They didn’t know she could sing.
That’s what Audra McDonald’s fans emailed and tweeted after she hit the concert trail following a four-season run on ABC’s “Private Practice.”
Yes, folks, McDonald sings — as she’ll demonstrate Tuesday night at The Smith Center during a 22-city North American tour that’s already included gigs with the Boston Pops and the Chicago Symphony. (Still to come: appearances with the Los Angeles Opera and Louisville, Kansas City and Phoenix symphony orchestras.)
It’s “my secret life,” the Tony-winning performer jokes during a telephone interview from her East Coast base.
McDonald, 43, has a record-tying five Tony Awards — three of them for musicals, including the one she won last year for her performance as Bess in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” (She also won Tonys for supporting roles in the musicals “Ragtime” and “Carousel” and the dramas “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Master Class.”)
And while we’re talking awards, she joined fellow Broadway diva (and fellow Juilliard alumna) Patti LuPone at the Los Angeles Opera for a recording of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht’s “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” that captured two Grammy Awards: best opera recording and best classical album.
The production also turned up on PBS’ “Great Performances” — and last year, McDonald was named official host for another PBS staple, “Live From Lincoln Center.” (Lincoln Center plays a major role in McDonald’s life: She attended Juilliard there and won her first Tony for the Lincoln Center production of “Carousel.”)
Despite her numerous stage and concert hall achievements, however, McDonald understands that some audiences only know her through her “Private Practice” role of Dr. Naomi Bennett.
“It’s how you get introduced to a certain population,” she says. “People who live in Nebraska and don’t get to Broadway — they know what they know through TV.”
Good thing, then, that McDonald will combine Broadway and TV on Dec. 5, when she plays Mother Abbess in NBC’s live production of “The Sound of Music.”
The beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is one show, “if there ever was one, that almost anybody could quote,” McDonald says.
With a cast that encompasses country star Carrie Underwood to “True Blood’s” Stephen Moyer as well as Broadway veterans such as McDonald and fellow Tony-winners Laura Benanti and “Smash’s” Christian Borle, the TV “The Sound of Music” should appeal to a wide range of at-home audiences, McDonald says.
(As a musical TV warm-up, McDonald returned to “The Colbert Report” earlier this month to help host Stephen Colbert marry a couple whose ceremony, planned to take place at the Jefferson Memorial, was canceled because of the federal government shutdown; Colbert presided at the on-air nuptials, after which McDonald serenaded the happy couple with a ballad version of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.”)
And for those audiences who already know that McDonald’s voice is — to quote legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim — “one of the glories of the American theater,” her current concert tour offers an ideal showcase.
Of course, during the concert, “there’s no script, it’s just you,” she says. “There’s no fourth wall — you can’t ignore your audience.” Instead, it’s a case of “bringing your audience along with you.”
And while playing a role onstage remains most comfortable for her, “because that’s what I’ve done the most,” McDonald says she has “an affinity for all of it.”
Most of her concert material is drawn from the five solo albums she’s recorded since 1998 — the most recent being May’s “Go Back Home,” which also sparked a PBS concert special.
“If someone were to write a musical about my life, this would be the soundtrack,” McDonald says of the recording, her first in seven years, which takes its title from a song featured in Kander and Ebb’s musical “The Scottsboro Boys.” (Other selections include Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life,” Kander and Ebb’s “First You Dream,” Jule Styne’s “Make Someone Happy” and “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music.”
McDonald says she tends to avoid singing songs she’s previously performed onstage.
But that still leaves plenty of room for selections by such old masters as Gershwin, Sondheim, Styne, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, along with more contemporary Broadway composers, including “The Light in the Piazza’s” Adam Guettel and “Parade’s” Jason Robert Brown.
Overall, “it’s a real mixture,” McDonald says.
Which is, she adds, just as it should be.
“You try to give ’em a full meal — appetizer, entree, coffee, dessert — over the entire arc of the concert,” she explains. “There’s a nice flow to the evening.”
As for which songs speak to her most strongly, “they all do,” McDonald says. “I wouldn’t sing a song if it didn’t speak to me.”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.