By BEN SISARIO
Published: February 25, 2007
It took more than music to bring Audra McDonald back to Broadway.
Though in the last seven years she has done just about everything else imaginable for a singer and actress — performed leading opera roles, given classical and pop concerts, won a Tony (her fourth) for “A Raisin in the Sun” and been nominated for an Emmy for “Wit” — she has not appeared in a Broadway musical since “Marie Christine” closed in 2000.
On April 13 she begins performances of the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “110 in the Shade,” the 1963 show by N. Richard Nash with songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (“The Fantasticks”).
There have been plenty of opportunities to return, Ms. McDonald explained in a telephone interview the day before she was to open in Brecht and Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” at the Los Angeles Opera. But nothing seemed quite right. Even when her friend and frequent collaborator, the director Lonny Price, approached her about “110 in the Shade,” it did not appeal.
“I thought, ‘110 in the Shade,’ yeah, I kind of remember that,” she said. “The music is beautiful, but it’s kind of old-fashioned.”
The change of mind came as she studied her character, Lizzie Curry, a plain-Jane spinster in a Depression-era Texas town parched by drought. When a loud confidence man, Bill Starbuck, comes around promising to bring rain, he also awakens powerful, tangled feelings in her about her sexuality and identity.
“I began to fall in love with her,” Ms. McDonald said. “There is a universal feeling, a paradox of wanting to connect with someone but not wanting to give up who you are. She’s saying, ‘I’m plain, I’m big, I’m not your typical pretty girl, but that doesn’t mean I’m not vulnerable and don’t want and need someone in my life.’ Everybody has that little insecurity in them somewhere.”
Overshadowed in the 1963-64 season by “Hello, Dolly!” and “Funny Girl,” the show became something of a cult favorite for its Coplandesque score, and like a certain other musical about a charismatic con man who blows through a Norman Rockwell town, it is a staple of amateur theater.
For Ms. McDonald it is an unequivocal return to Broadway after a year of typically whirlwind, typically multidisciplinary activity. Last spring she starred in a double bill of Poulenc’s “Voix Humaine” and Michael John LaChiusa’s “send (who are you? I love you)” at the Houston Grand Opera.
Then came an album, “Build a Bridge” (Nonesuch), with songs by pop songwriters like Randy Newman and Nellie McKay, and a tour. And a television movie of “A Raisin in the Sun.” And concerts with Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series and the New York Philharmonic. And “Mahagonny.”
“This whole year ‘110’ has kind of been the carrot,” she said. “It’s going to bring me home in so many ways. Back home to New York, home to my house and my family, and home to Broadway.”