Entertainment » Music

Billy Porter’s Back With a Tony & New CD

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday May 19, 2014

Billy Porter called his first album "At the Corner of Broadway + Soul" - a metaphoric place that aptly put the Tony Award-winning actor exactly where he belongs. His supple voice has the power and range that has led to comparisons to the two Jennifers - Holliday and Hudson. Currently starring as Lola, the drag queen that saves an ailing women's shoe business, in the Tony-winning "Kinky Boots," Porter found some time between the matinee and evening performance recently to speak to EDGE.

He won the Tony for playing Lola, the "gender illusionist" (as he calls her). The role marked the return to Broadway for Porter who, at the age of 43, was making a comeback-of-sorts in this Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein musical (based on the 2005 British film).

Earlier Porter made a big splash in 1994 as the Teen Angel in the Rosy O'Donnell-helmed revival of "Grease" - a spectacular turn that brought to mind Jennifer Holliday's debut in "Dreamgirls." It was, in fact, Holliday's performance as Effie White that inspired a 12-year old Porter to pursue a show business career. Upon watching Holliday's performance of "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" on the 1981 Tony Awards, he was hooked.

But after a decade on Broadway, Porter became dissatisfied with where his career was going and chose to take a hiatus from performing. He headed to California, went to graduate school, studied screenwriting and stayed out of the spotlight. But when he heard about a musical version of "Kinky Boots" (one of his favorite movies), he went after the role. He also wrote a play - "While I Yet Live "- that comes to Primary Stages next fall. This follows his 2005 autobiographical one-man show "Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am)" that was a hit at the New York Public Theater. He called that show "a spiritual, sexual, and musical odyssey in which the teachings of the Pentecostal church collide with the gospel according to ’Dreamgirls’."

Porter comes to Boston this week first as part of climACTS! BOLD, the Theater Offensive’s annual benefit on Monday, May 19 at the Wilbur Theatre; (For tickets details, The Theater Offensive’s website then following nights (Tuesday and Wednesday) he makes his debut with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops - a landmark for any artist - where he will be singing titles from his newest Concorde CD "Billy’s Back on Broadway."visit the Boston Pops website.

Coming out

EDGE: What will you be doing with the Boston Pops?

Billy Porter: I’ll be singing music from my most recent album, "Billy’s Back on Broadway," which was just released on Concorde Records. And I am doing some tunes from my last album as well - ’At the Corner of Broadway + Soul.’ I have never sung with the Pops before, but I went to school at Carnegie-Mellon with Keith Lockhart.

EDGE: And why did you decide to do climACTS! BOLD benefit for the Theater Offensive?

Billy Porter: I know they do a lot of work with LGBT youth and is one of my missions as an out gay man to give back, so that’s why I am there. For me, it’s all about the kids. Our youth needs examples to show them that nothing is wrong with them and things will actually get better. We just have to suffer through a little bit when you’re younger to get to the other side. I had such people in my life, so I just want to pay it forward.

EDGE:Was it difficult for you to come out?

Billy Porter: It wasn’t difficult for me to come out - I was out. The fallout came after I came out. The difficult part was the people that were responding to my coming out. I came out in 1985 when I was 15, but the focus wasn’t on coming out, but on the homophobia of people that came after I came out. It’s changing - it’s getting better. It takes courage to stand up and be proud, and that’s what I am trying to do.

The Holliday connection

EDGE: In your Tony speech (congrats on that, by the way), you mentioned how it was seeing Jennifer Holliday singing on the Tony broadcast in 1982 that inspired you to be a performer. Is she a mentor?

Billy Porter: She was a mentor from a distance. Watching her on the Tony Awards was the actual reason why I am in the business. I was already performing - I was already bitten by the bug, but was only singing in church. I did not know it was a profession until I saw her on the Tony Awards when I was 11 years-old. That was the moment when I actually realized had talent and wanted to be in the business.

EDGE: After you worked on Broadway for most of the 1990s, you left New York for Los Angeles and took a hiatus from show business. Why?

