To the Wyndhams Theatre for Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. For anyone who knows Broadway, Audra’s voice is one of those once in a generation lyric sopranos comparable to Barbra Streisand or Bernadette Peters in its purity. The lady has won more Tony Awards – six – than any other actor or actress. She is a star of stage, film, television, recording and countless concerts.
I wonder whether London quite yet appreciates that what they are seeing in Lady Day is a once in a lifetime play-with-music in which Audra totally possesses Billie Holiday in the twilight of her life performing at Philadelphia club Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The year is 1959 and Billie has months before cirrhosis of the liver and heroin addiction claims her life. Before the show began, I thought Audra as Billie was like asking Doris Day to play Blanche Dubois.
The production is staged with the audience at cafe tables on the stage and in the first few rows of the stalls. Billie is backed by a smoking piano, bass and drums trio. From the second Audra appears on the stage in a white slipper satin gown and over-the-elbow gloves, she nails Billie’s stooped posture and blowsy, bar room gait. She opens her mouth and I swear if we didn’t know better I would say this was mime to a Holiday recording.
How Audra McDonald could adjust her golden voice into a ballsy, raspy, guttural drawl is beyond belief. It is like playing dirty blues on a Stradivarius. The playlist has been carefully chosen to illustrate moments in Billie’s personal life and songs become increasingly scarce as Billie’s monologues get longer and sharper. Audra’s body language makes it clear from the beginning that this is a falling star. The voice is lacerated by booze, drugs, anger and disappointment.
Billie Holiday is not a natural heroine. Often she isn’t even likeable as Audra plays her. We know from history that she loses the battle with drugs and booze aged forty-four. We know her choices of men (and women) were disastrous. There is a prurience to Billie fans who map her decline in the quality of her voice. But the writing is such that Audra is given the opportunity to paint a portrait of a woman who has not a shred of self-pity, oceans of black humour and a bald acceptance that racism is a fact of her life. She becomes heroic.
Billie’s life is in her voice and it wasn’t pretty. Audience members wanting pretty songs will be shocked by Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. But as Billie says in the play, you sing how you feel and that makes Audra’s renditions of God Bless the Child, Don’t Explain, Strange Fruit and Give Me a Pigfoot so visceral. I wished for That Ole Devil Called Love but Billie had a big repertoire so Audra couldn’t sing them all.
It was such a good call to run the play in one rather than having an interval. You have to stay in the moment and watch Billie’s decline as she begins to drink neat vodka then go offstage to shoot-up. She returns with the gloves off and needle punctures suggested. Billie explains that she was introduced to hard drugs by her husbands and boyfriends and that one in particular fitted her up resulting in a prison sentence.
I really appreciated how the script threw in traumas in Billie’s life almost as an aside proving that she was sanguine about her fate. Aged eleven she was raped. Before the age of fourteen she was working in a brothel with her mother the Duchess. On tour with Artie Shaw she was denied a lavatory because there was no such thing for negro women. In prison she was chained to a bed and forced to go cold turkey. This would fry anyone’s brains but Billie endured and put the pain in her music.
It seems clear that the Feds targeted Billie Holiday. After her prison sentence, she was denied the cabaret card to perform in New York and all she did to feel alive was sing in clubs. Instead her then agent booked her into a sell-out concert in Carnegie Hall. That was Billie’s triumph. But she wasn’t allowed to triumph for long. This was a woman handcuffed to a hospital bed as she lay dying.
It takes guts and skill to play drug and drugged and Audra casts the spell beautifully. I could only think ‘what discipline’ to watch her woozily falling, missing cues and raging to the audience. When she hits the notes it is a small triumph. That takes a touch of genius. Whatever the hell a mess Billie Holiday was in, her voice could lullaby lions. She tended to sing behind the beat and have an unique phrasing learned from recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Audra nails this as if she is Billie Holiday possessed.
Billie isn’t a nice, sympathetic character but she is a strong voice in the fight for civil rights in America. Audra took her on and did her proud. This is an unvarnished, coarse, barnstorming performance that deserves every award that the theatre can give it. I feel privileged to have witnessed a performer like Audra McDonald pay tribute to a performer like Billie Holiday with great respect, affection and love.