Singer and actress Audra McDonald will easily go down as one of the greatest to ever step on a Broadway stage. With six Tony Awards under her belt, and being the only actor or actress to win Tonys in all four acting categories, there’s no question about her talents. But her road to greatness on the Great White Way wasn’t an easy one. In fact, it was filled with dark times.
In an interview with Alec Baldwin for his WNYC podcast, Here’s the Thing, McDonald discussed life after leaving Fresno, Calif. for New York to study classical voice at Juilliard. Her instructors wanted her to focus on singing opera and she had a different path she wanted to go on. Because of that, she struggled in her coursework and found herself battling depression. The star, in her early twenties, over her experience by her junior year and in an unhealthy relationship, was pushed to the brink.
“This was my third year,” McDonald said. “And it had been yet another year of floundering and doing poorly in all my classes and teachers just saying, ‘You’ve got to give over to your operatic sound’ and me not wanting to, not knowing what that was. And when I would get close to an operatic sound I would say, ‘I don’t want to sound like that.’ So I felt like I was just being pushed — and they were doing their job, rightfully so. You’re at Julliard to study this, this is what you have to do — into a place that wasn’t me artistically. So that, coupled with being 20, 21 by yourself in New York and being treated poorly by what’s his name [laughs]…all of that was combined with me sort of being the great hope from my hometown. ‘Oh Audra’s going to make it, if anybody’s going to make it on Broadway, it’s going to be Audra.’ The boy was the catalyst. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was three years of I’m in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. I’m failing miserably. But I’m here in Disneyland where I’m supposed to be. Where I said I wanted to be.”
Feeling overwhelmed, the actress tried to take her life.
“I slit my wrists one night,” she said. “I slit my wrists and then realized what I had done and called the student affairs director who I had become close with and said, ‘Help me.’”
“They helped me and took me to a mental hospital,” she continued. “It’s interesting, this mental hospital – still there – Gracie Square Hospital. It’s next door to my OBGYN who delivered my sixth-month-old. I had to pass it every week to go to my OBGYN appointment, I had to pass Gracie Square Hospital. And every time I passed it there was a part of me, just waddling down the street as pregnant as can be, some 29 years later, I felt such relief and joy. And a sense of yes, I get the big picture now.”
McDonald said she spent a month (“extremely medicated”) in the hospital and was surprised to see how many other stressed Julliard students were patients. The incident occurred in the winter of her junior year, and she didn’t return to school until the fall. When she did, though, the actress obtained one of her first big Broadway opportunities in The Secret Garden in 1992. It was the beginning of something great. But that doesn’t mean the depression she dealt with then isn’t still something she faces now as a successful performer.
“I’m still a mess,” McDonald said. “Everybody’s a mess. I realize I’m someone who suffers from depression. But I learned in the years, A, how to deal with it, B, to find my joy and C, to realize that like alcoholism, it’s something you wake up every day and say, ‘Yeah, that’s still something that I have to deal with’ as opposed to saying, ‘Oh, I’m not depressed anymore.’ But to learn how to cope with that. My art gives me a lot of joy and keeps me strong.”
And for the record, despite her challenges and her growing career on Broadway at the time, McDonald still managed to graduate from Juilliard School in 1993. The rest is history.