Diva deathmatch! Cherry Jones vs. Audra McDonald

The Broadway leading ladies square off in this year’s most nail-biting Tony contest

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Photographs: Michael J. Lutch; Evgenia Eliseeva

Sure, the Tony Awards bring drama, but please: We already know who’s going to win Best Actor in a Play and in a Musical. (Hint: Both shoo-ins recently ended TV runs; see opposite page.) And because of arcane rules governing the nominations, there are good shows (The Bridges of Madison County, The Realistic Joneses) that aren’t even vying in top categories. It’s a mess, people. But there is one matchup we can’t wait for: Best Actress in a Play. Most Broadway buffs agree that it’s a toss-up between acting powerhouse Cherry Jones (Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie) and five-time Tony magnet Audra McDonald (Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill). Time Out New York asked these marvelous ladies about their roles. The world’s most polite shit-talking ensued.


Cherry Jones, The Glass Menagerie Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

“I just tried to figure her out. And being Southern helped. I didn’t have any of the baggage of the stereotypical Amanda: the cloying, narcissistic, silly, flighty Southern belle that usually involves a particular kind of Southern accent. Amanda’s travails have made her a nervous wreck. Tennessee [Williams] says in the writing that she’s a noble woman. And he has her say ten different ways in that script how much she loves those children.” On taking on an iconic role “Over the past year and a half I’ve been studying Billie, talking to people who knew her. I even recently made contact with her godchild. And what I’ve discovered is that she was a remarkable woman, kind to a fault and vulnerable. So I kind of have a crush on Billie Holiday right now.”

“I grew up with elderly women who were Amanda’s age. I was in love with their accents, their outrageousness. They were all performers and charming as the day is long.” Personal connection to the material “I suffer from depression, and I had a suicide attempt back in 1990. I’ve talked about it before. That’s how I can sort of see what Billie dealt with, but in a different way. I had all the help that I needed, whereas she had no help ever. She medicated with drugs and alcohol to take away the pain.”

“I felt I got Amanda by the last week in New York. There came a freedom and an ease and a depth. I don’t know who I am, as a person, really. So I don’t think my characters need to know either. But I know what she is feeling.” On getting into character “Dr. Maya Angelou, who knew Billie, told me she’d had a vocal coach who helped her place her voice in a ‘safe place’; she wasn’t a belter, and she didn’t have a big range. So I’ve found a way to imitate that. The hard part is making sure I never sound like me!”

“When a play’s running, I’m happy to do the dog and pony show. I want the audiences to come, so I go to every single event. And I have to say, it’s pretty darn exhausting for six weeks. You don’t get a day off. But when your show is closed, like mine, and you’re in previews for the next one [When We Were Young and Unafraid at Manhattan Theatre Club], I’ve just been given a great big pass!” Tony campaign strategy “There’s nothing you can do to win a Tony. When Shani Davis competes in the Olympics, he goes out there and skates and win that race. You can’t do that. I realize I have no control over it.”

“I was at the Outer Critics Circle event on my dinner break. And the first thing I said when I got the award was, ‘I want to thank the Outer Critics for putting Audra McDonald in the musical-theater category.’ [Laughs] They got a big kick out of that. And LaTanya Richardson Jackson [nominated for A Raisin in the Sun]! LaTanya waltzes into town, has ten minutes of rehearsal and gets a Tony nomination. I don’t know how the hell she did that. She must have balls that clank.” Trash-talking the competition “I love me some Cherry Jones. We were at the Tony nominee luncheon and one photographer wanted to get a picture of me with Cherry. I didn’t know she was standing catty-corner to me, and as a joke, I got a little ghetto and said, ‘Cherry Jones don’t wanna take no picture with me!’ And all of a sudden she poked her head out, and we just screeched and howled!”

Did your Tony invite get lost in the mail? The 68th Annual Tony Awards air live from Radio City Music Hall Jun Sun 8 at 8pm on CBS.


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