Audra McDonald and Will Swenson talk about Neil Diamond impressions and being the 'queen of Broadway'
Can you say Broadway power couple?
Audra McDonald and Will Swenson are theatrical powerhouses, with McDonald's record-holding six Tony awards to her name and Swenson's Tony-nominated stint in several of the buzziest productions of the 21st century. Now, the married couple (they celebrated ten years this October) are on Broadway at the same time. But! Not in the same show. Swenson is playing his own hero, Neil Diamond, in new musical A Beautiful Noise, which opened Dec. 4, while McDonald anchors Ohio State Murders, the Broadway debut of 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy, opening Dec. 8.
The two have shared stage time before, but this dance of navigating rehearsals, call times, their family life, and the physical and emotional toll of stage work is new to them. So, we called the couple up and asked them to interview each other about their respective projects, the biggest challenges of their work, and what inspires them about the other.
Julieta Cervantes; Richard Termine
WILL SWENSON: The play [Ohio State Murders] has been around for a long time, So when did this become something of interest to you? Did you seek it out, or was it brought to you? And why? It's a really dark character and a really dark story.
AUDRA McDONALD: The play was brought to me because Jeffrey Richards, the producer, was doing a spotlight on plays during the pandemic and everything was Zoom. He said, "We're going to just do one day of rehearsal and then we will do a live stream of this play by Adrienne Kennedy, and Kenny Leon is going to direct it." The first thing my agent said to me was, "Oh, it has the best last line of a play in the history of all plays." So I immediately turned to the end of the play to read the last line before I started reading the actual play, and then I just thought, "Oh yeah, well this will be very, very challenging, even in a Zoom setting to do."
I knew that Adrienne Kennedy was someone whose work wasn't done nearly enough. I wasn't familiar with most of her work, but I had heard of her. After we did the Zoom reading, the poetry was still in my head days after, and I was still haunted by what I had read. Within days of that, we got a phone call saying, "We'd like to bring this to Broadway. We think it's right that Adrienne Kennedy should have a Broadway debut. I asked my agent, and I was like, "This feels like the right next thing to do on Broadway," and he was like, "100 percent." When he confirms my gut feeling like that I know to run with it. I also knew that the piece scared me to death, so that was the reason to do it. And It's a Black woman centering a Black woman and a Black woman's experience, which —
SWENSON: Doesn't get done on Broadway.
McDONALD: No, we don't have enough of that on Broadway, so that's why I wanted to do it. Is there a tell that I have that let's you know, "Oh shoot, she's saying yes to this and what does this mean for our lives?"
SWENSON: Yes. You're so intense. It took me a long time in our dating relationship to understand that when you go into your zone of, "I'm interested and I'm intrigued" that isn't, "I hate you." You go into a very deep zone, and I can always tell. It's just your prep. It's the way that you get your head into your work. But you do readings like that now and then and they'll come and go, but with this one, you were still trying to work things out in your head after. I can tell when you go into your deep submarine zone that you're interested.
McDONALD: Let's talk Mr. Diamond. When Neil Diamond came along, it felt like fate that this came crashing into your life the way that it did. When the offer landed on your plate, I was like, "That's going, going, gone." But's not like you put, "I can do a really good Neil Diamond impersonation" on your résumé. How did people find that out?
SWENSON: Ken Davenport, our producer, came up to me at a reading one day and was like, "Word on the street is you do a pretty good Neil Diamond," so I guess word had traveled that I could, because I had been doing it as a party trick here and there.
McDONALD: A party trick is what led to this huge Broadway success for you.
SWENSON: He just offered me a reading to do in front of Neil to see if Neil approved of it and thought I was the guy. It's my skill set with playing the guitar and I can sound like Neil and…
McDONALD: And you've done it your entire life. I went on a family trip with your entire family and we were at Lake Powell. We were all sitting around a campfire with his dad, his brothers and sister, and all the nieces and nephews, and his kids and my daughter. Our youngest daughter hadn't been born yet. I didn't grow up doing many campfires. Everybody was sitting around, and they asked you to pull out your guitar and start playing, and what did you sing?
SWENSON: It was "Play Me." [Both laugh] I have to defend myself! I learned the song in the eighth grade and I don't think I gave a whole lot of thought to the fact that it's quite a lascivious lyric. It's very, very sexual.
McDONALD: But he's playing it, and Will comes from Utah and his family is Mormon and very kind, very sweet, and so it is this wholesome family event and he starts playing it. I'm like, "Oh my God, he sounds like Neil Diamond!" And then I remember thinking, "Oh my God, what are you singing?" I couldn't help myself. Do you remember? I just went, "This is so inappropriate."
McDONALD: Now here you are, starring as Neil Diamond on Broadway singing "Play Me."
SWENSON: And I understand the lyric.
