Billy Porter Finds the Soul of Richard Rodgers By Peter Filichia
Billy Porter apparently agrees with Stephen Sondheim.
While Sondheim was working (and struggling) with Richard Rodgers on the 1965 musical Do I Hear a Waltz? he came to the conclusion that the esteemed composer was “a man of infinite talent and limited soul.”
Porter obviously appreciates that “infinite talent,” for in the last few years he’s been spending time with the legendary composer’s music. But he too may have thought that Rodgers did have “limited soul,” for he’s found plenty to add in his new album, The Soul of Richard Rodgers.
“I grew up in the Pentecostal church, exposed to gospel, soul and R&B,” says Porter. “I’ve never shied away from peppering those flavors in all I do.”
When someone is said to have a “new album,” that usually means a disc in which a single artist or group does all the work. Not here, for of the new CD’s twelve selections, Porter sings on only five of them.
For the official title of the album tells all: Billy Porter Presents the Soul of Richard Rodgers. So, if you run into Porter, say a lyric by the aforementioned Sondheim: “Hey, Mr. Producer – I’m talkin’ to you, sir” – for that’s the latest hat that Porter is wearing.
(If anyone still wears a hat.)
Porter has opted for an almost even split between Rodgers’ two major collaborators. Oscar Hammerstein II provided the lyrics on seven songs; Lorenz Hart did the remaining five. Fittingly enough, the last cut includes the final lyric that Hammerstein wrote: “Edelweiss.” Porter sings it and bisects it with an explanation of what the flower is and what significance it holds.
Does that sound a little maverick? That’s one goal of the album and one reason why Porter decided to use “the new generation of musical theater artists who are expanding the boundaries of the genre.”
These actors and actresses already have plenty of fans – and many have won a Tony as well. Hamilton is represented by three winners: Leslie Odom, Jr. (the original Aaron Burr) sings “My Romance.” Brandon Victor Dixon, who succeeded Odom, does “With a Song in My Heart” in a duet with Joshua Henry, whom, we trust, learned that it’s an honor just to be nominated – twice, in fact, for both The Scottsboro Boys and Violet.
And before you can say “Brandon Victor Dixon didn’t win!” be apprised that he has one of those tall, sleek statues for co-producing Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Who did win for Hamilton, however, was Renée Elise Goldsberry, the original Angelica Schuyler. She does “If I Loved You” with Christopher Jackson – another Hamilton nominee, for he was first to play our first president George Washington and also got a Tony nomination for his efforts.
Last year when Goldsberry won Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Cynthia Erivo won Best Actress in a Musical for The Color Purple. She’s here, too, doing “My Funny Valentine” – which most people assume is about a singer musing about a Valentine’s Day love. No – in Babes in Arms, a young woman named Billie Smith sings it about her love whose first name actually is Valentine.
Doing “I Have Dreamed” is Patina Miller, who may well have dreamed about getting a Best Actress in a Musical Tony and then saw that dream come after playing The Leading Player in the 2013 revival of Pippin.
Deborah Cox, who’s been a replacement Aida and the ill-fated Lucy in the equally ill-fated 2013 revival of Jekyll & Hyde, does “This Nearly Was Mine.” Wonder what she would have recorded if Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t written it? They almost didn’t, for it went in only nine days before the Broadway opening of South Pacific.
The singular-named Ledisi doesn’t have much Broadway experience; she was an understudy in Caroline, or Change in 2004. Perhaps if the powers-that-be had given her more to do than covering the “roles” of The Washing Machine and The Radio she might have stayed on Broadway; their decision may have been a blessing in disguise, for her pop music career has yielded nine Grammy nominations.
In “Bewitched,” Ledisi doesn’t sing the actual Hart lyric, “And long for the trousers that cling to him,” but opts for the line that was cleaned up for radio consumption: “And long for the day when I’ll cling to him.” She does however keep in place, “Horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best,” as well as, “And thank God I can be oversexed again.” From the way she sings it, you know it’s not a case of “can be” but “already is.”
Midway through the song, you may feel that you’re getting Pal Joey’s side of the story. For in comes Zaire Park, with some rapping of his own lyrics. He has more that he intersperses in Porter’s rendition of “The Lady is a Tramp.”
Zaire Park has no Broadway or off-Broadway credits; neither does the four-time Grammy winner known as India.Arie who does “Carefully Taught.” Considering that Porter said his roster included “the new generation of musical theater artists,” maybe he knows something that we don’t, and they’ll soon be on Broadway.
Another rapper with his own lyrics to recite is Todrick Hall, who, until recently, also played Lola on Broadway. Both this American Idol finalist and Porter decide “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”
Although Billy Porter Presents the Soul of Richard Rodgers will be placed in the R&B category, it would also feel at home in Easy Listening, for many of the songs are done in slower tempi than they originally had. The album will make a nice gift for millennials who might not be inclined to investigate them on cast albums.
If it all sounds a little controversial, remember that the disc’s first song – “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” – was considered unorthodox when Oklahoma! opened in 1943. No, not because of sex or drugs (and certainly not rock ’n’ roll, which hadn’t yet burst onto the entertainment scene), but because a musical had rarely begun with one character’s singing solo. It’s not quite a solo here, for Porter has Pentatonix, an a cappella quintet, as his back-up singers.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were famous for their optimism: “Keep talkin’ happy talk” … “Follow every rainbow ’till you find your dream” … “You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”
So maybe it’s not just Rodgers but also Hammerstein who attracted Porter. For twenty-one years he was a Broadway journeyman: an understudy in Five Guys Named Moe (1992), a Teen Angel with one song in Grease (1994) and a replacement in the waning days of Miss Saigon (1999) and Smokey Joe’s Café (2000).
For the next decade, Porter had to settle for four off-Broadway shows that totaled 189 performances; one, Ghetto Superstar, was his one-man musical (at the Public Theatre) for which he wrote everything. It wasn’t extended and didn’t move to Broadway.
Matters slightly improved in 2010 when Porter enjoyed eight straight months of work as Belize in both parts of the off-Broadway revival of Angels in America. Belize is a transvestite, and the character might well have been good practice for Porter’s next Broadway assignment.
As Michael Learned once said to me, “There’s an ideal part out there for every performer; he or she just has to go out and find it.” Find it Porter did when he was cast as Lola, the drag queen extraordinaire in Kinky Boots. Personal raves followed, and four years ago this week, Porter had official certification of his renaissance by winning the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical.
So when he sings “Everything’s going my way” in “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” Porter’s telling the truth.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.