I used to look at life as cyclical. Good things happen then bad things happen then good, on and on. I looked at change not as an interruption to this cycle but as to an escalation of it. The stakes would be higher or lower, but the good would always follow the bad and vice versa.
My current theory is that we have a lot more choices in life than we think about. When we stop doing things just because it’s something we do, a lot of doors open. I’m not saying throw everything you’ve previously done out the window, but it’s amazing what examining our own motivations can lead to. Willpower is very…well…powerful if you’ll let it be. I’m suddenly a time management wizard and way better of a stage manager than I was before the summer because I got time to really concentrate on who I am, what I want, and what I do. That confidence, combined with finally having the “I knew but I didn’t really know” experience everyone in the business must have about renown people being humans, has lead to some pretty amazing things already.
Somehow, someway, Audra McDonald came to Krannert last week. Audra, if you don’t know, is tied for the most (5!) Tony Awards held by any performer. The first three, for Carousel, Master Class, and Ragtime, she won by age 28. Hopefully you knew this and I’m just reiterating because otherwise I’m going to need you to walk away from your electronic device and not come back until you repent and culture yourself.
Not all of Audra’s Tonys are from musicals. That’s incredibly telling if you think about it. People sometimes walk away with their awards having given a lukewarm acting performance but a vocal performance enough to merit a Tony. Audra is so unbelievably adept at both. It almost feels like a shame to put her in a play because her voice is so beautiful, but she’s so talented at acting that you get enraptured and forget she does anything else.
At her concert, Audra had the air of a benevolent queen on her throne. And she wasn’t even sitting. The director of the show I’m ASMing right now said yesterday that “people who have real power don’t have to show it.” Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones said “no one who has to tell people ‘I am the king’ is truly a king”. Audra never once indicated that she is already a theatre icon. Audra will go down in history with Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman, Rita Moreno, etc as one of the best the Great White Way has ever seen. She knows that. And we know that. Audra never mentioned winning any awards or almost any of her biggest roles. Audra wasn’t here to brag. She was here to sing.
And sing she did! While I’m not expressly a musician, I’m certainly very musical. Unless I’m in class/rehearsal/meetings or speaking with someone, I have headphones in and I’m listening to music. I played an instrument for 7 years. I surround myself with voices and melodies for the majority of every day. Audra’s selections were ambitious. Very ambitious. And yet, she never missed a note. She never snuck into notes, she never overshot/undershot notes then corrected them, she never ran out of breath before the phrase was finished. Audra is truly a master of what she does.
Even on what I would consider the easiest song she did, I Could Have Danced All Night, she vocally slayed it. Audra invited the audience to sing sections with her since it’s a fairly universal song to her crowd. There were some vocal performance majors in the audience, and when Audra told them to “really get in this part”, they obliged. Audra then hit a note I’m pretty sure only she and Kristin Chenoweth can reach and hold without losing the beauty of it. “I got a little competitive”, she joked. Audra knows that other people can sing, but in the end no one else is Audra. Just a gentle reminder that anything you can do, she can top. But it was also charming and classy. She’s just a classy lady.
She had great stories and did a hilarious couple of songs called Craigslistlieder. It’s German art music but with lyrics taken from unfortunate and hilarious Craigslist ads. It was uproarious to hear the opening measures of a traditional lieder aria, watch Audra take a breath, and then hear the words “you looked so sexy even though you were having a seizure”.
Some songs she sang just because she liked them. When you’re Audra, you can sing as many, in her words, “off the beaten path” songs as you’d like and everyone will be happy to hear them. She asked “Steve”(n Sondheim) what she should sing and he apparently said Moments in the Woods immediately. I’m not sure I’ll ever hear such an emotionally charged yet musically intelligent version of that song ever again. One facet of Audra’s talent is her ability to make you feel what she’s feeling just with her voice. You can close your eyes and listen to her in Ragtime and know exactly what she’s feeling. Some people have trouble doing it with their voice and their body, but Audra is just masterful.
Just bein’ Audra, whatevs.
After the performance, donors were invited to a champagne meet & greet with Audra. Stage managers are Krannert staff in some ways, so they’re rarely unwelcome in events designed to thank people for making things happen. If you wear a Krannert staff nametag, you’ll have a hard time finding a room you can’t walk into. Armed with this knowledge and a borrowed nametag (shoutout to Jamie), I was prepared to go to this party. I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by this nice homeless girl I found wandering around the steam tunnels named Dina, and after borrowing a nametag for her, we took some deep breaths and just went for it. We grabbed some uber-classy glasses of sparkling white grape juice and waited. A few minutes later and in walks Audra.
Stage dooring is an art, as is cocktail party behavior. A combination of these acquired skills and we found ourselves talking to Audra McDonald. She has a very quiet power and elegance that instantly instills in you a humble respect for her. I don’t know that I’ve ever had feelings of giddy admiration buried with a profound respect so quickly. Audra is not only an awe-inspiring vocalist and actress, but a pleasant, classy, witty, and attentive human being.
She asked at the beginning of the concert for us to confirm the time and time zone she was in, so I knew she must be exhausted. Because of this and the fact that tours just wear people out, I tried to make my moment with her brief. I thanked her for coming and for the art that she’s given us. I told her I really enjoyed finally getting to see her in person after having the pleasure of listening to recordings for so many years. She signed my Moleskine and I let her move on. It was enough of a moment for me to be enough. Dina spoke with her and then we excused ourselves to the hall so other people could talk to her. Some days are just extraordinary.
A few hours later, Dina and I found ourselves at Murphy’s together with a myriad of other attendees who got things signed by Audra in a line outside the door of the party. We all shared something beautiful and it was nice to be able to discuss it.
While there, I really thought about how things could have gone differently in the hours previous. A few months ago, would I have had the nerve to put on a nametag and just waltz in? Probably not. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to speak to Audra as a human being, but as an intangible superhuman that was somehow inherently superior to the rest of the human race.
Life is what we make it. I won’t say YOLO, but take the essence of that and make it less douchy. Every once in a while, make some different choices. I promise at least one of them will fascinate you.
And now in a completely unrelated section to the rest of the post, some questions I’ve been mentally chewing on:
- Did Murphy’s replace Woodchuck with Angry Orchard?
- What are cheese curds really?
- If they want us to take fire drills seriously, why do they make them so annoying?
- Has anyone written a rap song about Billy Mays yet?
- Why are people fascinated with cicadas? That sound is maddening.
- Do I have bad taste or am I allowed to not be in love with subjective art?
- If Janelle Monae is the Electric Lady, why isn’t her music more electronic? I don’t want it to be, but I feel the name is misleading.
- Can we have Madeline Kahn back from the dead please?
- Can we do Potter Puppet Pals in the Armory?
- If there isn’t a rap song about Billy Mays yet, can I collaborate with Macklemore on one and have Kimbra sing the hook?
Food for thought.