By Matt Smith
No need reminding me that it all fell apart
I need no lyrics singing of stormy weather
There’s quite enough around me that’s breaking my heart
Before launching into her recent virtual concert, performed as part of the new Live with Carnegie Hall virtual concert series, the indefatigable Audra McDonald offers a piece of advice. Quoting President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill, she says, “in working to incite change”—particularly in the case of dismantling systemic racism and fighting for justice and equality for all—“you have to use the tools that are in your hands.”
And for the next 90 minutes, she does just that. Armed with a melodious voice and songs that ring out resoundingly with the times, she presents a unique concert experience that fervently pushes the urgent need to speak out against injustice, while simultaneously reminding us to revel in life’s simple pleasures and “shout out what is good and what is joyful” amid the struggle.
With this approach, tunes she’s sung before take on new meaning in light of recent events, and her so-called “statement-making songs”—bold and impassioned as is —pack an even heftier punch in driving their messages forward. But at the same time, with all that’s going on in the world and the perpetual overcast of “doom and gloom,” she shows us we still have reason to “Sing Happy.”
Through conversation with journalist and CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Mo Rocca in between numbers, with Andy Einhorn tickling the ivories as she sings, she asserts her thoughts on the last few months with poise, precision, compassion, and concern. It’s raw, insightful, and informative. And it’s all through the lens of a carefully curated series of stories and songs.
The set list, while thoughtful, is eclectic nonetheless; McDonald’s smooth, velvety soprano rightfully soars on her signature number from Porgy & Bess, and first-rate passes at Do Re Mi, West Side Story, and On the Town, among others, will more than appease the musical theater junkies.
But while it’s great to sit back and soak in the aura that is Audra, it’s important to see that, again, “it’s not an accident that I’m singing these songs” and that every one in this set indeed has a purpose. One such number is the timely “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” from Hallelujah, Baby!, wherein McDonald interprets a Black woman’s sense of self-worthiness, emphasizing her need to fly “extra high” just to be seen as is. Growing up with this expectation to be more than she was, McDonald acknowledges the sacrifices made and doors opened because of people before her, and the crucial responsibility to provide the shoulders for the next generation to stand on.
Additionally, Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude” centers around loneliness from losing love—pertinent with the rising COVID-19 death count; “Some Days,” on the other hand, with words by James Baldwin set to music by Steve Marzullo, is a call to action, imploring us to take care of each other, and hold onto one another through the good and the bad, as we’re all in this life together; and, now more than ever, “what happens to one happens to all of us.” To that end, she concludes the program—defiantly, deliberately and proudly—with the Black National Anthem, a literal, rousing call to “lift every voice and sing . . . with the harmonies of Liberty . . . ’til victory is won.”
“I can’t sing it if I don’t feel it,” she tells Rocca of her repertoire, quoting the unyielding and steadfast Billie Holiday, whom she played to record-obliterating effect in 2014 and securing a well-deserved Tony. And, given these explanations, there’s certainly a lot to feel: “It’s not an accident that I’ve chosen the songs that I have.”
Truer words were never spoken, as the messages are indeed clearly outlined within each song. But, somewhat ironically, it’s the newcomer on the list that is perhaps, in a sense, the most declarative of them all: “Before the parade passes by . . . I’m gonna get some life back into my life!” At a point when life seems at a standstill, lines stating how “I’ve got a goal again / I’ve got a drive again / I’m gonna feel my heart coming alive again!” signify a renewed sense of determination and action in its singer.
Again, the inimitable Audra is undoubtedly doing just that. She’s raising the roof, carrying on, and leading the way through the use of her “tools”—her art and her activism—as she always has, resolute as she goes, cultivating new faith and hope along the way.
And in watching her do so with such vigor and vivacity, we, in turn, proceed with new energy, instilled with the affirmation that whatever life throws our way, we have the tools to “sing happy” through it all.
For more information on past or future Live with Carnegie Hall virtual concerts, please visit www.carnegiehall.org/live.