Audra McDonald on the Broadway Roles She Was ‘Devastated’ She Didn’t Get

Do you play a lot of music in your house?

We do! We listen to everything but Broadway. We’ve been listening to a lot of Roberta Flack, Martin Sexton, and Ray LaMontagne. There’s always Lizzo in my house, and my daughter has been singing “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. She learned it at school. And then—and this sounds crazy—our 13-year-old dog has a lot of separation anxiety, so we always put on Dolly Parton for him when we leave the house. We’re like, “Alexa, play Dolly Parton!” Because who else would you want to hear when you want some nurturing? 

You have spoken out in interviews about refusing to say no to yourself, before anyone else says no to you, whether that’s a producer or director. What did it take for you to get there? 

It took me a while to get there. And again, it probably came into effect around when I was passing out all the time. For me, empowerment meant standing straight up at the end of whatever I just did, as opposed to being unconscious with a bunch of people standing over me saying, “Give her some water!” So that mantra came from an actual need to be able to do what it is that I love. You have to say yes to yourself and understand that there are going to be a million people who say no, but that’s a part of it. If you say no to you, no one else can ever say yes. It has to start with you. 

Was there ever a role for the stage or screen that you really wanted but you didn’t get?

I remember there were talks years and years ago of a My Fair Lady revival. When my name was brought up, a famous producer was like, “Well, she’s Black.” And that was just the end of that conversation. I was pretty devastated. That was a long time ago. I remember when Cabaret came out and they had all of those different brilliant people playing the role, but I don’t think we saw a Sally Bowles of color. That’s a role I would have loved to have played. I’m not shrugging it off because I think we’re in a different place right now, and I’m grateful for the career I’ve had. But hopefully there will be more opportunities like that for other generations coming up to be able to just play the role that’s right for them. 

You and your husband have a blended family. What advice would you give your younger self when it comes to relationships?

Realize your worth. A friend of mine said this a long time ago, and it’s a good reminder: When you enter a relationship, it’s never, “Please, can I go with you?” It’s, “Yeah, let’s go together.” Your worth is never less than the person you are in a relationship with. I’m a whole person coming into this relationship, and I don’t need you to make me whole. Whereas before, I always felt that I had to diminish myself or that I was less than. That’s something that I couldn’t do anymore. I don’t think I could ever diminish my light so that someone else can shine brighter. 

You’ve won Tonys, Grammys, and Emmys. President Obama awarded you with the National Medal of the Arts, and you’ve been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. The list goes on and on. Is there anything you’re still striving for? 

Balance. I’m now at a point in my life where I feel like I don’t have to have my foot on the gas pedal, with the pedal down to the floor 100% of the time. I’m trying to get to a point in my life where I can have more balance and feel okay about focusing on the input rather than the output. I know that’s not the typical answer you’d expect, but that’s where I’m at right now. I should have said Lady Macbeth!

Caitlin Brody is the entertainment director at Conde Nast. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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