Audra McDonald serves up an astonishing Lady Day. Your move, Television Academy.
There is a reason that Audra McDonald is the most awarded actress in Tony Awards history. The beloved Broadway star won 6 Tonys, and she has won every category in which she was eligible. One who is unfamiliar with her work might go to see one of her performances with cautious or reluctant expectations. I’ve never been fortunate to see Ms. McDonald perform live, but HBO’s presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill allows me to see her true star power without having to travel to New York City. Audra McDonald’s embodiment of Billie Holiday is what Hollywood biopics are made up—she’s absolutely astonishing.
Set in a small bar in 1959, Holiday’s doing what she loves best. Performing for a small group of people, you can tell that this is what Holiday loves best. She repeatedly refers to the audience as her friends and she is very relaxed and casual as she recounts stories about her mother and her former lover. There are a lot of comparisons with Bessie Smith, and she even mentions that Smith “stopped recording her last record just three days before I made my first.”
When Lady Day debuted on Broadway in 2014, all the reviews constantly talked about how McDonald truly sounded like the late singer. Normally, McDonald’s voice is crystal clear, and her voice carries an enormous amount of emotion. Audiences who became aware of her from NBC’s live presentation of The Sound of Music (her rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” is the highlight of entire production) should also look up her performances of “Mr. Snow” and “The Glamorous Life.”
As Billie Holiday, McDonald ably carries the same amount of emotion, but it’s simultaneously guarded and open. She’s inviting you into this world to enjoy her music and her experiences, but you may not be prepared for the amount of pain she exudes in her singing. When she’s performing for the crowd, Holiday appears to have a set body language, and as soon as a song is over, her physicality completely changes. We watch the music almost literally give her life to live.
The more Billie performs, the more she drinks. Lady Day takes place four months before Holiday passed away. The alcohol she consumes (trust me, she downs a lot) surely only added to her death. The audience is witnessing her descent into sloppy drunkenness, and it’s really sad to watch this star slowly extinguishing herself. The play is presented as an immersive experience, and, at one point, she shuffles behind the bar to pour herself a full glass of gin. As she downs the glass, the bottle of booze acts almost as a cane or anchor. She seems to forget that there is an audience there, and, by the end of the show, her speech is low and almost unintelligible.
While this is a magnificent star turn for McDonald, the script isn’t the strongest. It merely meanders around while providing us some insight into Holiday’s fears and experiences. The camerawork is sometimes a bit erratic, but these are minor quibbles.
Why hasn’t Ms. McDonald been given the chance to show her musical chops for something larger than the stage? She should be starring in a big movie musical adaptation (surely a larger part than the feather duster in the upcoming Beauty and the Beast live action musical), but maybe she wants to stay on the stage? Her performance in Lady Day proves what a ferocious talent she is—other stage actresses wouldn’t be able to translate that emotion through the television.
This is a true high-wire act.