The stage set-up was right out of "Inside the Actor's Studio," a TV interview show featuring the relevant actors of our times. How appropriate, since the man onstage was Billy Porter, Tony winner as best actor in the musical "Kinky Boots."
The always dapper Mr. Porter was at the Philip Chosky Theatre on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University on Monday, a return engagement to the place where the Pittsburgh native honed his craft as a student and gave back as an instructor. The toast of Broadway is spending his day off this week as the toast of Pittsburgh, where he met with CMU students and, before a reception at his other alma mater, Pittsburgh CAPA, he was welcomed by Primanti's in its original Strip District site with a special sandwich -- a double serving of fried kielbasa topped with coleslaw, tomatoes and fries.
How could someone so trim eat something so fattening? He grew up on the sandwiches. And besides, "A little bit of kielbasa never hurt nobody," Mr. Porter said.
First up Monday was a date with student hopefuls aspiring to be in Mr. Porter's shoes, specifically those showstoppers he wears on Broadway for eight shows a week. Peter Cook, head of the CMU School of Drama, conducted the interview and Q-and-A session that delved into the actor's good and the lean times.
Mr. Porter started his Broadway career in the original company of "Miss Saigon" in 1991, but steady work and satisfaction were hard to come by.
After 9/11, "my body went into trauma," he said. "I had acid reflux and I lost my voice, that thing I was being paid so much money to do. It terrified me." There came a time when he faced bankruptcy and a life that included the couches of friends and storage units. "Three suitcases, 26 boxes and a chaise -- that's what my autobiography will be called."
He was collecting a steady paycheck in the revival of "Grease" as Teen Angel in 1994, but he still calls that a dark period in his career.
"It started with me looking at myself in the mirror ??? with 14 inches of rubber hair on my head and a spacesuit and going, 'While I'm grateful, this is not what I came here for.' That was the beginning of the transition, and the question became, 'What am I here for?' That same year I saw 'Angels in America.' So how do I go from the guy who prances around like Little Richard, screaming his lungs out, to that? ??? How do I get people to understand that is who I am?"
The man who recalled singing and dancing in his East Liberty apartment as a boy and getting a subscription to the theater bible Backstage in 1985 took a step back and worked behind the scenes as a director, writer and choreographer. He got his performing groove when "Angels" suddenly reappeared.
"I was asked what it would take to get me back onstage," he recalled, "and I spoke into the universe: 'Nothing short of 'Angels in America.' I meant it metaphorically -- that I want to do work that's important, I want to do work that changes lives, that makes a difference. I want to do work that means something to me so that when I go to work at the theater eight times a week, I want to be there. ??? Three months after I said that, the revival of 'Angels of America' in New York was announced."
He won the role of Belize, a former drag queen and nurse to friends and foes suffering with AIDS. "I was in the room with [Pulitzer Prize-winning writer] Tony Kushner every single day. It was like a master class in everything," Mr. Porter said. He also performed side-by-side with Zachary Quinto and Christian Borle, creating "a CMU trifecta."
The actor later pursued the role of Lola with a call to his friend of 20 years, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell. The Cyndi Lauper-Harvey Fierstein musical had a five-week trial run in Chicago, then Mr. Porter high-stepped it to Broadway in March with "Kinky Boots," a show continuing to play to capacity audiences.
In Pittsburgh for the day, Mr. Porter was on a different stage, the theater at CMU, looking out at his sister and mother, MaryMartha and Cloerinda Ford, his manager and friends and the friendly faces of eager students.
Monday evening, CAPA rolled out the red carpet for a reception and presentation in Mr. Porter's honor. The whirlwind hometown visit culminates at 10 a.m. today, when city council proclaims Billy Porter Day in Pittsburgh.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Gretchen McKay contributed to this story. First Published October 1, 2013 12:45 AM