McDONALD: I've heard you talk a lot to other people about your connection to Neil, but I know it goes much further back than having a slight interest in him. It feels like it really is destiny because of your upbringing, if you want to talk about that a little bit.
SWENSON: Yeah. It goes back to my dad, definitely. Neil's my dad's favorite singer of all time. It was played every day in our house, and that's not an exaggeration. Some of my earliest, if not my earliest musical memory, is listening to "Hot August Night" on an eight track tape. My dad had a stack of them in his bedroom.
McDONALD: Did Big Bob sing along?
SWENSON: I remember him screaming "I Am... I Said."
McDONALD: Screaming it?
SWENSON: Yeah. He listened to Jonathan Livingston Seagull a lot, which isn't as big of a hit, but the soundtrack is stunning. It's this big ambitious orchestral score.
McDONALD: When he comes out for opening, I'm going to make him belt out "I Am... I Said."
SWENSON: How familiar were you with Adrienne Kennedy as a playwright? This is a great moment for her and for the advancement of the work of people of color on Broadway. Talk about that a little bit.
McDONALD: I wasn't familiar. I knew she was a playwright and I knew she was a prolific playwright, but I didn't know any of her works. And I was ashamed of that, but also, I didn't go to actual theater school. I went to Juilliard, but I went for singing. I never got a proper theater education that you would get if you actually majored in theater in college. So I gave myself a little bit of slack for not knowing her work.
One of the things theater does better than anything is it lets people experience or at least have a window into other cultures and experiences that they would not necessarily have. Lorraine Hansberry did that with A Raisin in the Sun. That was the first time for many, many people to actually see a Black family on stage and peer into the world of a Black family on stage. There was something about wanting to not only be involved with this particular project because it's so challenging, but to center this Black woman's experience of what it was like to go to college in the forties in Ohio and be only one of 12 Black girls in the dorm. The experiences that Adrienne Kennedy herself had with racism and sexism and colorism and all of that felt necessary [to bring to Broadway]. And to help bring her work to more people felt like a necessary thing.
On top of that, to help ensure that she gets her Broadway debut at 91. This woman has been writing prolifically since the sixties and writing groundbreaking plays. This is a very important playwright that people have been studying. She's actually very popular within the academic world. Her work has been studied a lot, but not in the commercial world. I felt so strongly about being a part of trying to shepherd her work to Broadway so that more people can see her work and know her work, and she can get the accolades she more than deserves.
I've been scared to death because it's the hardest play I've ever done in my entire life. It's the hardest role I've ever played. And every night I walk out there and I think, "This is the night. This is the night I'm going to fall flat on my face and all they'll be able to do is drag me off by my feet and leave me on the side of the road somewhere." Because it's so hard. But it's absolutely worth it, so that's fine.
McDONALD: I'll say, "1, 2, 3," and we say what the hardest thing is about both of us being on the Broadway at the same time. Okay. Ready? Go. 1, 2, 3.
McDONALD: We basically said the same thing, Sally and childcare. Our six year old, sweet Sally, she's bearing the brunt of this right now.
SWENSON: We didn't know this was going to time-out like this. Your show was going to go up later, and then schedules shifted and ended up having to go at exactly the same time as my show.
McDONALD: Literally four days apart.
SWENSON: So that's been challenging. We have planning meetings every day, it seems like, to say, "Who's taking her when? I'll get her then." Sitter gets her then, grand-mommy gets her then.
McDONALD: Sally gives us monologues about, "Why is it that people have to work? It's not fair. Can you tell your boss? I don't understand."
SWENSON: Her earliest memories of life are during the pandemic when mom and dad were home all day every day, so now that mom and dad are back to work, it's soul crushing for her.
McDONALD: So, we're the worst parents in the world. That's the hardest part. One of the funnier parts for me is my show is only 75 minutes long, and so my show comes down right at about the time that you're in intermission. Sometimes when I come over to meet you after your show, after having experienced my show and the audience applauding and appreciating it, but in a very pensive mood after seeing my show, or maybe traumatized by the show because it's very dark. Then I come to your show and as the theater doors open, you're just like —
SWENSON: Draped in confetti. We had visions of going into work together and coming home together, but the time difference in the shows and the schedules have not quite lined up in the way that we envisioned.
McDONALD: No. If I really work hard, I can be home at our house up in Westchester by the time your show comes down, and that's miraculous.
SWENSON: Thank goodness the holidays come around and usually that juggles show schedules up in the air a little bit so I was glad I was able to see your show the other night.
McDONALD: And I've seen your show a few times. I saw it in previews before our show started previews, and then I got to see it in Boston like 500 times. And I've been very lucky that I have very understanding producers and so they [bumped our curtain up] so that I can see your show on opening night. The scariest audience for me is always the audience where you're sitting, when you're in the audience, because I feel loved and supported but I still want you to like me.
