Photo: John Ganun
GRAMMY.com First Listen: Billy Porter
Broadway star Billy Porter — a recent GRAMMY and Tony Award winner for his role in Cyndi Lauper's "Kinky Boots" — is set to release a new album, Billy's Back On Broadway, on April 15. Ahead of the album's release, GRAMMY.com has your exclusive first listen to Porter's gospel-tinged version of the 1950 "Guys And Dolls" classic, "Luck Be A Lady."
Marking Porter's first post-"Kinky Boots" endeavor (and first solo album in nearly a decade), Billy's Back On Broadway features 10 classics made famous on the Great White Way, while the title pays homage to Sammy Davis Jr.'s 1965 LP, Sammy's Back On Broadway. The set features a delectable mélange of arrangements, from brassy big band renditions of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" (from 1959's "Gypsy: A Musical Fable") and "Don't Rain On My Parade" (from 1964's "Funny Girl"), to soul-inflected pop renditions of the standout "Kinky Boots" ballad "Not My Father's Son" and the soft-focus jazz number "Happy Days Are Here Again Get Happy" featuring Lauper.
A native of Pittsburgh, Porter first emerged as a gospel singer before transitioning to theater. He made his Broadway debut in the original cast of "Miss Saigon" in 1991. In 2013 Porter starred as Lola in Lauper's premiere Broadway musical "Kinky Boots," which earned a GRAMMY for Best Musical Theater Album at the 56th GRAMMY Awards in January.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Porter contemplates his career, the new album and portraying a drag queen in "Kinky Boots."
Billy's Back On Broadway marks your first post-"Kinky Boots" recording. How are you feeling?
I'm excited … and, yes, there [are] some nerves. I'm excited about having a product out in the marketplace that I really want, [because] that doesn't always happen in this business. It's nice to be able to circle back to what I call "the original dream," and to have an album out with a full orchestra. Who gets to do that anymore?
What is "the original dream"?
It's this album; this record is what I wanted originally. You get into the business, and life can morph, shift, adjust, and grow. But the original dream [was] when I was 14 or 15 and I heard Barbra Streisand['s] [The] Broadway Album growing up in Pittsburgh in my Pentecostal church. I wanted to do that.
What was it about that Streisand album that appealed to you?
At the time, I was discovering that I fit somewhere, that there was a place that I could be accepted, and also maybe be able to find something to do with my life. It was a combination of that album and seeing the "Dreamgirls" performance on the Tony Awards [in 1982]. I was just learning that [singing and acting were] something I could do to make a living, and [weren't] just [hobbies].
Which project demanded the most from you as a performer — "Kinky Boots" or Billy's Back On Broadway?
I think they're separate, but equal. I don't approach any kind of music without being a storyteller. For me, choosing the material and how it's set up on the album — there's not a moment that isn't thought out or planned in terms of how the listener will experience the journey in its entirety, as well as the individual songs. So I think it's very similar to "Kinky Boots" because I get to take you on a journey. The journey just happens to be a little bit different, you know? [Laughs] I don't have to be a drag queen.
You seem to have selected Broadway songs that focus on positivity. Why?
I decided that I wanted to sing songs of inspiration, empowerment and hope. I feel that we need that in the world. I feel that it's a conscious choice that we have to make to be positive in this world, because there's so much negative that's readily accessible. So, I wanted to be a part of putting that kind of energy out.
Some of the songs deviate greatly from the originals recorded by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., among others.
I wanted to set up a space where more traditional audiences would see that I understand the history of each song. If you notice, the arrangements go from the classic to contemporary. As the album progresses, it sort of cracks open and deconstructs into something that might not necessarily be so traditional. Being the star of a Broadway show like "Kinky Boots," [I learned] that the audience is really wide. The challenge is: How do [I] embrace them? So that's what I was trying to do, and hopefully I will succeed in that.
Which of the songs on you the album deviates most from its original?
There are several, but I would say "On The Street Where You Live" marks the strongest diversion. … I wanted it to be a meditation on loss that would help audiences and listeners kind of heal, so we changed it to "On The Street Where You Lived." That was a 20-year-old arrangement that we sort of repurposed, made it with all strings, and turned it into something that I feel is way different from how you hear it in the original show, which is about young, unfettered, bubbly love.
How has "Kinky Boots" changed your life?
That's a loaded question. I've gone from that really talented guy with nothing to do, to being the star of the show. It really doesn't get any better than that. It's like, finally there's something for me to do, and something for all my different talents.
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)