Billy Porter: I wasn’t happy with the kind of work I was getting and needed to change the trajectory of my career. The only one that could do that was myself. I had to extract myself and figure out what I really wanted, so I could make choices and decisions as an adult instead of what I wanted when I first got in the business. I was a very different person as an adult, so I had to make some different choices and try something new.

EDGE: And one of those choices was studying screenwriting. Do you have a movie script in your desk drawer?

Billy Porter: Yes, I do; but first and foremost I wrote a play that is being done in the fall at Primary Stages off-Broadway. So I used the skill set of screenwriting because I was in LA at the time. I knew I wanted to write, screenwriting was there - that is what they teach and are known for out there. So I learned the techniques of writing. It was when I moved back to New York and realized all my connections are in the theater, so I started playwrighting. Yes. I have a play that’s being produced. It’s called ’While I Yet Live.’ It’s a play about my family; it’s a play about coming of age as a gay, black Christian man in Pittsburgh; it’s semi-autobiographical. The title comes from a lyric from an old James Cleveland hymn that we use to sing that reads: ’Give me my flowers while I yet live, so I can see the beauty that they bring.’ It is based on that.

EDGE: Is this similar to your earlier show, ’Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am)?’

Billy Porter: There are things that overlap between them because I am writing about my life and my journey; so it’s a continuation, but it’s not connected.

Back to Broadway CD

EDGE:How did you pick the material for your new CD?

Billy Porter: I chose the material and the material is songs of inspiration, empowerment and hope. I realized that some of the arrangements if you listened to them separately you may think they don’t work on the same album, so I arranged them to move from the classic to the contemporary. I wanted an explosive opening to catch the listener’s ear, which is why I start with ’The World Goes Round.’ The arrangements become more current and contemporary as you move further into the album, so I wanted it to be cohesive and have a journey from the beginning-to-middle-to-end.

EDGE: You also do a version of the famous Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand duet of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again." You sing it with Cyndi Lauper. Why did you choose to include it?

Billy Porter: In its original incarnation, it was a mentor/mentee situation. Judy Garland was introducing Barbra Streisand to the world on her television show when they did that duet. I wanted to honor my relationship with Cyndi and thank her for re-introducing me to the world. That’s why I chose it.

Where’s the Tony?

EDGE: In ’Kinky Boots’ there is said to be not a dry eye in the house when you sing ’Not My Father’s Son,’ which is also on the CD. What was your response when you first heard it?

Billy Porter: It was the first song I learned from the show. It took me six or seven months before I could sing it before completely breaking down. That what it means for me. It’s the connective tissue that brings together all the different types of people that come to the show. It’s the moment when anyone is not onboard with the story and subject matter, gets onboard. Because everyone has a parent and everyone knows what it is like to want to please their parents. When people come up to me after the show, they say the song hits them that way. It is the moment that they understand we are all the same - we all have parents, we all communicate the same, and we all want to give back to them.

EDGE: You also include a little-known ballad from a little-known show, ’Take the Moment’ from ’Do I Hear a Waltz.’ Why did you choose it?

Billy Porter: Because it, first of all, is by Sondheim and Rodgers, and you can’t go wrong with them. It’s just a beautiful song. The sentiment is very simple, yet the complexity of how you employ that sentiment in your life is what life is about. It is easy to say who you are when what you are popular. It’s easy to say, take the moment when what is in front of you is something that is easy; it’s harder when those ideas and situations become more complex and intricate. I love that song. It’s my favorite song on the record.

EDGE: And where do you keep your Tony?

Billy Porter: My Tony and my Grammy are under the television now because I am designing my apartment and I am waiting for the shelf to put it on to be built.

Billy Porter appears at climACTS! BOLD on Monday, May 19, 2014 at the Wilbur Theater, Boston. For more details, The Theater Offensive’s website.

Porter appears with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops on Tuesday, May 20, 2014 and Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at Symphony Hall, Boston. For more details, visit the Boston Pops website.

For more on Billy Porter, including how to purchase his latest CD or learn more about "Kinky Boots," visit Billy Porter’s website

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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