Music Interviews
4:11 pm
Tue May 29, 2012

Why 'Edelweiss' Makes Audra McDonald Think Of Home

Originally published on Tue June 5, 2012 2:32 pm

A shelf stacked with LPs, a cassette played over and over on a family road trip, a song a parent always sang when vacuuming — these are ingredients of musical memories from childhood.

They're also images from a series All Things Considered launches today, called "Mom and Dad's Record Collection." We're asking musicians, writers and even politicians to tell us about one song they discovered through a parent and how it shaped them.

When Audra McDonald sings, a New York Times review read, "It's a God-touched voice that turns suffering and ugliness into beauty." She's currently nominated for a Tony Award for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. With All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, McDonald takes listeners back to where that voice first emerged: a music box she received from her uncle when she was just a year old.

"It had three birds on it and a tree in the middle of it," says McDonald. "And two birds are getting married, and one bird is performing the ceremony. It played the music 'Edelweiss.'

"I had it in my nursery for as long as I can remember," McDonald says. "When I wanted to audition for a dinner-theater junior troupe in my hometown, I needed to have a piece of musical theater music to sing. I wasn't sure what I wanted to use. My mom and dad suggested that I sing 'Edelweiss' because I knew it from the music box. So my dad played the piano for me at the audition. I got in, and that started me on my theater journey."

'Bless My Homeland Forever'

Of course, "Edelweiss" is from The Sound of Music. McDonald says she remembers being struck by Christopher Plummer playing the song on guitar and "being moved by it even at a young age." The singer has since added it to her repertoire, typically as an encore, and the music box has now been passed on to McDonald's daughter.

Because she knew only the instrumental music box, a young McDonald misheard the line, "You look happy to meet me" as "You look happy to me, to me." But now the song's homeland theme reminds her of her own home.

"When I sing it, I sing about, certainly, my homeland — a metaphorical sense, which is my home, and my dad, and my child."

We'll continue our series "Mom and Dad's Record Collection" all summer long, so we want your memories: Write us about one song you discovered through your parents — and the memory attached to it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A song that soothed a child, a cassette played over and over on a family road trip, a tune Mom always sang when she vacuumed, all the ingredients of musical memories from childhood. And they're images from a series we're launching today. We're calling it Mom and Dad's Record Collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So the house was always absolutely booming with music and Hoover, and my mother singing at the top of her voice over the Hoover.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And we had four tapes in the car for what turned out to be a six-week trip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't know. I thought my dad was really cool for his music taste because he was actually a lawyer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And I can remember sitting on the floor, you know, in diapers, listening to this song.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're asking musicians, writers, even politicians to tell us about one song they were introduced to by a parent and how it shaped them. Today, Broadway star Audra McDonald, she's currently nominated for a Tony Award for "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that when McDonald sings, it's a God-touched voice that turns suffering and ugliness into beauty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Summertime and the living is easy.

SIEGEL: Today, Audra McDonald takes us back to where that voice first emerged with this memory from a familiar musical.

MCDONALD: I received a music box from my uncle when I was about maybe 1, and it had three birds on it and a tree in the middle of it. And two birds are getting married, and one bird is performing the ceremony. And it played the music "Edelweiss."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (Singing) Edelweiss, edelweiss, every morning you greet me.

MCDONALD: And so I had it in my nursery as - for as long as I can remember. And then when I wanted to audition for a dinner theater junior troupe in my hometown and I needed to have a piece of sort of musical theater music to sing, I wasn't sure what I wanted to use. And my mom and dad suggested that I sing "Edelweiss" because I knew it from the music box. And so my dad played the piano for me at the audition, and I sang "Edelweiss," and I got in, and that started me on my - basically, my theater journey.

SIEGEL: "Edelweiss," of course, is from "The Sound of Music."

MCDONALD: Yes. It was just a beautiful song, and I remember being so struck by Christopher Plummer playing it on the guitar in the movie and being moved by that even, you know, at a young age.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")

PLUMMER: (Singing) Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever.

MCDONALD: And that music box, I still have it, and I gave it to my daughter when she was 1. I put it in her nursery.

SIEGEL: So you've passed on this...

MCDONALD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...piece of music...

MCDONALD: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...from mother to daughter.

MCDONALD: Yeah.

SIEGEL: You have the music box with you right now.

MCDONALD: I have it in my hand.

SIEGEL: Well, let's hear the sound that made such a deep impression on you as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: OK. Hold on one second.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")

MCDONALD: And the music box spins, and the little birds all spin around on a little green turntable as the music is going.

SIEGEL: This is a song that you encountered first on the music box without lyrics, just the tune being played. Did the words become especially meaningful to you or important?

MCDONALD: It was interesting. When I first learned the lyrics, just listening to it in the movie, I was confused by the lyrics. I thought he was saying, see, edelweiss, edelweiss, every morning you greet me, small and white, pure and bright. You look happy to meet me. I thought he was saying you look happy to me, to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")

PLUMMER: (Singing) You look happy to meet me.

MCDONALD: And then I realized, no, he was just being, you know, very lyrical and using legato there and singing...

(Singing) ...you look happy to meet me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: And once, I actually learned the lyrics to audition when I was 9, I understood the lyrics a little bit better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Edelweiss, edelweiss, bless my homeland forever.

MCDONALD: Now, I think it has meaning, too, because it's, you know, in the story, of course, he's singing about his homeland. And when I sing it, I sing about, certainly, my homeland in a, you know, a metaphorical sense, which is my home and my dad and my childhood.

SIEGEL: Your dad who accompanied you in that audition...

MCDONALD: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...that you mentioned.

MCDONALD: Yes, at that audition, who played the piano for me at that audition.

SIEGEL: Well, Audra McDonald, thank you very much for talking with us.

MCDONALD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Audra McDonald, actress, singer, currently starring in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" on Broadway, and she tells us that "Edelweiss" is still a part of her repertoire when she gives solo concerts.

BLOCK: We'll be continuing our series Mom and Dad's Record Collection all summer long, and we want your memories. Please write us about one song your parents introduced you to and the story attached to it. Some of your stories will end up on the air. And just like we say about your comments on the program, write to us at npr.org, click on Contact Us and please put parents' music in your subject line.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.