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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with 'Kinky Boots' Star Billy Porter

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Jul 01, 2014 02:38 PM EDT

With a Tony Award, a new album, and an autobiographical play coming up this fall Off-Broadway at Primary Stages, Billy Porter is on several rolls at once. The Kinky Boots star took some time to speak with us about his broad spectrum of work and some of the inspirations behind it all.

Classicalite: Your new play While I Yet Live is described as autobiographical, about growing up in Pittsburgh surrounded by a group of strong-willed women, and it's got a powerhouse cast to bring them to life. How did you transform the real people in your life into characters for the stage?

Billy Porter: I've learned that the best jumping-off point as a writer is writing what you know. These women were the most influential energies in my life, so I started this from the truth of that, and just tried to create a narrative that expanded on that.

CL: The characters are composites of real people?

BP: Yes.

CL: Are any of those real folks going to have a chance to see the play?

BP: I hope so! My mother will see it, my sister will see it. Some of the people I'm writing about are no longer with us, but three out of the seven will see it.

What do you think of the cast that's been lined up for While I Yet Live?

BP: The cast is ridiculous! I can't even believe that I get to work with these people, it's so unreal. I started the project six or seven years ago just as an exercise to challenge myself to be creative in another way. Never in a million years did I imagine it would culminate with a cast like this.

Did you have musicians, actors, dancers in your family when you were growing up?

BP: No, not really. There were people who sang in church or played the organ a little bit, who were musical as a hobby, but nobody did it for a living.

Would you describe the play as a drama, a comedy, or something in between?

BP: It's a drama.

And what do you hope audiences will take away from it?

BP: I hope that they're going to understand the transformative experience of forgiveness, grace and hope, and ultimately that all of those things take time, energy and patience.

Where or how did you study performing arts?

BP: I went to the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh, and then I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon in the Drama Department, later the professional program in screenwriting at UCLA, and I had a residency under George C. Wolfe at the Public Theatre.

Do you remember your first onstage role of any kind?

BP: It was Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms in sixth grade, and I was Gus Fielding.

Did you already feel that this was what you wanted to do?

BP: It was shortly thereafter. I grew up in the Pentecostal Church, I sang gospel music, so while I enjoyed being in the musical, I didn't realize that was something that black people did. Until that summer when I stumbled across the Tony Awards broadcast, and I saw Jennifer Holiday and the cast of Dreamgirls on the Tonys, and that's when it clicked that there was actually a place for my kind of person, a person who looked like me and sang like me, to be in this business.

Do you remember the first Broadway show you ever saw?

BP: I was in New York for auditions for colleges, and I got a ticket from TKTS and I went and saw A Chorus Line!

What's the hardest job you've ever had in show business?

BP: The hardest jobs for me, I found, were the ones that I didn't have an emotional connection with, the ones that I took just because of the paycheck. And I learned midway through my 20s that if I wanted to keep my sanity, I was going to have to be more judicious in my choices.

Your career in music has had a wide range: gospel, the soul and R&B of your first album, the pop-rock-Broadway tunes of Kinky Boots, and the show tunes, some of which are part of the Great American Songbook, that you dive into on your new album Billy's Back on Broadway. You always sound invested in the music, but is there one style that's most truly you, or are all these styles equally part of your true musical personality?

BP: If I'm being honest [laughs]--my mother always says something to the effect of, "You left the church but it's always in ya." There's always a hint of the gospel, that is my base, that's where I come from and that's where my strength comes from, that's where my joy comes from, that's where my hope comes from. So the base would be my gospel roots and everything else springs from that.

Who are a few of the artists that have inspired you?

BP: To name just a few: the Hawkins Family Singers, the Clark Sisters, Donnie Hathaway, Whitney Houston.

What are your hopes for the new album in terms of reaching different audiences?

BP: Music is the universal language, and I am an artist that has always in my soul transcended boundaries, transcended genre, transcended race. I hope that this album is a jumping-off point for me to create a place where I can do that, where I can transcend all of those unspoken feelings that exist in our culture right now.

You sing a duet with Cyndi Lauper on "Happy Days Are Here Again / Get Happy" on your new album Billy's Back on Broadway. Is it a real treat to record with her, especially after you've had such a hit together with Kinky Boots?

BP: Oh, yes. She's one of the godmothers of individuality and singularity, and she's taught me so much about how to embrace the totality of who I am, so anytime I can get in a room with her it's a gift.

How does it feel to have hit the 500-performance mark with Kinky Boots?

BP: You know, that's a blessing. Everybody should be so lucky. It continues to move forward and I'm just happy to have a job. I've lived long enough to know what it's like to be in really bad things--and to be in really amazing things that nobody comes to see and nobody cares about. So the fact that I get to show up and have a job and pay my bills on time and put some money in the bank is a blessing and a gift and I cherish every moment of it.

One last question: How do you do eight shows a week in those heels?

BP: [laughs] Very carefully. I've built up a lot of stamina. I'm a creature of the theater, this is what we do, this is what I've been doing all my life. It's my job. Everybody has to go to work!

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TagsBilly Porter, Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper, gospel, Dreamgirls, While I Yet Live


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