BILLY PORTER HAS GONE FROM SMALL TOWN BEGINNINGS IN PITTSBURGH, PENN., TO LITERALLY THE TOAST OF BROADWAY, WINNING THE TONY AWARD FOR “BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL” FOR HIS 2013 ROLE AS LOLA IN THE BROADWAY SMASH “KINKY BOOTS.” BILLY TOOK A BREAK FROM THE GREAT WHITE WAY TO CHAT WITH CONTRIBUTING WRITER MICHAEL COOK ABOUT HIS INSPIRATIONS, HIS AMAZING NEW ALBUM “SAMMY’S BACK ON BROADWAY” AND THE MULTITUDE OF PROJECTS HE IS WORKING ON.
Your album title, “Billy’s Back On Broadway,” is a nod to Sammy Davis Jr’s legendary recording, “Sammy’s Back On Broadway.” Was he a big influence on your career?
Yes! Sammy transcended race. He transcended genre. He was a true renaissance man. I didn’t quite know it at the time, but that’s what I’ve been aspiring to achieve.
Can you pinpoint one specific time when you fell in love with musical theater?
I was in the sixth grade, and I joined a musical theater after-school program. Incidentally, that was the same year I experienced the Tony Awards telecast for the very first time that featured Jennifer Holliday and the cast of “Dreamgirls.” It was a wrap!
Was it hard to decide on “only” 10 songs for “Billy’s Back on Broadway”? The Broadway catalog is so tremendous!
Not really. Once I decided on the theme, the songs chose themselves.
Jennifer Holliday, Barbra Streisand and now Cyndi Lauper have been such strong inspirations throughout your career. What do you think it is about these women that makes them so powerful to you?
All three of these ladies are godmothers of singularity and individuality! Once again, not knowing this at the time, that spirit was my lifeline during a very difficult time in my life. Their strength was like air to me.
Your duet with Cyndi Lauper on “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy” is genius. What made you chose that particular song?
When Judy and Barbra debuted the duet on “The Judy Garland Show,” the energy felt very much like Judy was introducing Barbra to the world and in many ways “passing the torch” in a mentor/mentee-type way. I wanted to honor Cyndi and this very “Kinky” moment with the correct energy by acknowledging that it’s because of her and this extraordinary role that she and Harvey crafted that I’ve been able to make my mark in the world – on my own terms.
There are so many powerful female voices out there now. Any on your wish list that you would love to work with?
Umm…there are so many, I don’t want to play favorites. I will say, though, that at the moment the two ladies on repeat in my car are Ledisi and Erica Campbell (of Mary
The “Kinky Boots” era of your career is still going strong. What is it like to get up there night after night and work with material that has been put together by such powerhouses as Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein?
It’s a gift. My mother always used to say, “God has bigger plans for you than you could ever dream for yourself.” I secretly didn’t think that was possible. Until now. I NEVER imagined that my life could look like this. It’s magical.
What’s next for Billy Porter? Could it possibly be some action on the silver screen?
Going to work tomorrow at The Boots That Are Kinky! [laughs] I’ll give you the list: guest starred on “Law & Order SVU,” co-starred opposite Al Pacino in the upcoming feature film “The Humbling,” my play “While I Yet Live” makes its world premiere under the umbrella of The Primary Stages theatre company OffBroadway this fall, starring S. Epatha Merkerson. In addition to promoting this album, I’m also writing a book.