After winning a Tony and a Grammy, Billy Porter still thrills them on Broadway, and now here comes an album
April 13, 2014 12:00 AM
Billy's Porter's new album, "Billy's Back on Broadway," comes out Tuesday.
Billy Porter answers questions from students in Carnegie Mellon University's Philip Chosky Theatre Sept. 30. The Tony and Grammy winner is a 1991 alumnus of CMU.
Billy Porter in his Tony-award winning role as Lola in "Kinky Boots."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This is Billy Porter's time, and he's not wasting a second of it.
He won Tony and Grammy awards last year for his starring role in Broadway's "Kinky Boots" and continues in the role that got him there, singing his heart out nightly as the dynamic drag queen Lola. The show has had a recent changeover in Mr. Porter's co-stars but continues to play to near or capacity houses, while celebrities such as Billy Joel and Robin Roberts drop by regularly offering kudos and seeking photo opps.
Mr. Porter is signed to "Kinky Boots" into July, but eight shows a week can't keep a Renaissance man down. His play about growing up in Pittsburgh, "While I Yet Live," will have its world premiere off-Broadway at Primary Stages in the fall, and his first album in a decade, "Billy's Back on Broadway" on Concord Records, gets its official release Tuesday.
"The energy and the synergy is in place," he says of the album's timing. "It feels like people are interested in hearing me sing again on record, and Concord signed me to a deal. I think the Broadway album is obviously because I'm having this sort of resurgence in that market. It's really cool. I always wanted to make a Broadway album from way back in the day when I first heard Barbra Streisand [on 'The Broadway Album']. I thought, 'I want to do that some day.'
"It feels like the right time for that, wouldn't you think?"
The title is not only Mr. Porter's current reality but also an homage to the 1965 Sammy Davis Jr. album, "Sammy's Back on Broadway." References to influences from a life and career that began at Pittsburgh CAPA and Carnegie Mellon University abound, starting with the record label's press release that introduces him as "Pittsburgh-born Billy Porter." It also includes the story of young Billy going to the Carnegie Library to listen to Barbra Streisand's "The Broadway Album." It's no coincidence that "Don't Rain on My Parade" is among the songs on "Billy's Back."
His previous album, "At the Corner of Broadway and Soul," was a showcase recorded live at Joe's Pub in New York. On "Billy's Back," the intersection of show tunes and his roots in gospel and R&B influence the arrangements of "The Street Where You Live" (from "My Fair Lady") and "Luck Be a Lady" (from "Guys and Dolls"), among other Broadway songs.
The album includes "I'm Not My Father's Son" from "Kinky Boots" and a duet with the musical's songwriter, Cyndi Lauper, on "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "Get Happy," a remake of the Judy Garland-Streisand rendition from 1963.
"The theme of the album was songs of inspiration, empowerment and hope. And so when we started talking about a duet with Cyndi, this was the first one that came to mind because it is hopeful, it is empowering, and when you think about the historical precedent for what it was, Judy Garland was introducing Barbra Streisand to the world on her television show, it was a sort of mentor-mentee kind of setup, and I felt like that would resonate for people who know that. You don't have to know that information to get it, but that was what just felt so right to me in choosing it."
After a couple of years working together on a Broadway musical, the 44-year-old artist and Ms. Lauper clicked as a singing duo. He said "It was very sweet" when it was noted that her New York accent bursts through moments of the "Happy" duet.
"We just live and breathe each other at this point," Mr. Porter said. "She's such a great writer in terms of figuring out someone's voice. She's such an individual herself. She really understands how to connect with someone on their individual level and help communicate that way. She did it with Stark [Sands], she did it with Annaleigh [Ashford], she did it with me."
The mention of his former co-stars in "Kinky Boots" brings to mind that they have left for other projects, replaced by Andy Kelso and Jeanna De Waal.
"It's exciting and thrilling to work with new people; I enjoy and embrace change. I miss my old peeps, of course, but we should be so lucky as to have to endure the joy and the bliss of being in a hit show where you have to replace people as they move along. That's the goal, to have a show running that long."
In the decade between recordings and more than a dozen years between Broadway shows, from "Smokey Joe's Cafe" to "Kinky Boots," Mr. Porter was directing and choreographing, writing and teaching at CMU, where he worked with fellow Tony winner Patina Miller. And he never stopped performing.
"I've been doing concerts and cabarets and putting shows together for my whole career, and I've spent a lot of time cultivating the difference between when I show up and play a character from when you come and see me, Billy, in a concert. I've cultivated a sound that incorporates my love of Broadway but also my history and background in gospel music and R&B and soul. I embrace all of those things every time I show up to sing, and I wanted to make sure that was clear in the arrangements."
His writing partner, James Sampliner, a Broadway music director, conductor and musician, and cousin Jerome O. Kirkland Jr. can be heard on keyboards on the album, which was put together mostly with session musicians as the arrangements were set.
"A first for me," Mr. Porter said.
He points to differences between "I'm Not My Father's Son" on the "Kinky Boots" cast album and on "Billy's Back on Broadway" as an example. Including it was "a no-brainer, to embrace the reason why I have the opportunity," he said. With the new version, though, "I feel like it's clear it's coming from a different place."
While he was developing his style, the music business was undergoing seismic shifts in how music is delivered and received. The Grammy-winning "Kinky Boots" recording opened at No. 1 on Billboard's Cast Albums Chart and 51 on the Top 200 Chart, and he noted that Idina Menzel's original version of "Let It Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen" has been an unstoppable chart-topper and YouTube sensation.
"In the past the songs that were connected to Disney shows, they would do a pop version and that would always be the one that would break through to the charts," he said. "This time, it's Idina Menzel's version, the movie version. I think it's interesting because shows like 'Glee' and 'Dancing With the Stars' and that whole 'So You Think You Can Dance' world has brought the energy of live performance back into people's consciousness."
The multifaceted performer will be featured in the Boston Pops concert "At the Corner of Broadway and Soul, With Billy Porter" May 20 and 21.
Is there a possibility that he will be performing in Pittsburgh any time soon?
"Absolutely," he said. "I just have to figure out with my show schedule how to do it. First I have to see how people are responding to the album. The hope is that people will buy it, and then they'll want to hear me."
I've cultivated a sound that incorporates my love of Broadway but also my history and background in gospel music and R&B and soul. I embrace all of those things every time I show up to sing, and I wanted to make sure that was clear in the arrangements."
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