Billie “Lady Day” Holiday was born in April 1915 and died a short forty-four years later. In that time, Holiday changed the face of jazz music, writing and performing songs that would become part of the history of the genre, including “Lover Man” and “God Bless the Child”. Her “Strange Fruit”, a protest song about the lynching of Black men all across the American South, would become one of the most famous songs of its era. Since her death from cirrhosis of the liver, she has been lauded by all manner of greats, including Ray Ellis and venerable music critic Robert Christgau. Even before her death, Frank Sinatra would say of her:
With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.
—Clarke, Donald: Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon
All reflection on Billie Holiday tells the story of a life cut short by addiction, and a career of unknown potential snuffed out too soon. So, too, will the 2014 production of Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play in the upcoming revival of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, which will feature Audra McDonald as Holiday.
Now, if you’re not a follower of large-scale production theatre, it’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of Audra McDonald. Here’s your opportunity to fix that. The forty-three-year-old actress and singer has had a rather storied career on and off of Broadway, including big roles in plays such as Ragtime, Porgy & Bess, Raisin in the Sun, Carousel, and Twelfth Night. Her twenty-three-year career on Broadway, which began with 1992 production of Secret Garden at the St. James, has netted her four Drama Desk Awards and five Tony Awards. By the way, only two other actors have five Tonys: Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury. Not to make it a competition, Harris and Lansbury have had much longer careers in which to achieve this. My point is, McDonald is a powerhouse in her own right.
To me, it seems unimaginable that director Lonny Price could have found a more fitting actress to play Holiday. (That’s not to disparage Dee Dee Bridgewater, who played Holiday in a different musical titled Lady Day off-Broadway last year.) McDonald will perform eighteen different songs as Holiday in the musical, which will run from spring into summer of this year. This year’s Lady Day is not simply a musical revue of Holiday’s work, but snapshots the last months of her life through the story of a 1959 performance. By July of that year, she would be dead. “It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly,” McdDnald opined in an interview with the New York Times.
I’m anticipating a show with humbling honesty and stunning vocal performance, even though Holiday has been called “uncoverable”. If McDonald has her way, it will be a show without “any self-pity”—simply a stunning bravado in the face of a dying light. It is pure coincidence, but shortly after the show closes in early July, McDonald will turn forty-four, the same age at which Holiday died. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill will benefit from even more fortuitous timing, beginning previews in late March in the midst of the ongoing national discussion on talent and addiction. I hope that it will serve not only to entertain, but to continue this discussion. Go see it. Opening night is April 13th, and the show will run for ten weeks, at Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.