It isn’t often when someone playing a music legend is close to being one herself. Of course, some more time has to pass to truly call someone a legend, but Audra McDonald can at least be called a national treasure on multiple fronts. Already breaking a Tony record for most wins as actress, her role in the world of acting and singing is becoming pristine. Those only familiar with her straight acting role in shows like “Private Practice” have no idea what they’re in for if you’ve never heard her sing. She’s one of those who never fails to bring emotions whenever she tackles some of the best-known songs in the Broadway song canon.
Most people had a chance to experience this last December on NBC when she played the part of Mother Superior and sang the iconic “Climb Every Mountain” in “Sound of Music Live.” Those who follow Broadway know that she then took on the role of Billie Holiday in the musical “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” to very rave reviews. Despite sounding quite different (and even better) than the real Billie Holiday, McDonald managed to capture the complete essence of Holiday’s singing toward one of the highlight performance of the Broadway season.
Above the singing, though, is McDonald using her dramatic acting skills to depict Billie Holiday’s last year alive and the tragedy therein.
Yes, when it comes to Billie Holiday in biopic form, there’s still a true chasm there in getting her life completely correct. The only film ever made about her to date was “Lady Sings the Blues” in 1972, starring Diana Ross. While you can call Ross an icon in her own right, her performance as Holiday was far from accurate. Diana Ross was essentially singing as herself in the movie, which is a completely different voice from the more stylistic wail of Holiday’s. There wasn’t that much resemblance either.
Regardless, Ross was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. The film itself was also nominated for four other Oscars. When you see the credits, though, you realize how inaccurate things really were when it was “based on” Billie Holiday’s own autobiography. As you might guess, it focuses considerably on her drug dependency, which always has to be told.
But there was so much more to be told about her life, and the final year of her life is really the most interesting of all. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” focuses on this last year of her life before succumbing to a drug overdose at age 44. What makes it a much richer experience is that it’s a musical play intertwining the songs she sang as part of her life rather than separating her real life from the music. It was really the only way to tell Holiday’s story since the songs she sang are almost branded with her own life through every lyrical line.
Is that the best way to tell Holiday’s life on the big screen to give a more creative and artful view of her life? If nothing else, an adaptation of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” should be adapted for TV to give more Americans a sense of McDonald’s massive talent and a better essence of Holiday’s life so it isn’t reduced to caricature and generalities.
When you see the reality of Holiday’s life, you realize how much of it was based on the challenge of choices and bad breaks. With the treatment of women in her profession also not the greatest, it makes the songs she sings become all the more powerful, especially when you have an actress who tears her heart out when singing them.
McDonald does just that, and it deserves to be seen on either the big screen or on TV. Despite musical biopics not conducive to big box office, a movie adaptation of “Lady Day” might be a different story going by how generations still listen to Billie Holiday, and McDonald already being known from television. It’s all the more urgent to have it done since the play on Broadway is only going to last through the summer, hence becoming as ephemeral as Billie Holiday’s own life was.