PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Billy Porter

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Billy Porter
 
Billy Porter grew up in Pittsburgh listening to the original cast albums of Stephen Sondheim's shows, and dreamed of acting in them one day.
Billy Porter
Billy Porter Photo by Aubrey Reuben

But when he moved to New York to become a stage performer, Porter, an African-American, found he could not get cast in one. Rather than cross that hoped-for experience off his wish list, he reasoned: If the theatre can't create a Sondheim show for me, I'll create one for myself. And thus Being Alive was created. The revue, which was workshopped last summer at New York Stage and Film, took a couple dozen Sondheim tunes and dressed them in the African-American musical idioms of soul, jazz, blues, R&B, hip-hop, and gospel. Porter then paired the score to some verses from Shakespeare to "tell the universal story of man's seven ages." Sondheim approved of the plan, leading the way to Being Alive world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse beginning Aug. 24. In recent days, it was announced that Being Alive would have a second life — starting in October at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Porter, who directs the Westport cast of six, spoke to Playbill.com about his journey from Sondheim record owner to Sondheim interpreter.

Playbill.com: When did you first become aware of Stephen Sondheim's work?
Billy Porter: I was about 14, in Pittsburgh. I had just been introduced to the theatre through an after-school program. I became obsessed with the theatre during that time. I would go to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and I would take out ten albums a week and listen to all sorts of shows, to educate myself on the form. I became really friendly with the librarian there, and one day when I came to check out my albums she said, "Oh, you only need one album today." And he handed me Sunday in the Park With George. It had just come out. That was really the first time heard about Sondheim. I listened to it and was just mesmerized. And then [the song] "Sunday" came on and it just went through me. It just felt so spiritual to me. That was the moment that I realized that when art is pure, it transcends all the boundaries and limitations that we humans can put on it. It spoke to me as a little black kid in the ghettos of Pittsburgh who really didn't know anything about the kind of music. I was moved the way I was in church.

Playbill.com: Have you had the opportunity to appear in a Sondheim show in your career?
BP: No. That's why I created this one. That was the impetus. It wasn't until I got older that I realized that African-American actors and Sondheim material aren't generally synonymous. I tried and tried and tried. I got really close to getting into Into the Woods. It didn't work out for various reasons. And that's when I thought, "What if I do something else?" And this idea came about. The only idea I had when I went to [Sondheim] is I wanted to do a revue of his music with an African-American cast and rearrange the music to embrace the African-American musical idioms.

Playbill.com: Did you do a workshop for Sondheim at some point?
BP: Yes. I got the idea of using Shakespeare. I put together a script, wrote it out. I sent it to him. We had a meeting. He liked the idea. Steve gave us the approval to go to New York Stage & Film last summer. We workshopped it for ten days. He loved it and gave us the approval to do the Westport Country Playhouse this summer.

Playbill.com: How many songs are in it?
BP: Full songs, about 30, taken from pretty much every show, except for Pacific Overtures. We've rearranged them all to be in many different African-American idioms, from jazz to R&B to soul to hip-hop to gospel. It runs the gamut. Playbill.com: Give me an example. For instance, which songs are getting the jazz treatment?
BP: "Pretty Women" has a very Take Six jazz element to it. We do an arrangement of "What Can You Lose?" and "Not a Day Goes By" that has a very Afro-Cuban flair to it. It's cracked wide open, new interpretations of everything, pretty much.

Playbill.com: Now, you're not actually in it this time around.
BP: No. I've conceived it. I did the musical arrangements with my partner James Sampliner and Michael McElroy. And I'm directing it.

Playbill.com: But wasn't the initial idea that you wanted to sing Sondheim's songs on stage? And you're not singing any of them!
BP: (Laughs a long time) What's more interesting to me at this point in my life is I have created a project where it's not just about me. It's about a large issue and larger group of people. I can go into this show at any time. There are three roles in this show that I could play at the drop of a hat. I wanted to step out of it so that the vision could be clear. And, I have to tell you: I was in it last summer at New York Stage and Film and I found that when I sat down to do the rewrites, when I took myself out of it, the show got better. When I stepped out of it and made the characters I played be 15 years my junior, suddenly it cracked open a whole new journey that is so much better than what it was when I was in it.

Playbill.com: I assume the hope is to bring the show to New York. If you had your dream, would it be Broadway, commercial Off-Broadway, a nonprofit production — ?
BP: Broadway! Broad-way!! I don't aspire to the middle. I aspire to the tip-tip-top of it all.

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