SWENSON: I'll perform in front of thousands of strangers and not get insecure but I want you to like me so much that I get nervous every time you come.
SWENSON: What's something in my work that inspires you?
McDONALD: One of the things that I love so much about your work is the fact that unless we're doing a show together, I say goodbye to you in the morning and then you come home at night and sometimes we talk about what's going on in our shows in our rehearsal period, but I have no idea what you're up to. So when I finally come and sit in the audience, my face must look like a kid in a candy shop because I'm always like, "Oh my God, that's what's been happening?" I'm just completely blown away.
And then it's like, "Wait, but that's my husband. That's the same guy who comes home every night and we're raising our kids together, and we're just a husband and wife trying to get our dog to stop farting so much in the middle of the night." There's this whole other spectacularly talented, brilliant performer that goes out and lives these lives on stage the way you do. I love being constantly surprised and overwhelmed by that, to the point now where I have more fun not knowing too much about what you're doing, when you don't talk too much about it. That's how I felt with Neil, to not have really any idea how they were going to tell the story and you giving me very little information about it, except just, "This is hard. This is what we're working through." That excites me the most.
SWENSON: That's nice. Thank you. This is an unfair question [to ask in reverse] because I haven't teased you about this yet, but you're the undisputed queen of Broadway.
McDONALD: Oh, shut up.
SWENSON: That's how her show is billing her, which is true. But the short answer is your process. Before I met you, I was skimming the surface of my characters and going, "Okay, well that's this guy." But you're a truth-seeking missile. You're so hungry for getting to the bottom of these characters and how to tell the story most effectively. You're like a detective. And you've been a role model in that regard for me. There's much more work to be done than just showing up to rehearsal and trying to figure it out. It's a quest to find these characters at their most true forms. What you end up getting with you is the greatest performances that Broadway has seen. They are. Undisputed. It's not up for discussion.
McDONALD: Oh my goodness.
SWENSON: But watching you, your process to get there, is amazing and inspiring to me.
McDONALD: Thank you, babe, but I know there's also living with my process. That's another question. Sometimes it's hard to have two actors in a relationship, but at least we understand what the other one is doing and why the other one is doing what they're doing and what they need to get through the process. We're both so exhausted because we're both working on shows. But because my show is a play and I don't have to sing, and Will has to sing 975,000 songs each show, it's more important for Will to be getting more sleep right now than it is for me. Because you have to be able to show up and sing. Where if my voice is a little crackly as I'm talking, I can still get through my show and there not be a problem.
SWENSON: Thank heaven that you understand. I mean, I'm endlessly grateful, but that you understand that these commodities equal being able to show up at work or not, and that you're picking up amazing amounts of slack for me.
McDONALD: I get it. I totally understand it. And when we're past this, you're going to let me sleep for a year.
SWENSON: What's the hardest part of your job every night?
McDONALD: I'm immediately breaking the rules and amending this question. The two hardest parts of my job every night are taking that first step onto the stage, and trying to convince myself that I will get through this. That first step on stage for me is a big leap of faith every night, that I'm going to actually still be standing by the end of this performance. And the second hardest part of my job is not being able to put Sally to bed every night for me. How about you?
SWENSON: Pacing myself. That's not the word I'm looking for, but efficiency, because it's such a huge show to sing, and Neil's sound has got a lot of gravel and heft to it so it's not over singing to hurt myself and not be able to do the show. Vocal efficiency, that's the hardest thing for me.
McDONALD: What was it like for you to not only have Neil sitting in rehearsals for the workshop and the rehearsals leading up to Boston, and then having him there in Boston?
SWENSON: Honestly, the scariest moment was the first reading because I had just met him prior to the thing, and it seemed very much like an audition in a way. Like if he didn't think I was good enough, I was no longer going to be the guy. So that was daunting and surreal and he was five feet away from me, and he closed his eyes at first and I was like, "Oh, he's bored." But then halfway through the first song, he started mouthing the words and singing along, and then he opened up.
And then when we got to some of the more upbeat numbers, he clapped and was singing along. My last show was Assassins, and I played a person who lived, but there's not a thousand YouTube clips of Charles Guiteau. Whereas with Neil, his fans know his sound, his mannerisms, his look, his movement, so intricately that if you don't nail it, there's an added pressure. Once I got to know Neil, he's a very nurturing man. He seems very interested in helping me. His first questions to me were, "How's the sound? How are the guitars? Are you taking care of yourself?" He just went into caretaker mode.
McDONALD: Which is so sweet.
SWENSON: Because it could have been, "This is wrong, this is wrong. You're saying this wrong, that's not what happened." It wasn't any of that. So I'm no longer as freaked out by performing in front of Neil because I feel very supported and I feel like he's in my corner.
