The 43-year-old singer-actress on Sunday became the first performer to win six Tonys in competitive categories and has now won in every performing category in both plays and musicals. She won lead actress in a play for her title role in the just-closed Broadway revival of Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day," which recounts the life story of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday and includes renditions of Holiday signatures "Easy Livin'" and "Strange Fruit."
McDonald is now tied with the late Julie Harris as the most honored performer in Tony history. However, one of Harris' Tonys was for lifetime achievement, while all of McDonald's have been for specific shows. Angela Lansbury has won five.
It was not clear at first whether Tony organizers would even include "Lady Day" in the play category, given that McDonald sings more than a dozen songs. But the producers wanted the show to be considered a "play with music" and rule makers ultimately agreed.
McDonald, accepting the award during CBS' telecast, thanked black women who came before her, including Maya Angelou, and addressed some of her speech to Holiday. Her recordings have deeply influenced generations of later singers, but Holiday suffered from long-lasting business and legal problems and died at age 44 after a lifetime of alcoholism and heavy drug abuse.
"You deserve so much more than you were given when you were on this earth," McDonald said through tears.
Speaking with reporters backstage, she said: "I'm completely overwhelmed and grateful.
"I'm very, very lucky that I'm in a situation and a place in history where I don't have to deal with the racism and the misogyny that people like Lena Horne and Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday had to deal with," she added.
A Juilliard-trained opera singer, McDonald has recorded five solo albums and continues to perform with symphony orchestras. TV audiences might recognize her best for her work as a doctor on "Private Practice," the "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off that ran on ABC for six seasons.
McDonald's Tony record stretches back to 1994, when she won a featured actress award for the revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel." She followed with wins in "Master Class" (1996), "Ragtime" (1998), "A Raisin in the Sun" (2004) and "Porgy and Bess" (2012).
Times staff writer Alana Semuels contributed to this report.