Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman

January 18, 2012

Audra McDonald, Porgy & Bess

Audra & Her Sacred Sound

I went to see Audra in “Porgy and Bess.” Some of you asked me about it, and as much as I may like Twitter, I couldn’t answer in 140 characters. So here it is three weeks later: some thoughts, some insights and yes, ultimately a love letter to my friend Audra MacDonald.


I know many worship at the altar of Audra’s Voice. I am happy to say I did not, at least when I met her. Of course I knew that she had a voice that could win four Tonys, gain adulation of fans, and break hearts. But I met her as a friend, a colleague — and an actress.


Because of the structure of “Private Practice,” I didn’t always work with Audra. Ensembles being what they are, she was often sequestered with Kate on other storylines, while I toiled away with the likes of Paul Adelstein and Tim Daly. When Audra and I did work together, it was, well, play. A blast. A gas. She is an instrument that is finely tuned and incapable of untruth or full commitment. My favorite moments were when she, as we all would do at times, would be complaining about a scene (didn’t make sense, dialogue could be better, all the usual actor gripes), but when the cameras would roll she’d make it sing like Shakespeare. Seriously. Filled with emotion and eloquence, I’d watch her and try to remember what was inadequate about the scene, so beautifully was it performed.


I knew she had a secret life of singing. I’d watch her dash off almost every weekend to concert gigs in Chicago, Massachusetts, and oh yeah, Carnegie Hall. I’d see her luscious face plastered in the New York Times, she its hometown girl, and thought, “how lucky am I. I get to play with.


My parents, who’d fallen deeply in love with her just prior to “Private Practice” when she starred in “110 In The Shade” kept reminding me, “You don’t understand, Amy.  She has this VOICE. Yes, she’s a great actress, but it’s like watching Baryshnikov act or Michael Jordan play baseball. They will never be less than great, but they have this god-given gift that they are not using.” Yeah, yeah, dad and mom. I know I know.


My first connection, personally and away from the hype, with her voice came when I was looking for some music for Violet. In my acting, I use music a lot, finding songs and pieces that I can plug into on set. It can get me very present with whatever emotion I need to connect with. I was noodling around iTunes and came upon Audra singing Laura Nyro’s “To A Child.” I welled up, immediately, with the honesty and purity of the expression. I clung to that song over the next few weeks as I told a story about my son on the show, leaning on Audra to be the conduit to emotions that I couldn’t even name.


Over the next year or so, I am proud to say that Audra and I became friends. We watched one another through joys and fears and highs and lows. When she left “Private Practice” I was sad for me, but happy that she was returning to herself the life that she was meant to lead.


So when I sat, on December 22, in the audience of “Porgy and Bess” I felt all was right with the world again. Audra on Broadway, singing Bess; that is what should happen. And yes, that voice. Running recently, I was listening to Peter Gabriel on my iPod. I realize that the music I return to again and again — Peter Gabriel, U2, Paul Simon, now Florence and the Machine — is sacred music. For me, those artists part the curtain of the every day and take me to a place of transcendent perspective. It’s what Handel did in the “Messiah”, or a good cantor will do, or Audra MacDonald singing Gershwin. Audra’s voice is sacred. She opens her mouth and connects us all to truths beyond the every day. We could analyze it ‘til the cows come home — I’m sure many a reviewer has — but the bottom line is that her artistry provides a link for us to deeper layers of our own humanity.


Thank you, dear friend, for sharing that gift. And although I’ll miss you singing “Kung Fu Fighting” in dulcet tones at 6 am in the make-up trailer, I know that our paths will cross again. And until then, happy trails on Catfish Row.