McDONALD: You performed with him too. At Fenway, at the Red Sox game. Sally and I were in Boston, but at the apartment, and you came home and I have never seen you more on fire, alive, happier than you've ever been. When we had Sally, you seemed really happy that day too. So maybe not as happy as the day we had our child, but you were so on cloud nine. It feels like you were living a dream come true for you and your dad at the same time.
SWENSON: That was a once in a lifetime moment. Adrienne is alive as well. Do you feel any added pressure?
McDONALD: The only huge responsibility I feel is to Adrienne to make sure that we are interpreting her play in the way that she wants and that we're making sure that we tell that story. It's a semi autobiographical story, it's a semi autobiographical character, Suzanne Alexander. She wrote four plays where this character appears, and they're all based on her and her experiences. But I would say the great thing has been [her answering] any questions that I've had. Because I have a relationship with Adrienne now, I talk to her on a weekly basis. We email practically every day. Other scholars will be like, "Well, what she meant by this was...". I'm like, "No, I just asked her. What she meant was what she just told me."
Any questions I've had the entire time, I've been able to go right to the source. I feel like I get to go to the oracle every time. And if my interpretations are off, she is the first to tell me. And if my interpretations are correct, she is the first to tell me with that. In all ways, I feel like it's actually a huge blessing that she's still alive. Sometimes she's writing me at four o'clock in the morning and goes, "Oh, and don't forget this, and this is very important and this is very important. And when you said that you're doing this with the role, that's right. Stay away from doing this, but that's correct."
McDONALD: Back in 2014, I played Billie Holiday, and you had to live with Audra McDonald and Billie Holiday for a period of time. But having watched me go through that and then turn around a couple years later, now you're having to do the same thing by having to portray this icon with an iconic sound, did you learn anything from my struggles of having to do that? And what has been most illuminating to you in having to do that on your own?
SWENSON: I feel super lucky to have watched you do a similar path in having to create a specific sound to portray a character. Your process is so hungry. I remember going to your dressing room months into your run and you were still pulling up YouTube clips before the show to just get new info and get new insight or inspiration, so I've been doing that as well. Thank goodness for YouTube, it's the most amazing resource. I was really lucky to watch you walk a similar path and now I'm just copying you, so...
McDONALD: Oh my goodness.
SWENSON: It's funny, my Neil sounds a lot like Billie Holiday. It's so weird.
McDONALD: My Adrienne Kennedy is now sounding a lot like Neil Diamond. It's getting a little confused. What is your favorite song to sing in the show? And what do you think my favorite song is that you sing in the show?
SWENSON: My favorite song to sing... Well, it's varied lately. It has been to this point, "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show," because it's the most fantastic song and it's the first time that the whole band is seen. And it's the first time Neil's at the peak of his powers in the show. It's simultaneously the hardest song that I sing all night because it's very bombastic. Now I really love singing "Solitary Man," because it's so personal and it means so much to Neil still. It's the polar opposite; it's the most pared back, me and the guitar song in the show. I love those two. And your favorite is probably, "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show?"
SWENSON: "Holly Holy?"
SWENSON: Wrong? I have no idea.
McDONALD: I love them all. But "Solitary Man." Because it's so pared back and he's in such a vulnerable, pure state in that moment. It's just a very powerful moment and that's the one that always gets me.
Julieta Cervantes Will Swenson as ‘Neil Diamond' in 'A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical'
SWENSON: What show are you dying to do with me?
McDONALD: I am dying to do Anthony and Cleopatra with you. I very much either want to do either Anthony and Cleopatra with you, or I want to do the Scottish play with you. We would have some good fun. I have no idea what our marriage would be like after that. Maybe it'd be even better, maybe it'd be a really cathartic thing to do. But those are my two. How about you?
McDONALD: What's your favorite in-between show snack? In between show food is very important.
McDONALD: Oh my gosh! Since we both have matinees, we try and meet up in between our shows and have lunch with each other. And we had grilled cheeses this past week.
SWENSON: Well, it's Melt Shop as of last week.
SWENSON: I was going to ask you how you let go of your dark, dark shows? You choose a lot of dark material.
McDONALD: I've learned to leave it at the theater. I have to say physically out loud, "Thank you," to the character. "Thank you for letting me inhabit you. I love you. I will see you tomorrow." But I have to do an actual physical thing where I leave it there. I had to do that with Billie too. And before I didn't do that, I would bring them home with me. That's the one thing I've learned is honor them, honor the character, honor everything that exists with that character, and then say, "Thank you and I will see you tomorrow, but here's where you stay."
SWENSON: And you say it out loud?
McDONALD: I do. I have to. Yeah. How about you?
SWENSON: I haven't been doing dark things so I'm happy to stay in Neil's world.
McDONALD: When we do Macbeth, it'll be a different story.