Audra McDonald talks ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Garderobe

by W. Andrew Powell
Audra McDonald in Beauty and the Beast

Actress, singer, and six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald has transformed for her latest role, taking her from the stage to one of Disney’s most beloved stories. McDonald stars in the new live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast as Madame de Garderobe, the renowned Italian opera diva, and wife to Maestro Cadenza.

McDonald called me from New York to talk about Beauty and the Beast, and the big opening number, “Aria” that she performs. Beauty and the Beast is in theatres now.

Andrew Powell: I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to Toronto, but the excitement around this film is incredible. I’ve been talking to people and everyone is very excited to see Beauty and the Beast. What was it like having the opportunity to perform the first song in the film?

Audra McDonald: “I was shocked. I was shocked when they told me that that’s how it was going to start… that they were gonna start with me. And even once we were filming I thought, ‘Oh well, it won’t make it, any of it won’t make it.’ I mean for me, in terms of my stuff, it’s just my own sort of thought process, so I was so pleased when I found that it had made it to the final cut of the film. It’s great. I love that there’s a back story there. I think it’s very important. It helps you invest, I think, more deeply for the characters.”

Andrew: It also sets a certain tone that there’s that speed and pace to it, that you kind of get a feel for his world before things change.

McDonald: “Absolutely, yeah. Which is important, like I said, I think helps you invest in him a little bit more.”

Andrew: Did you end up working with Alan Menken for the music?

McDonald: “Oh sure, yeah. Alan was in the recording studio for all the voice work I did. You know, and obviously he was on the set too. Or every day that I was there, that’s for sure, I don’t know about the rest of the filming, but yeah.”

Andrew: What kind of feedback did he give you while you were working together?

McDonald: “Oh he was just there, and yeah, he’d have feedback after a take he’d say, ‘Okay that’s great, let’s try it this way.’ We’d try it different ways and I know he played a lot with the accent because we wanted the accent really to be thick enough that it was clear that she was this Italian diva, living and working, and perhaps this African American Italian diva, working in France. So the accent had to sound Italian enough but also, really, to be able to understand the words that I was singing, so we had to play a lot with how Italian, and how far did I go with it.”

Andrew: That’s awesome. Before you started the film, what was your impression of Beauty and the Beast before you knew you were going to be involved? What was the first thing you would think of for this story?

McDonald: “Oh yeah. Yeah I saw it when I was in my early 20’s and was not expecting to be as moved as I was, and I was blown away by the film. And I knew someone who had a little girl, and she loved the film, and she had Belle dress, and wore the Belle dress and went to Disneyland. And I’ve always been a huge admirer of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and so the score, it was one I knew backwards and forwards, I auditioned for the Broadway show in 1983 and being ensemble, and I didn’t get in that. So you know, I had my own special relationship with the film.”

Andrew: Is this the first time that you’ve done an animated film?

McDonald: “Yes, it is, actually.”

Andrew: Did you find that process interesting? Just in regard to how it ends up working?

McDonald: “Yeah. I did, you know, because I’ve done a lot of albums and I’ve done TV shows before, and I spend a lot of time in the studio, in a recording studio. That aspect wasn’t foreign to me, but there was something quite freeing about, you know, creating a character who you spend a lot of time by yourself in the recording booth just imagining what’s happening and trying to sort of embody characters solely with your voice. That’s a special challenge.”

Andrew: Did you ever imagine you were going to be part of a Disney film like this, especially considering it’s that melding of live action and special effects that brings these characters to life?

McDonald: “No. Not in my wildest dreams. No.”

Andrew: It’s really quite something to see how these things are handled and actually, you know, some of these characters come to life in a way that I guess we weren’t really, maybe, expecting. So, to see her actually spinning out the clothes and everything else, did you get a sense of yourself in there?

McDonald: “Yeah, absolutely. I did. More in the way she gesticulates when she talks, that’s very much me.”

Andrew: The other thing I’d love to know, do you have a favorite Disney character? Is there someone that you’ve always admired or loved or just thought was one of the better characters that you hope to see more of down the road?

McDonald: “Well, I have two answers to that. I have a favorite Disney film, which is Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I love that film. But my favorite character is, one of my favorite characters is, Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I’d love to play her one day.”

Andrew: Amazing. That was kind of where I wanted to lead this question, to see who you may want to play next.

McDonald: “Oh, that would be fun. It would be a fun role to play.”

Andrew: Amazing. Well, the only other thing I wanted to know is, what comes next for you? You’ve got so many things, you’ve had so many awards, what do you want to do next?

McDonald: “I’m just always looking for the next thing that challenges me, you know? To kind of evolve and grow as an artist, that’s what I always, sort of, base my choices on my career on. You know, what’s next? What will make me a better singer tomorrow than I am today? What will make me a better actress tomorrow than I am today?”

Andrew: Where do you see the future taking your music? Do you think that other styles are an option or is it really progressing your established styles?

McDonald: “You know, I don’t ever pick a style, I just think of songs that I love that I want to sing. And I also know that I’m never going to attempt to sound like anyone other than myself. I mean, unless a specific role calls for obviously, like Billie Holiday, but other than that, I’m just looking.”

“As far as music is concerned, you know, you have to interpret it. You know, you’ve only got the one voice, so I don’t think I’m going to go out and try and sound like Jennifer Holiday, or someone like that, because that’s not my voice. That’s her incredible, spectacular talent that’s not mine, you know? So as far as what I sing, you know, as long as I feel like I have a connection to it, I’ll do it. I’m certainly not going to change how I sing. That would be not true to myself.”

Andrew: Excellent. Well thank you so much for the time, it’s really a pleasure to chat with you.

McDonald: “Thank you, likewise.”

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