Billy Porter, a member of Broadway’s elite aristocracy and winner of both a Tony and a Grammy, has just presented and released his brand new album, “The Soul of Richard Rodgers,” via Bee & El/Sony Masterworks Broadway.
Available on all digital venues, the release features tracks including “Edelweiss,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.” The artists featured on the album include Tony and Grammy winners Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom and Renee Elise Goldsberry; Tony winner Patina Miller; and Grammy winners Pentatonix and India Arie. Also included are Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, Christopher Jackson, Todrick Hall, Ledisi and Deborah Cox.
One of the most respected artists in the community, Billy Porter is a singer, actor, playwright and director. He originated the role of Lola in Broadway’s smash hit Kinky Boots, for which he earned his Tony Award. Amongst the other productions he has appeared in are Dreamgirls, Grease, Angels in America, Miss Saigon and countless others.
Having the honor of speaking with Porter, I found him to be one of the most upbeat, positive people I have ever had a conversation with.
You have a new album that’s just come out. How did you come up with the idea or the inspiration for “The Soul of Richard Rodgers”?
It’s a series of things. My whole life, I never fit into anything. I grew up in the Pentecostal Church. I sang God’s music, I sang R&B, I sang soul, and then I got this theater bug. I wanted to be on stage, and the two worlds were so far apart. I was such a specific artist: I opened up my mouth to sing, and I felt like a black person singing. I felt like a soul singer. I felt like a gospel singer. No matter what it is, I could be trained, and I could take that out, but that wasn’t me being authentic. I spent a lot of my career bringing those worlds together, my brand in Broadway and soul, from the classic to the contemporary. I am a believer in the craft. I’m a believer in, yes, you have natural talent, then you train it, you learn the rules, so that you can spend the rest of your life breaking them. But, if you don’t know them, then everything else is an accident, and I don’t want to live my life as an accident. I wanted to know. So, this is a culmination of that energy. This is a culmination of that life’s work. If you look at my work from the time I started until now, it’s always been this. I just have a Tony and a Grammy now, so people are listening.
What was it like for you winning either that Grammy or that Tony award?
The Tony was the original dream. The theater saved my life. The theater got me out of a really challenging childhood. It was that dream that started at 11 that I was blessed and focused with. I was blessed with a passion early, so I could put all of my energy into it. So that was the original dream. To win that Tony was, THAT! It was that, “Thank you, Lord! Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Now what can I do with it? How can I be of service? How can I reach back and be of a service to those who need it, like I needed it?
Do you know the moment that altered the entire trajectory of your life?
Yeah. There have been several. First of all, being bitten by the bug in sixth grade in middle school, when I did Babes in Arms by Rodgers and Hart, incidentally, and seeing Jennifer Holliday on the Tony Awards. That was life-changing. But the second moment which moved the energy of my intention was Angels in America. Before Angels in America, I just wanted to be a star. That’s not about nothing. After Angels in America, I needed to be of service with these gifts that I’ve been given. That was a significant change, because with that intention everything changes.
Do you have a particular song that never fails to move you emotionally?
If you could have your ultimate stage fantasy, what would it be?
I’ve already had it. It’s called Kinky Boots. What gets better than that? I don’t know what gets better than that. Hopefully something will. You get to create a role, and it gets to be passed on to iconic theater roles. The show also had a message. It doesn’t get any better than that. So I’m on the lookout for the next one, and I’m hoping. I’m leaving myself open to the possibility of what that could be.
How did you choose the songs to go your new album?
They all picked themselves. The theme was love. We had done a concert version of it back in 2009 in LA. The deal came along, and when we started working on it I wanted to remain open. I didn’t just want to repeat what we had done. I just thought the theme was love, and we started asking people. As people said yes, the songs matched with the people. I was really curated to try to find which song would match with the person. Sometimes the song came first, and then the person matched it. Sometimes the person came first and the song then arose.
What music did you listen to while you were growing up?
Gospel, soul and R&B, but mainly gospel. All day and every day. Did you hear this album? Did you hear the gospel influences in this album?
To me the album sounds sexy.
Yeah. You know, when I say gospel, there’s a contemporary gospel that I don’t think people who don’t know gospel understand. It’s like, gospel music sounds like Beyoncé now. Historically, it’s always been that R&B and soul have borrowed from gospel. Gospel has borrowed from R&B and soul. It’s gone back and forth forever. As the sounds progress, they feed each other. My mama always says, “You don’t like the church, but every time you open up your mouth, it’s Jesus, Jesus,
Jesus all the way.”
If you could say anything to your fans and followers, what would you say, and what would you want them to know about you?
That’s an interesting question. The thing that I struggle with sometimes is that my stage persona has been known to be very gregarious and over the top, flamboyant, and the reality is I’m really an introvert. I’m really an introspective person who is really thoughtful about the world around us and things that shape us, and trying to contribute something that’s positive. So I think it’s surprising to people. I feel like I’m a professional extrovert. I know how to do it; it’s my job. When I was younger I would’ve called myself an extrovert. As I get older, I’ve become more introverted, more reflective. That’s not what you see when you see me on stage.
Is there anything else that you want to promote for yourself or talk about?
I want to stay focused on the album. I want to stay focused on my concerts that are coming up. I just came off the road for 12 days in the Midwest and in Florida, and about 20 dates between now and August, so it’s not too shabby for an artist.