My Personal Spider Woman, Or Alternatively, Audra and Her Fans

I always joke that I was raised by divas. Not the sassy, in your face, rumble-and-tumble kind that the current connotation now implies. I was raised by the ones who could belt to the rafters, who could touch your heart with the purring of a note. Ok, so maybe “raised” isn’t quite the right word to use. I should say that I listened (and still currently listen) to them incessantly. They were there aurally for me in my times of need and my moments of joy.

My first diva was Mariah Carey. Her goodwill and melismas coddled me through elementary school. Thoughts of giving her a gift for her butterfly room and being in the presence of her Marilyn Monroe Baby Grand were definitely on my mind. My second diva was Selena. I discovered her after her passing, but her hips and her tone swept me off my feet and inspired my yearning to learn Spanish. There was also her phenomenal rendition of “A Boy Like That,” which helped me to fall in love with West Side Story. But the diva who changed me, who led me by hand to the world of Broadway in the least literal sense possible, was Audra McDonald. I know I’m not the only one to wax poetic about Audra. After 6 Tony Awards, her fan mail and posts of appreciation must rival that of One Direction. Yet since I haven’t quite mastered singing her oeuvre in a satisfactory way, I wanted to take a moment and a blog post to properly thank the woman who continues to inspire me.

I first stumbled upon her singing Dreamgirls, thanks to that lovely invention we call “Youtube.” I wasn’t that exposed to operatic voices, so that first listen caught me off guard. Yet there was such power to her instrument. Something about this woman spoke to me in a way I had never expected. Before I knew it, I had fallen down the perpetual rabbit hole. Video after video after video of Audra McDonald soaring through Broadway standards. I listened to her “Bill” and chuckled when I heard how she sang it to Bill Cosby. I found a video of Audra and Mandy Patinkin singing “Tonight” and used it as a guide for my first attempt at singing the famed duet. A clip of her singing “Down With Love” almost became my personal ringtone. I searched for her recordings and started to bleed money. I ordered a copy of Marie Christine on Amazon and listened to it night and day, relishing in the mysticism and lore, as well as Audra’s incredible soprano. I even found myself daydreaming of singing LaChiusa for the genius himself.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Audra McDonald performs “Bill” from Show Boat

Her solo records, particularly Way Back to Paradise, provided me with a bevy of modern musical composers and songwriters to turn to. Ricky Ian Gordon made me weep with his scores to Langston Hughes poems. Suddenly, I was weeping even more so to his creation “Orpheus and Eurydice.” There was Jason Robert Brown’s “Tom,” which she sang like no other, which sent me tracking down recordings of Parade as well as The Last Five Years. I no longer wanted to just dabble in singing. I wanted to be just as accomplished as the grand lady herself. Before I knew it, I was suddenly in love with musical theatre. I would hide out in the auditorium of my high school theater when I thought no one was around and sing along to her recordings with my eyes closed, doing my best to emote as well as she did with just the sounds of her voice. I would daydream myself onto the same stage as her, singing the Great American Songbook as Ted Sperling conducted us through to the finish line. Eventually, these dreams pushed me to audition for more than just a show every few months at school. I was attempting to carve a path for myself out of Saint Louis and if not to Broadway by the age of 20, at least Broadway Adjacent.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Audra McDonald performs “I’ll Be Here” from Ordinary Days.

This all might seem a bit much. This ode could even be on par with stan status, or “super, possibly obsessive fan” territory in layman’s terms. That status is ok with me. Especially considering the time I burst into tears when I saw her walking towards me on the street. Still, for an awkward and out-of-place kid with a big mouth and even bigger dreams, Audra became not only a talent, but a symbol for endless possibilities.

If it hadn’t been for Audra, I might not have ever stumbled into the world of musical theatre. What little singing voice I have might not have ever made an appearance outside of my bedroom. This wonderful woman, without ever meeting me face to face, had opened a door I never even realized was closed. I learned about these incredible composers. I learned that great music didn’t have an expiration date. I learned that a voice could do more than just make one happy or sad. It could inspire and push someone to dream up new goals and fly higher than Pegasus before that pesky gadfly made herself known. Fingers crossed, I will have the chance to make her proud one day. And make up for that tearful encounter she knows nothing about.

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