Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday

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Audra McDonald in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” at Circle in the Square Theatre through August 10, 2014

Five-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald discusses “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” which recounts Holiday's life story through the songs that made her famous. Set in 1959, in a small, intimate bar in Philadelphia, Holiday puts on a show in that unbeknownst to the audience, will be one of the last performances of her life. 

On why she did so much research on Billie Holiday: “I needed to know all of the history, but especially at this particular moment in her life – in March of 1959. The cirrhosis is really starting to take effect…And she had also just lost [jazz saxophonist] Lester Young, who was basically her soul mate.” She adds, “She was truly alone at this point.”

On why no two of her performances are alike: “I’m trying to improvise as much as I possibly can in the way that Billie Holiday would have. Billie Holiday would get very bored of singing the same way twice.”

On how her grandmother helped her find Billie Holiday’s voice: “Her speaking voice in those interviews [from rehearsal in the mid-1950’s] sounded so much like my grandmother that I thought, ‘That’s my way in.’ Because I imitated my grandmother to her face. I got in trouble for it, but that’s how I found my way into Billie Holiday, her speaking voice and her singing voice -- I went through my version of my grandmother.”

On her vocal warm-up routine: "I still have to warm up every night for this show as if I’m singing an opera…And then at the very end of that warm-up I do the sort of cat-like sounds that sort of get me into Billie’s timbre.”

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is playing through August 10, 2014, at the Circle in the Square Theatre.