After years in the doldrums, New York City theatre has recently undergone a resurgence of hit shows and appreciative, even adoring, audiences. Ticket grosses for the current season, which began in late May, have reached $327 million, up 20.5% over last season, says the Broadway League.
This is happening for many reasons, but at least one is the popular esteem for African-American culture and talent — performers, producers, and playwrights —which is not just a local phenom. African-American hits have leapt the Atlantic and are now thriving in London. It can be thrilling for New Yorkers to sit in elegant London theaters, watching renowned African-Americans on the West End stage, receiving multiple standing ovations and love from once-staid audiences.
London is getting some of Broadway’s best, starting with the lyric soprano, Audra McDonald, who in an earlier, more romantic age might have been called New York’s sweetheart. A 1993 graduate of Juilliard, McDonald is in a class all her own. She has won six Tony Awards, more than any other performer — the last, “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role,” conferred for playing Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
“This is for you, Billie,” she said on accepting the Tony. “You deserved so much more than you were given when you were on this planet.”
Set in a seedy bar in South Philadelphia in March 1959, a few months before Holiday’s death at age 44, Lady Day is heartbreakingly sad as McDonald’s Holiday unravels before us, while remaining defiant. “Philly’s been the rat’s ass for me,” she says in the play. “When I die, I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell, long as it ain’t Philly.”
Later she stumbles off the stage, returning with one long white opera glove undone, exposing track marks, while carrying an enchanting Chihuahua, Tilly, who stares imperiously at the audience.
The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish calls the play “an utterly intoxicating evening with Billie Holiday,” and so it is. With 15 classic songs for McDonald’s lush voice, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “God Bless the Child,” and “Strange Fruit,” the Wyndham Theatre audiences have embraced her rapturously. As British journalist Tracey Logan said, recalling her on-air days with the BBC’s Women’s Hour, “Two topics always got the London ratings: Billie Holiday and chocolate.” McDonald has brought Holiday home to London.
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