The musical is based on one of Holiday's last performances,
when she was in poor health, singing in a small, intimate
Philadelphia bar before a handful of people just a month before
she died in 1959.
The show debuted off-Broadway nearly 30 years ago. It begins a
10-week run at the Circle in the Square theatre with previews on
March 25 and opening night on April 13.
With her sultry voice and distinctive style, Holiday is
considered one of the greatest jazz singers ever. She was
nicknamed "Lady Day" by saxophonist Lester Young.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" depicts Holiday's life
through more than a dozen songs such as "God Bless the Child,"
"Crazy He Calls Me," "Strange Fruit" and "What a Little
Moonlight Can Do," and reminiscences with the audience.
"With Billie Holiday, everybody has a close personal
relationship with her music, her artistry," said McDonald, 43,
who is returning to Broadway for the first time since winning a
best actress Tony in 2012 for "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."
"Everyone in a way feels like they know her because she has
touched whoever listens to her," said the three-time Emmy-
nominated actress, who also appeared in NBC's "The Sound of
Music Live!" and had a recurring role in the TV medical drama
Despite an impoverished birth and shattered childhood, Holiday's
extraordinary vocal talent propelled her to stardom in a
racially divided America in the 1930s and 1940s. She died a poor
drug addict at the age of 44.
McDonald admits to being intimidated by playing Holiday.
"I think I'll be able to do this role for the run of the show
and have researched about as much as I possibly can about her
and still not ever fully, fully understand her. There are so
many contradictions in her, so much life in her," she said.
[to top of second column]
TRANSPORTED BACK TO 1959
Director Lonny Price ("Master Harold ... and the Boys" and "A
Class Act") worked with McDonald in the 2007 revival of the
musical "110 in the Shade." They have been developing the "Lady
Day" musical for more than two years.
"The play is a great exploration of the African-American experience
in the first half of the last century. Billie Holiday had a very
Dickensian kind of upbringing. She was raped at 10, worked in a
whorehouse, had terrible addiction issues and was sent to jail for a
year cold turkey to get off drugs," he explained.
Price was intrigued by the dichotomy of the great star, who
influenced so many people and was loved by so many, and who had a
terrible life yet was able to survive through her music.
"She loved to sing, and that was the thing that really grounded
her," he said. "I have also been attracted to people who survive
without self pity. She was that person."
To capture Holiday's essence and that memorable performance, the
audience will be taken back to 1959 — to that Philadelphia bar that
playwright Lanie Robertson found so haunting when a lover who had
been there described it to him.
"I carried that for a long time and began listening to her music,"
said Robertson, whose plays include "Back County Crimes" and "Nasty
"I thought that I heard, almost sub rosa (privately) in the music,
the joy and pain of her life and (had) to put that on the stage in
one performance, that she is trying to get through the night."
Robertson believes that despite her drug addiction, alcoholism and
abusive relationships, Holiday was never a victim.
"She was triumphant in her music, in her insistence on singing the
way she felt and feeling the song in order to sing it," he said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Jan Paschal)
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