A watershed moment, a major milestone, recently took place on Broadway, with the orchestras of four major shows led under the batons of distinguished African-American music directors and conductors. This marks the first time in the history of Broadway that this many African-Americans have been in executive roles in major productions running contemporaneously.
The men in front of the orchestra and behind the music are (L to R) Daryl Waters, music supervisor and conductor for “After Midnight,” recalling Duke Ellington’s years at the Cotton Club; Zane Mark, music director and conductor for “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” inspired by the late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur; Joseph Joubert, music director and conductor for “Motown the Musical,” about Berry Gordy’s famous music label; and Shelton Becton, conductor, pianist and performer in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” about the legendary Billie Holliday.
Although the Denzel Washington-headlined revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play did not garner its lead an award tonight, “A Raisin in the Sun” fared quite well in several other categories, winning three Tonys overall, for Best Director (Kenny Leon), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Sophie Okonedo) and Best Revival of a Play.
Also of major note was Audra McDonald‘s Best Lead Actress in a Play win for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Not only did she earn her record sixth Tony (surpassing Angela Lansberry and Julie Harris at five each), she also became the only actor to ever win a Tony in all four acting categories.
The Tony Nominations for 2014 were announced this morning, and the current production of the Lorraine Hansberry classic, A Raisin In The Sun, earned four, including Best Revival of A Play. Raisin‘s LaTanya Richardson Jackson was nominated in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play, and Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose both were nominated in the Featured Actress category for their outstanding work in the production.
Denzel Washington, who anchors the play by reviving the Walter Younger role that garnered Sidney Poitier a Tony nomination in the original Broadway production, was overlooked in the Leading Actor category.
When Billie Holiday sang, history attests, her audiences tended to clam up. Even in the bustling nightclubs where she mostly performed, Holiday often insisted on total quiet before she would open her mouth. The quiet usually held, as one of the great singers of the last century turned jazz songs and standards into searching, and searing, portraits of life and love gone wrong that cast a shimmering spell.
When Audra McDonald takes to the stage and pours her heart into her voice in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a similar sustained hush settles over the Circle in the Square, where the show opened on Broadway on Sunday night for a limited run. With her plush, classically trained soprano scaled down to jazz-soloist size, Ms. McDonald sings selections from Holiday’s repertoire with sensitive musicianship and rich seams of feeling that command rapt admiration.
Although Ms. McDonald, a five-time Tony winner and an accomplished recitalist, has her own natural authority onstage, in this show, she submerges her identity in Holiday’s as an act of loving tribute to an artist whose difficult career exacted a painful price. Holiday is as well known now for the grim travails of her short life — she died at the age of 44, her voice spent, her body destroyed by addiction to alcohol and heroin — as she is revered for the legacy of recordings she left behind.
We hear much (too much) of this sorry story during the show, written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, and first produced Off Broadway in 1986. The year is 1959, just months before Holiday died, and the show is set at the club of the title in Philadelphia, a city that, as Holiday notes, she had reason to loathe. It was the site of her trial and conviction for drug possession, which led to a stint in prison and the revoking of her New York cabaret card, limiting her opportunities to perform in the city during the latter years of her career.
Audra McDonald will be spending a lot of time on Broadway over the next couple of years. Weeks after announcing she will star in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Night, Mother opposite Oprah Winfrey, McDonald is set to play Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The four-time Tony Award-winning actress will play the late jazz icon in the show, which is set in 1959 in a seedy Philadelphia bar, and relives Billie Holiday’s last performance, taking place only four months before her death at age 44.
Lady Day is set to go in front of audiences later this year, making it McDonald’s next turn on the stage. Night, Mother will debut in the 2015-2016 season.