Ardent fans of Billie Holiday should plan trips to New York City immediately to catch five-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald in her acclaimed turn as the late, great bisexual blues vocalist in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Noted musical theater aficionado Stephen Colbert invited McDonald to perform a couple of numbers closely associated with Holiday on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. The comic tells viewers that although he’s been told to introduce McDonald, he’s convinced it’s really Billie Holiday. She’s that good.
For younger readers who need a primer: Holiday (left) came by singing the blues authentically. After enduring an almost unbelievably challenging childhood, which included being raped at 10 and arrested as a prostitute (alongside her mother!) as a teen, Holiday eventually made a name for herself singing in Harlem nightclubs. As she became more successful and regarded as the country’s premiere interpreter of blues songs like “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child,” she struggled with a crippling addiction to alcohol and heroin, which resulted in numerous arrests and stints in institutions before her death in 1959 at age 44.
Her life was so dramatic that Diana Ross nearly won an Oscar for portraying her in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, which played fast and loose with the facts, as movie bios often do. Now McDonald, one of the indisputably great performers of the American stage, is favored to receive her record sixth Tony award for embodying the woman known as Lady Day.
It’s easy to see why. Watch her spot-on performances of “God Bless the Child” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” below.