I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the slightest bit skeptical when I heard that Audra McDonald had been cast as Billie Holiday in the Broadway premiere of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
While the five-time Tony Award winner is unarguably a living stage legend and colossal talent, McDonald is a Juilliard-trained soprano whose many opera credits made me wonder if she could reel her enormous voice in to pull off the husky and distinct sound of Lady Day. Surely, the same person whose chill-inducing rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess made all previous interpretations of that classic song sound inferior, and whose “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” had musical theater fans everywhere clamoring for a Mother Abbess Live! spinoff, couldn’t also match the velvety and fragile nuances that made up Holiday’s iconic voice.
But the second that McDonald stepped on the stage and started singing the opening notes of “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” any and all doubts turned into open-jawed awe. Not only did she sound exactly like the late jazz singer, but her deeply passionate delivery allowed for Holiday’s soul to shine through McDonald’s performance, almost as if she was channeling her from the grave.
“My grandmother had a speaking voice very similar to Billie Holiday’s speaking voice and I used to imitate my grandmother,” McDonald recently told BET.com while explaining how she perfected her uncanny impression. “So I’ve been using that as my jumping off point – Nana’s voice – and that sort of helped me find it. I just start like I’m imitating my grandmother and then I go to Billie Holiday from there.”
Set in a small bar in South Philadelphia in March of 1959, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill takes place just four months before the 44-year-old Holiday died of cirrhosis and heart failure. The play alternates between performances of some of Holiday’s most revered songs – like “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Foolin’ Myself” – and autobiographical monologues that paint a heartbreaking, astounding portrait of a woman, who even past her prime, was one of the most gifted and influential musicians of the twentieth century.
Playwright Lanie Robertson was inspired to write the show after a former boyfriend of hers saw one of Holiday’s final performances at a Philadelphia dive bar. “He said she stumbled in obviously ‘quite high,’ carrying her little Chihuahua Pepi, whom she introduced to her audience. A water glass was kept filled with booze atop the piano for her. She and a piano player performed ten or 12 of her songs for an audience of seven patrons. Then, he said, she staggered out,” Robertson wrote in the show’s Playbill. “That image of the world’s greatest jazz singer being so undervalued at the end of her life and career was an image that has always haunted me. Writing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill was an attempt to rid myself of that ghost.”
Similarly to how the current Broadway revival of Cabaret turned theater venue Studio 54 into the Kit Kat Klub, the Circle in the Square Theatre transformed itself into Emerson’s Bar & Grill for the limited duration of Lady Day. Upon entering, audience members immediately get the sense that they’re at a jazz nightclub rather than at a Broadway theater. The floor is covered with little bar tables, from which ticketholders are able to order drinks from the wait staff, and atop a small bandstand is a trio of musicians (including the incredible Shelton Becton on piano) who accompany McDonald when she steps behind her standing microphone.
This intimate staging allows for McDonald to frequently interact with her audience – whether it’s to help her down from the tiny stage so she can refill her glass of gin or simply to light her cigarette. And when she ultimately drinks so much that she falls over, theatergoers sitting close enough can’t help but extend their arms to try to help her up.
Throughout her tumultuous life, Holiday struggled greatly with alcohol and heroin. Wearing elbow-length white gloves to cover her track marks, McDonald’s Holiday drinks consistently throughout the show. As she becomes less and less lucid, she finds it increasingly difficult to connect to her music, often times starting to sing songs that she decides not to finish. After all, Holiday prided herself on performing the songs that she was feeling, not just the ones that her fans wanted to hear. To her, it was more important to have a song find her than to try to force a dishonest emotion while performing.
It’s that unwavering dedication to her craft that McDonald captures so spectacularly. When she sings “God Bless the Child,” a song Holiday wrote about her mother, it’s impossible not to feel the rawness and vulnerability behind the beloved lyrics. And when she sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about racial violence in the South, the sorrow and sense of urgency that McDonald evokes is sure to knock the wind out of those listening.
This groundbreaking character exploration propels the show into a true performance of a lifetime for McDonald – which is saying a lot considering she’s already received so many accolades. In fact, McDonald received her eighth Tony Award nomination for this role. If she takes home her sixth statue come the ceremony on June 8th, not only will she have won for every possible performance category, but she’ll also be the recipient of more Tonys than any other actor in Broadway history. It’s no wonder, then, that The New Yorker called her work in Lady Day, “one of the greatest performances I ever hope to see.”
While the show certainly doesn’t shy away from addressing the darker aspects of Holiday’s life (being raped at 10, racism, failed marriages, and, obviously, addiction), it still manages to act as a beautiful tribute to the jazz star. It portrays Holiday as a deeply emotive individual who harnessed her experiences through her art, but was ultimately not able to protect herself from the reality of her world – the same tragic fate that would later await musicians like Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse.
At one point during Lady Day, McDonald says that the DJs on the radio have started to refer to Holiday as “Lady Yesterday” due to her fading star power. Yet in the show’s final moments, the spotlight zeroes in on just McDonald’s face, who continues to sing her heart out, but without any sound. All that’s left in the silence is a moving homage to a woman whose greatest love was her music. With that, her legacy is honored in a way that’ll leave her immortalized in the hearts of every audience member lucky enough to snag a ticket.