By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK, March 19 (Reuters) - Five-time Tony Award-winning singer Audra McDonald, just finishing a 30-city tour, is heading back to Broadway next week as legendary American jazz singer Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."
The musical is based on one of Holiday's last performances, when she was in poor health, singing in a small, intimate Philadelphia bar before a handful of people just a month before she died in 1959.
The show debuted off-Broadway nearly 30 years ago. It begins a 10-week run at the Circle in the Square theatre with previews on March 25 and opening night on April 13.
With her sultry voice and distinctive style, Holiday is considered one of the greatest jazz singers ever. She was nicknamed "Lady Day" by saxophonist Lester Young.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" depicts Holiday's life through more than a dozen songs such as "God Bless the Child," "Crazy He Calls Me," "Strange Fruit" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and reminiscences with the audience.
"With Billie Holiday, everybody has a close personal relationship with her music, her artistry," said McDonald, 43, who is returning to Broadway for the first time since winning a best actress Tony in 2012 for "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."
"Everyone in a way feels like they know her because she has touched whoever listens to her," said the three-time Emmy- nominated actress, who also appeared in NBC's "The Sound of Music Live!" and had a recurring role in the TV medical drama "Private Practice."
Despite an impoverished birth and shattered childhood, Holiday's extraordinary vocal talent propelled her to stardom in a racially divided America in the 1930s and 1940s. She died a poor drug addict at the age of 44.
McDonald admits to being intimidated by playing Holiday.
"I think I'll be able to do this role for the run of the show and have researched about as much as I possibly can about her and still not ever fully, fully understand her. There are so many contradictions in her, so much life in her," she said.
TRANSPORTED BACK TO 1959
Director Lonny Price ("Master Harold ... and the Boys" and "A Class Act") worked with McDonald in the 2007 revival of the musical "110 in the Shade." They have been developing the "Lady Day" musical for more than two years.
"The play is a great exploration of the African-American experience in the first half of the last century. Billie Holiday had a very Dickensian kind of upbringing. She was raped at 10, worked in a whorehouse, had terrible addiction issues and was sent to jail for a year cold turkey to get off drugs," he explained.
Price was intrigued by the dichotomy of the great star, who influenced so many people and was loved by so many, and who had a terrible life yet was able to survive through her music.
"She loved to sing, and that was the thing that really grounded her," he said. "I have also been attracted to people who survive without self pity. She was that person."
To capture Holiday's essence and that memorable performance, the audience will be taken back to 1959 - to that Philadelphia bar that playwright Lanie Robertson found so haunting when a lover who had been there described it to him.
"I carried that for a long time and began listening to her music," said Robertson, whose plays include "Back County Crimes" and "Nasty Little Secrets."
"I thought that I heard, almost sub rosa (privately) in the music, the joy and pain of her life and (had) to put that on the stage in one performance, that she is trying to get through the night."
Robertson believes that despite her drug addiction, alcoholism and abusive relationships, Holiday was never a victim.
"She was triumphant in her music, in her insistence on singing the way she felt and feeling the song in order to sing it," he said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Jan Paschal)