The legendary Audra McDonald has played many memorable roles on stage and in movies and television, but her performance in “Beauty and the Beast” makes the first time she has played furniture.
The Tony winner portrays Madame Garderobe, a singer who is transformed into a wardrobe as part of the curse put on the Beast.
amNewYork spoke with McDonald about the role.
What is your background with “Beauty and the Beast”?
I first saw it in my early 20s when it first came out in 1991. I was skeptical going in just because I was, you know, newly an adult and felt skeptical about spending what little money I had in those days to see a Disney cartoon. And I walked out in tears. I was completely blown away by it. And then I had another brush with it in 1993 when I auditioned for the Broadway musical to be in the ensemble and I wasn’t cast. And then it kind of came back into my life once I had my now 16-year-old daughter, who was very obsessed with Belle and had the dress and all that. And so when they called me to be a part of this film I was so elated and shocked really, but I said yes immediately.
So ... how does one get into the mindset of playing a wardrobe?
[Laughs]. Because they’re human first before they’re turned into these [objects], you have a bit of an idea of who the character is and in my instance, she thinks of herself as a grand opera Italian opera singer. Then once you’re in the recording studio, it’s just about knowing what’s happening to your object at any particular moment. Like if my object is trying to move or if my object is trying to scold someone or whatnot. For me what I try to bring to it was a sense of heaviness. Because she’s such a large piece of furniture that there’s this heaviness that’s weighing her down. I try to just bring that into the voice along with the Italian accent and a regular acting objective that you would normally have for a character.
You have some impressive costume to wear.
Oh, yeah. When I first was in my first costume fitting they showed me what they were thinking and then they started to strap me into the really tight, tight, tight corset and then added the skirt and then added the piece that made the skirt so big and then put the final touches on the skirt — I couldn’t fit out the door because the dress was so big. Then I sat down in the hair department and they put the first wig on and then they added to that and then they added to that and then they added to it again. And then they started putting birds and flowers and lord know what else in the wig. I was so overwhelmed. I was like, ”Oh my goodness! This is huge.” But then they showed me how it relates to once she becomes a piece of furniture and how the wig is large and huge and blonde and the top of the wardrobe has lovely sort of molding that was large and yellow and whatnot and the fact that my shoes match the legs of the wardrobe. And all the lovely brocade on my dress, the buttons and whatnot, match sort of the knobs in the wardrobe. Everything is so beautifully and carefully thought out by the Disney team — the creators. So it helped me actually immensely to get into character. I mean the hard part about it was that I couldn’t sit down between takes and they have to build a lean-to for me so that I could sort of lean back on a slab of wood to protect my neck from the weight of the wig.
How was it working with composer Alan Menken?
Yes. Well, Alan — I kind of can’t imagine musical theater without Alan. I became a fan of Alan’s — I knew the entire score of “Little Shop of Horrors.” ... I was talking to him about it today and he knows how to get to the essence of the heart of a moment. I don’t know how he does it musically. It’s almost like it’s — I would say a science, but I wouldn’t know how to describe it. But he gets the absolute essence of what the character is feeling with his melodies and Howard Ashman’s lyrics and Tim Rice’s lyrics. And in doing so he leaves very little work for you to do. He’s done all of the work for you.
What’s your favorite song?
You know obviously the title song. I defy anybody to say they don’t like that song. That’s one of my favorites. But in this particular incarnation of the film I have to say I enjoyed the song “Days in the Sun,” which is new one sung by all of the household objects. Because it gives you a look into their souls and what they’re feeling and longing for. And I think that moment and that song, hearing the hopes and the desires of all these household objects makes the end of the movie pay off in a deeper way because you’ve gotten a look into what they’re thinking and feeling and wanting. So when they finally get that in the end, you’re invested I think a little bit more. Or at least I was.
What are you working on next?
I’m going to make my West End debut in “Lady Day in Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” I start in the middle of June and it’s my first time performing on the West End and that’s what’s happening in the next three months for me. I’m very excited about that. I’ll be in West End for three months.
What do you like to do in London?
Oh, it’s such an amazing city and I’ll never see all of it. I just wander when I’m there. Every street is filled with character and charm and takes you back a century of two or three or four for that matter. For me it’s all about discovering new parts of the city that I haven’t seen yet. And I’ll have my whole family over, including my 4 month old. It will be fun to just kind of wander around London, visit the parks a lot with my baby and do my show at night.