Broadway star Audra McDonald makes time at IU to lead master class for musical theater students


Audra McDonald crouches down to instruct Emily Kelly during a master class for theater students. She brought Heather Lawler onto the stage during Kelly’s song. Photo by Chaz Mottinger.


Audra McDonald has won an unprecedented six Tony Awards, one of them for the Terrence McNally play “Master Class.”

Yesterday at Indiana University, McDonald taught a master class of her own.

The singer and actress, who was in town for a concert at IU Auditorium, generously shared her wisdom and talent with an enthusiastic crowd of about 150 theater students and faculty at the Wells-Metz Theatre on Tuesday.

In the McNally play, legendary opera singer Maria Callas visits a class, but every bit the diva, she parades her own clashes and glories before the Juilliard students.

McDonald couldn’t be more different. The versatile performer interacted closely with four musical theater students from the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. She gave each student her full attention. She was candid, direct, personal and incredibly warm. In fact, she greeted the performers with hugs.

Early on, she had one request: she asked for the stage lighting to be adjusted so the spotlight was not on her while the students were singing.

Notable singers

Emily Kelly, a junior in the BFA musical theater program, stepped up first to perform “Changing My Major” from the musical “Fun Home.”

“You’re brilliant,” McDonald said. “I can already tell that you guys have been trained very, very well.”

mcdonald blog

Audra McDonald

She told Kelly, “You have all of the right elements already there.”

Then, to increase her expression of emotion, she called a volunteer to the stage so Kelly could address a real person with her song of admiration and discovery.

Instantly, her performance became more powerful. Or, as McDonald remarked, “So much more color!”

Musical theater students Christian Fary, Elaine Cotter and Samantha Lee Mason followed with their own songs, and each time McDonald pushed them to discover their best performances.

Fary offered up “Safe” from “Hello Again,” Cotter flirted her way through “I Don’t Know What I’d Do” from “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and Mason sang an emotional “No One Else” from “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.”

Offering notes

After listening to every nuance of their first performances, McDonald had the students run through their songs again. She called out questions, addressed them eye to eye, caught them off guard, held their arms or whispered secret instructions. And each time the songs grew richer.

In just a few minutes time, she guided each talented IU student from performing a song well, to reaching deeper and telling the story through his or her voice.

Jonathan R. Michaelsen, chair of the theater department, introduced McDonald to his students as “a performer without compare.”

With her show of generosity, warmth and authenticity, she also proved she is a person without compare.

After watching her impart knowledge gleaned from a dazzling career in theater, music, film and television, this is my enduring impression of Audra McDonald:

She is a master, and she personifies class.

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