February 2007 she sang her debut at the Los Angeles Opera as Jenny in Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
Also in 2007, on Broadway Audra McDonald played Lizzie in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of 110 in the Shade, receiving the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Musical and a Tony® nomination.
McDonald has sung with the major orchestras and festivals of the nation and of the world: the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. In London she was only the second American in over a hundred years to be featured in the celebrated “Last Night of the Proms.”
Besides the Original Cast recordings of her Award-winning performances (Carousel, Ragtime, Marie Christine, 110 in the Shade), McDonald can be heard on studio cast and live concert recordings of John Adams’s I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1998), Wonderful Town (1999), Annie (1999), Sweeney Todd Live at the New York Philharmonic (2000), Dreamgirls in Concert (2001), and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (2009) and on the original film soundtrack of Cradle Will Rock (1999). She has made four solo albums: Way Back to Paradise (1998), How Glory Goes (2000), Happy Songs (2002), and Build a Bridge (2006), and has been featured on several compilations and other artists’ albums (Dawn Upshaw Sings Rodgers & Hart 1996, Leonard Bernstein’s New York with Mandy Patinkin 1996, George and Ira Gershwin: Standards and Gems 1998, My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies 1999, Broadway In Love 2000, Barbara Cook at the Met 2006, The Wonder of Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir 2006, and many others). The recording of Kurt Weill’s opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with the cast of the Los Angeles production, won Grammy Awards® in 2009 for Best Classical Album and Best Opera Recording.