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At UVU visit, Audra McDonald tells students, ‘being a diva gets you nowhere’

When it comes to the music industry, Audra McDonald is a success story. But she sat before impressionable students to let them know that even for her, it wasn’t always easy. ‘It was a very long, complicated path for me to find my voice,’ she said.

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Broadway star Audra McDonald did a Q&A session with students across Utah, tackling some of the biggest issues in the music industry.
Allison Michael Orenstein

OREM — Audra McDonald sang as if she had lived every word, but she was only 13.

“I threw myself across the doorway/beggin’, ‘Stay, sweet man, stay,’” she passionately cried out. “But there’s more in my man’s life/than this old hag.”

The young McDonald had chosen to sing the jazzy “Cornet Man,” from the musical “Funny Girl,” for a competition. One of the judges criticized her, saying she was good but couldn’t possibly know or understand what she was singing about.

No, at 13, McDonald didn’t have real-life experience backing her emotion. But she knew she wanted to be on Broadway since she was 9. She loved a good story, and she’d done her research.

McDonald shared the story during a performance at Utah Valley University on Monday night — one of two concerts during a quick trip to Utah. It put the “Funny Girl” tune in a funnier light, and it showed the animated McDonald is as much a storyteller as she is a singer.

Now, at 49, McDonald has a deeper pool of experience from which to draw. She’s been married to Utah native and fellow Broadway star Will Swenson for seven years. She has two daughters she adores, ages 18 and 3. She battled depression while studying at The Juilliard School, and not long after that, made her Broadway debut in “The Secret Garden.” From there, she landed roles that would bring her Tony Award count to six — the most wins by any actor or actress.

She is the Queen of Broadway.

And Tuesday, a few hours before her second concert at UVU, McDonald shared experiences from her lengthy career with a small but eager group of high school and college students from across 25 schools. The hourlong Q&A session tackled some of the biggest issues facing people in the music industry today: how to find and develop your voice, how to balance a busy schedule, how to land a talent agent and how to succeed in an audition.

McDonald has endured it all — she’s a success story. But she sat before impressionable students to let them know that even for her, it wasn’t always easy.

“It was a very long, complicated path for me to find my voice,” McDonald said.

Growing up in Fresno, California, McDonald longed to sound like her musical theater icons, like Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand or Lena Horne.

Which is why her time at The Juilliard School was so hard. Teachers encouraged her to develop the operatic part of her voice, even though she didn’t like how it sounded. McDonald said she fought hard against classical training, but in the end, after five years at The Juilliard School, she had discovered every part of her voice. She had discovered what made her unique.

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Broadway star Audra McDonald did a Q&A session with students across Utah, tackling some of the biggest issues in the music industry.
Allison Michael Orenstein

”In trying to sound like everybody else, I wasn’t very good,” she told the students. “The first few times I really started to let my voice take over and stop trying to sound like somebody else … that’s when people started to sit up and pay attention.”

A year after she graduated from The Juilliard School, McDonald landed a breakthrough role as Carrie Pipperidge in “Carousel,” and with that, her first Tony. Since then, McDonald’s life has been a string of endless performances and awards. But she made one thing clear during Tuesday’s Q&A: “Family is always first.”

It’s the reason she was a few minutes late to her Q&A session, having just learned her 3-year-old daughter was sick with a 102-degree temperature. Rather than flying to California the next day, McDonald was considering taking a red-eye flight home so she could be with her child for at least a day.

It’s the reason that, even more than singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald loves telling the story of when she sang “the big number” for the 2013 TV special “The Sound of Music Live!” and immediately received the following text message from her older daughter: “Mom, where are the dryer sheets? I want to do some laundry.”

“Without my family, none of what I do in the world is real to me,” McDonald said.

McDonald is unabashedly confident on and off stage — though during one audition she actually passed out. She encouraged the visiting students — who came from as far away as USC and BYU-Idaho — to not let nerves completely take over during an audition.

“It’s so easy to give away your power when you walk into a room because you’re so afraid and you want to impress them,” she said. “But walk into an audition and say … ‘I’m here to solve your problem.’ If you do it that way … you are in the position of power. So go in there, be the answer to their problem.”

When it comes to the music industry, Audra McDonald is a success story. But she sat before impressionable students at UVU to let them know that even for her, it wasn’t always easy.
Allison Michael Orenstein

McDonald also encouraged students to “get on stage wherever you can,” adding that performing for an audience is a valuable experience whether it’s in a third-grade classroom or on the Carnegie Hall stage. And above all, she reminded the group of aspiring performers to be kind professionals, because “how you are to work with gets around.”

“Being a diva gets you nowhere,” she added.

The event’s 115 students knew an opportunity like this doesn’t come often, giving McDonald a standing ovation the second she took the stage. Even after she motioned for them to sit down, the students gave her a second standing ovation as she walked off the stage.

For Brennan Butikofer, a 23-year-old vocal performance major at UVU, seeing McDonald up close was surreal. Butikofer was 16 when she discovered McDonald’s rendition of “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” and she’s been fascinated with the singer ever since. She said McDonald’s Q&A has inspired her to embrace more chances to perform.

“Sometimes I’ve struggled with thinking, ‘Oh I’m probably not pretty enough or I’m not the right size for this part,’” Butikofer said. “But (McDonald) says, ‘Just be confident and make your own mold. And don’t apologize for that.’ … I think that will change how I look at my opportunities.”