​Broadway baby Audra McDonald


The singer-actress is up for her 6th Tony Award for channeling Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bat & Grill."

CBS News

A very talented lady sings the blues for us this morning . . . and talks about the Broadway role that has many a theater-goer thinking Tony Award. Mo Rocca has saved us some front-row seats:

"I used to practice Tony speeches in my bathroom with my hairbrush," said Audra McDonald. "I wish I could make that up!"

For McDonald, that practice has come in handy -- so far she's won five Tony Awards, the first in 1994 for "Carousel," when she was just 24; the latest in 2012 for "Porgy and Bess."

You could say she was a Broadway baby, whose playlist included the original cast albums for "A Chorus Line" and "42nd Street.

"I had a Mickey Mouse record player and Mickey Mouse's hand, his little gloved hand, was the little needle that you put down," she told Rocca. She played "Chorus Line" and "42nd Street" "over and over again."

"'A Chorus Line' and '42nd Street' are both shows about Broadway," said Rocca.

"Yeah, and I'd act 'em all out in my little bedroom," McDonald said. "Sometimes I would use the closet as my backstage. I'd put the music on and then once it would start, I'd bust out of the closet to my audience of my Teddy bears."

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday. Evgenia Eliseeva

McDonald is yet again nominated for a Tony, this time for channeling the alcoholic, heroin-addicted and pioneering jazz singer Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" (left).

Rocca asked, "What was homework for playing Billie Holiday?"

"What wasn't?" she replied. "Wow. I've been studying Billie Holiday for about a year and a half.

"But eight months ago, once I discovered all of these recordings of her rehearsals, of her speaking where she's been drinking and she really lets loose, her speaking voice is very similar to my grandmother's. I thought, 'Oh, she sounds like Nana when she speaks. Maybe that's my way in.' And through that I ended up finding her singing voice."

She found it, all right, even though Holiday's thin, reedy singing voice sounds nothing like McDonald's soaring, lyric soprano: "She's got a very small voice," she said of Holiday. "This old voice of mine just go up a little bit and come down a little bit. But because she was imitating instruments, there's a hornlike quality to it."

Holiday rarely sang songs as written. A master improviser, she would change the tempo, even the melody of classic songs. And if she didn't feel it, McDonald said, "she wouldn't sing it."

And the feeling -- always intense -- was usually heartbreak and pain, said McDonald, "because she felt and knew so much about what she sang about, was so authentic and genuine. And it was a friend of mine that said, 'Billie Holiday taught us how to feel the pain.' 'Cause you hear it, she's singing it in her voice."

It was on 133rd Street in Harlem, where Holiday got her start.

The street is kind of quiet today, but in the 1920s, when Billie was discovered, this was Swing Street. "This was a hopping street," said McDonald. "Speakeasies all up and down this street."

Audra McDonald started singing in a very different place: Fresno, Calif., where she worked the community and dinner theater circuit.

Audra McDonald as Eva Peron in "Evita." Good Company Players

At 16, she was the lead in "Evita," and then Dorothy in "The Wiz."

At home, her parents -- both educators -- played all kinds of music, from classical to country. "There wasn't one that was considered more important than the other, or better than the other," McDonald said.

"It's kind of a profound lesson, because I think most people grow up and think, 'This is music, that isn't. That's just fun stuff," said Rocca.

"Yeah, which is why I got a little confused when I was at Juilliard and in a conservatory where the focus was classical music."

McDonald's voice took her to New York City and Juilliard's elite classical voice program. It wasn't a happy time.

"I was lost," she said. "I didn't know what I was doing. Why am I studying classical music? I'm in New York, I'm so close to Broadway, I've never been further away from my dream, I'm lonely. Because I'm a really emotional person, I tried to kill myself. It was a feeble attempt, but I did. And I got put in a mental hospital for a month, and I got myself straight and worked on my mental health."

"Boy, I think there are a whole lot of people that would be really stunned, shocked to know that you have been at that place," said Rocca.

"Yeah, well, it's nothing that I hide. It's nothing to be proud of or to be ashamed of. It's part of my life, you know?

"And I'm still here!" she laughed.

Carrie Underwood and Audra McDonald in "The Sound of Music Live." NBC

McDonald married, had a daughter, then divorced. She is now married to actor Will Swenson.

Her daughter, Zoe (now 13), was one of the nearly 22 million people who watched her mom play the Mother Abbess in last year's "The Sound Of Music Live" on NBC.

"She was texting me throughout: 'Oh, that was cool. I liked that scene.' 'Oh Elsa's dress was so pretty,' and blah, blah, blah.

"And then after 'Climb Every Mountain,' she texted me, 'Where are the dryer sheets? I wanna wash some clothes.' I loved it. I was like, 'Wow. I'm a mom. I'm a mom first, and that's it.'"