NEW YORK — By now the world knows what Fresno learned long ago: that Audra McDonald's voice is a treasure.
But in her transcendent performance as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" — a role for which she has a chance tonight to win a record sixth Tony Award — I found myself moved not just by her words and music but also her brief, profound moments of silence.
These periodic interludes in the show, which relives a night near the end of the short and troubled life of Holiday, punctuate long stretches of McDonald's triumphantly boozy, bluesy immersion in her character.
Holiday died at age 44, her body and voice broken by heroin and alcohol addiction. Every choice that McDonald makes on stage — from her slightly halting gait and stiffness in her neck to the almost eerie way she channels Holiday's salty, decaying, end-of-days voice — helps McDonald submerge her own robust presence into the tight confines of a fading legend. It's the kind of portrayal routinely described as tour de force.
But what makes it extraordinary are those pauses, when the words and music cease and the communication between actor and audience shifts to unspoken. That's what really got me when watching the show a few weeks ago at the Circle in the Square Theatre. It's when I felt the real connection. McDonald owns those pauses. She fills those moments of silence with longing and ache, but also a kind of resolute humanity. She finds within her character far more than just a caricature of a tragic and ignominious end.
It's a performance that has people in the Broadway community talking. And as we head into tonight's awards, one of the main things they're talking about is whether McDonald will win her sixth Tony. She's nominated in "Lady Day" for best leading performance by an actress in a play.
If she wins, it will be record-setting in more ways than one. McDonald already has won five Tony Awards, tied with Angela Lansbury. (What company to keep!) The only performer who has won six awards is Julie Harris — but one of hers was a special Tony lifetime achievement award. If McDonald wins tonight, she'll be the first in Tony history to win six regular acting awards. (And, presumably, McDonald will be given her own lifetime achievement award at some point along the way — she certainly has decades left for that to happen.)
Not bad for someone who in high school was starring in the Good Company Players production of "Evita" at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater.
The other record-breaking opportunity: If she wins tonight, McDonald will be the first performer to win a Tony in each of the four possible acting categories. She's already won for featured actress in a musical, leading actress in a musical and featured actress in a play. The only one she needs is leading actress in a play.
The Tony Awards Administration Committee helped set up this possibility when it decided that McDonald in "Lady Day" would compete in that category — even though the show includes more than a dozen songs.
Not only does this give her a chance for the Tony "grand slam," but it also means that McDonald is competing in a category that many Broadway pundits feel will be easier for her to sweep than if she were nominated for leading actress in a musical.
Competition in the leading musical actress category is considered especially fierce this year, with acclaimed performances from Kelli O'Hara ("The Bridges of Madison County"), Jessie Mueller ("Beautiful"), Idina Menzel ("If/Then"), Mary Bridget Davies ("A Night with Janis Joplin") and Sutton Foster ("Violet"). If McDonald had been determined eligible in this category, she most likely would have bumped off one of these names to be a nominee, but the path to victory might have been harder.
McDonald faces some stiff competition in her own category, going up against Cherry Jones ("The Glass Menagerie"), LaTanya Richardson Jackson ("A Raisin in the Sun"), Tyne Daly ("Mothers and Sons") and Estelle Parsons ("The Velocity of Autumn"). But the consensus among Tony prognosticators is that McDonald has a strong chance for a win.
Then again, some have asked: Are six Tony Awards by the age of 43 a matter of too much, too soon? Tony voters can be a little catty. Is there such a thing as Audra backlash?
Her performance has certainly caused theater critics to scramble for the most eloquent ways of praising her. Charles Isherwood, writing his review in the New York Times, noted that McDonald's career "has been in many ways a blessed one (five Tonys at just 43, when Holiday was nearing her end), but by burrowing into the music and channeling Holiday's distinctive sound, she has forged a connection with the great, doomed artist she is portraying that feels truthful and moves well beyond impersonation into intimate identification."
Entertainment Weekly called it "one of the most exquisite and haunting performances of the year." And the New York Observer wrote that McDonald's "astounding transformation borders on the supernatural."
Both Isherwood and fellow Times theater critic Ben Brantley, in their Tony predictions, pick McDonald for the win.
I haven't seen all the nominated performances, and even if I had, the Fresno connection would make it hard for me to be objective. But I can say that McDonald's performance in "Lady Day" is towering. I won't forget it. (Neither will I forget sitting directly behind Oprah Winfrey, who has been mentioned as a possible stage partner with McDonald in an upcoming revival of " 'night, Mother.")
Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that even though McDonald has star power as a performer, I found myself forgetting that I wasn't in the presence of Billie Holiday herself.
Which seems like a pretty good reason for a sixth Tony award. And making history.
Tony Awards, 8 p.m. Sunday, June 8, CBS47
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