There’s no predicting Audra McDonald. Musicals, dramas, musical-drama hybrids — you name it, she’s played in it, or so it seems, picking up along the way a record-breaking six Tony Awards (more than any other performer in theater history) plus two Grammys and an Emmy thrown in for good measure.
This month fans can find her onstage with Michael Shannon in the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s “Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” which opens at the Broadhurst Theatre May 30, and runs through August 25. Directed by Arin Arbus, the two-hander follows the first date and one-night-stand of a guarded waitress, Frankie (McDonald) and a pushy — but hopelessly romantic — cook, Johnny (Shannon). The production is something of a birthday present for McNally, a four-time Tony winner himself, who turned 80 in November (and who is married to producer and Hauppauge native Tom Kirdahy).
McDonald, 48, also co-stars as attorney Liz Lawrence on the CBS All-Access drama “The Good Fight” (which just concluded its third season). She spoke by phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio before a recent rehearsal.
You first appeared in McNally’s “Master Class,” then the musical “Ragtime,” for which he wrote the book. Now this. Good luck comes in threes?
Yeah. I was trying to figure out the next right project for me. There’d been some ideas presented but I was having a hard time saying yes to any of them. Then I got an email from Tom (McNally’s husband and producer). “What do you think — ‘Frankie & Johnny,’ with you and Michael Shannon?” I was like “Whoa! There it is. YES.” It was the quickest yes I ever said.
Sure — Shannon’s an actor’s actor. Two-time Oscar nominee. But then you remembered you two open the play, um, buck naked?
Yeah, I forgot about that all right. Let’s see … when I said yes, I was 47 and I’d just had a baby. I was like, “Oh, goodness.” Talk about scary.
People always talk about the challenges of nude scenes. Is there anything easy — or easier than expected — about them?
Um … I … (She pauses.) Well, two things. There’s nothing to hide, so … it forces you to be in the moment. You can’t be thinking of other things if you’re naked. So that makes it strangely easy. The other thing is the safety I feel with Michael Shannon. He’s brilliant. And I trust him. I know I’m safe and taken care of up there. Hopefully he feels the same.
This is a straight play but music plays a key role. Johnny is so into what’s playing on the radio, but your character doesn’t get it. Which seems ironic — I imagine you two would have a very different conversation were this play “AUDRA and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”
Absolutely. Music is very much a part of the play. Every piece … even the stuff playing in the background, is all very specifically chosen by Terrence and it scores what’s going on emotionally, whether you realize it or not. For me, as a musician, that’s a blessing.
Does your musical training get tested in “The Good Fight?” That’s a stone-cold drama, but you and co-star Christine Baranski are two gals from musical theater.
Working with Christine Baranski is what you’d think it would be — a dream. Because we come from theater, there’s a specific way of working — the theater workhorse work ethic is just ingrained, so (it’s like) we speak the same language. My dressing room is just down the hall from hers, and from time to time I’ll hear her singing something … and I’ll start singing it. We’d complain to (series co-creator) Robert King, “both of us are singers — let us sing something,” so he finally acquiesced. (They sang Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” last season.) I think he just wanted us to shut up about it. (She laughs.) It was a lot of fun.
Has playing a lawyer made you better at arguments?
No. I lose all the arguments. Please, I live in a house with three teenagers and a toddler. I don’t’ win a single argument these days. No.
What about friends who are lawyers — have you talked to them about the role?
No, I haven’t. I don’t want them to know I’m researching them, or watching them, so I keep my cards close to my chest.
Maybe you’ll get called for jury duty. Then you can take notes.
I have been called for jury duty. I think I have to go once “Frankie & Johnny” closes. We’ll see what happens.
Ha! When they ask, “Is anyone here affiliated with the law?” you can always say, “Well, I’m not a lawyer but …”
“ … I play one on television.” (She laughs again.) I’m sure they’ll kick me right out.