Their decision, the Fresno native explained in a recent interview, “was absolutely the reason that I found theater.”
“They happened to go to the theater one night and see … kids performing before the show,” recalled McDonald, who stops in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday on a 32-city concert tour. “They saw that and thought, ‘Maybe that will help her. … She likes to sing and dance and jump around and has all this energy and all this emotion that’s a little wild and unfocused. … Maybe this is something that would work for her.’ ”
McDonald, 44, made her musical theater debut at age 9 and studied classical voice at New York City’s famed Juilliard School. A year after graduation, she won her first Tony Award in 1994 for her turn as Carrie in “Carousel.”
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Over the years, McDonald has racked up Tony wins for roles in “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” “A Raisin in the Sun” (starring opposite Sean “Puffy” Combs and Phylicia Rashad) and “Porgy and Bess.” Then came her critically acclaimed turn this year as the title character in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”
McDonald said she spent two years researching for the role of legendary jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday, whose contributions to the genre came at the cost of disastrous dalliances with drugs, alcohol and abusive men. (Lanie Robertson’s play takes place in Philadelphia in 1959, four months before the singer’s death at age 44.)
“There was a lot of studying … just staying as immersed in her world and her life as I possibly could,” McDonald said. The process included reading books, listening to albums and audio interviews and speaking to people who had known Holiday.
“The more I read, the more I saw how many contradictions there were in everything being written about her and everything said about her,” McDonald said.
But “in the middle, in the eye of the storm,” she added, “I found her. I realized that she is the sum of all these parts and yet she is none of these parts.”
Asked how she captured Holiday’s distinctive voice — so different from her lush, operatic soprano — McDonald said she relied on a personal source. “She spoke a bit like my grandmother,” the performer explained.
McDonald was also aided by Holiday’s storied repertoire, especially the songs “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.”
“There had never been a song written like (‘Strange Fruit’). It was one of the first in a history of protest songs,” the performer said, while the latter tune had deeper personal significance. “The more I found out about Billie Holiday’s life, the more I realized how personal ‘God Bless the Child’ was, and how autobiographical it was.”
McDonald said the song speaks to Holiday’s rough upbringing, and her desire for a stable home.
“She very much lived through her music. … She longed for a family and a comfortable domestic life as well. That’s something she was never able to have,” McDonald said. “Music is my life, too. I absolutely live through it. And, luckily, I am fortunate enough to have the domestic life I know that she longed for ….”
McDonald balances her career and home life with husband Will Swenson and daughter Zoe at the whimsically named Eggfartopia in Westchester County, New York.
This summer, McDonald became the first person to win Tonys in all four acting categories and the first to claim six statuettes in competition. (She previously tied with Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris as five-time Tony recipients.)
That record-breaking feat would be impressive enough if McDonald had limited her energies to the stage. But she’s also established herself as a Grammy Award-winning recording artist — she released her fifth solo album, “Go Back Home,” in 2013 — and Emmy Award-nominated television and film actress.
She spent five seasons playing Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC’s “Private Practice,” appeared in “Annie,” “Rampart” and “Wit,” and, most recently, wowed NBC viewers as Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music Live!”
In addition, she currently hosts PBS’s “Live from Lincoln Center.”
“I find that I’m energized by doing different work — doing a play and then a musical and then going touring, or doing a television project or a film project,” McDonald explained. “I find that they all feed each other. … It helps me to grow as an artist.”
Strangely enough, it was McDonald’s recent stint on Broadway that inspired her to return to the concert circuit.
After playing a character who essentially spent her life on the road, McDonald said she has “more of a hyperawareness about … what (concertizing) actually means to me.”
“It’s a chance to get out there and be as intimate as you possibly can with an audience. There’s a real vulnerability,” she said. “There’s no fourth wall, there’s no script … It’s just you and the audience.”
If you go
7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$35.40 to $86
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org