To say it’s been a good year for Billy Porter would be an understatement. The Broadway star achieved critical acclaim for his role as “Lola” in the Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein hit musical Kinky Boots, which will celebrate its one year anniversary this April. Porter also secured a well-deserved Tony Award in 2013, as well as a Grammy for the show’s original cast album, and is now planning to release his first solo album in almost a decade. Titled Billy’s Back On Broadway, the debut CD from Concord Records will be released April 15, featuring a collection of classic Broadway tunes with a new, inspired twist.
EW sat down with the actor to find out the details behind what inspired him to create his CD, and get his thoughts on what has been, in his words, “an amazing time” on Broadway. Hit the jump for more and to hear an exclusive first-listen of Porter’s duet with Lauper.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, congrats on the album release, and congrats on almost one year of Kinky Boots! It’s a pretty good time for you, isn’t it?
BILLY PORTER: It’s an amazing time. And it’s an amazing time for me, especially after having lived long enough to see the ups and downs of this business, and being young, and having sort of hit the ground running right out of Carnegie Mellon — booking Miss Saigon and having a career that did great things for my 20s, and then hitting the 30s and kind of stalling out as it can do, and finding other avenues and venues to sort of sustain me until my adult career took hold. I’m so thankful and grateful for it.
It’s been almost a decade since you’ve released a CD, so what was the motivation behind releasing this one? And why now?
I think just logistically, it was financial. My first album was on a major label in the 90s on A&M records, and that kind of ended in drama. And then almost ten years after that, I self-produced my own second album live from Joe’s Pub which was an amazing experience. And I knew that the next time I went in the studio, I wanted it to be a studio album. I wanted it to be backed by something, whether it was label, whether it was an individual, whether it was something or somebody who could get it out to the people. We’re in transition; we’re in the middle of the music industry in terms of how that happens now. It’s like…where is the music business? How do we move units? How do we make money? What is it? Because the Internet has kind of changed the whole game of everybody.
Was there certain inspiration for the way you chose to interpret certain songs?
I had been cultivating a sound, sort of. Because I grew up in the Pentecostal Church, I grew up singing gospel music, and then I transitioned into theatre. And I heard so often, “well, you can’t sing like that and sing on Broadway. You can’t interpret things like that and be on Broadway.” And I just didn’t believe it. And I knew deep down in my heart that the connection that I had to that spirit when I sang gospel was the same connection that you have in storytelling.
That makes this album really unique, in a good way.
It’s like, storytelling aspect of theatre music and the American standard is something that runs parallel to the history of gospel. And how gospel music is interpreted, and where it comes form. So over the years, I have, on my own, created this sound and this interpretation and this take, and I have always been the person who has rearranged old classics, to my edification, to where it would sound like it’s in my voice. So it was natural thing for me, but I chose that particular song because of what I love about the original.
I had a chance to listen to one of the tracks (“Happy Days/Get Happy”) and I loved it. It was so different, which I know is the tone you were going for.
Historically, when you look back at it, the Judy Garland/Barbara Streisand duet debuted on the Judy Garland Show, where Judy Garland was basically introducing Streisand to the world. It was sort of a mentor/mentee kind of relationship. So when the idea of doing a duet with Cyndi [Lauper] came along, I was looking for a song that could subliminally have that kind of energy to it. And that was the one thing that came to my mind, because Cyndi for me — and Harvey [Fierstein] as well, but in this case Cyndi — she’s such a godmother of individuality. I’ve always been an individual, and sometimes I’ve felt there isn’t a place for me. So to have Kinky Boots come around, to have the theme of that show, to have her in the room, to have all of these energies kind of swirl around simultaneously, it just felt right. And I wanted it to mean something. Every song on this album means something to me. I’m not the kind of person who sings a song because I like it, or sings a song because it’s good. It has to connect to me emotionally, because first and foremost, I’m a storyteller. So if I can’t connect to the story and tell that story, than I can’t really sing the song.
Explain to me a little about how you chose this album’s theme.
It was interesting because the landscape is so vast. The choices are so vast, and for me, choosing songs of inspiration and empowerment and hope really help me streamline what songs pretty quickly. Because we had to do this pretty quickly, to capitalize on the groundswell of Broadway and Kinky Boots. I knew from working this way and doing concerts and doing cabarets and putting shows together over the past 20 years how to create a journey, an emotional journey for the listener, even if it’s subliminal. And that’s one of the things that I really fought for. Because songs would be sort of presented to me, and I said, “But that doesn’t fit into the theme.” And it was like, “Well, nobody’s gonna know the theme.” And I was like, “That’s not the point. I know the theme.” And if I’m not connected to the theme, then ultimately the listeners won’t be connected to the theme. There’s a theme on purpose, there’s a reason…and I’m grateful for my background in the theatre for helping me be able to create something that is like that, that has a journey, that is not just random songs.
Can you talk a little more about your collaboration with Cyndi?
One of the things that was reinforced working with Cyndi — which I discovered sort of on my journey to her — her presence in the room was, “We can only be the best version of ourselves.” That’s all we got. The chips are gonna fall where they’re gonna fall, and you’re either going to get it or you’re not, but you can’t ever be something that you’re not. You can’t ever put yourself in a position where someone is requiring you to inhabit somebody else’s energy. You have to own your thing, or own it with very fiber of your being. And I love her for that. There’s one part in the show where she lets her New York accent comes out, and I just think it’s the sweetest, most honest thing.
I’m sure it would be impossible to pick just one, so what are your top 5 favorite tracks from the album?
I think that my favorite is “Take The Moment,” because of the simplicity of the lyrics and the complex emotion trajectory that the song takes you on. It’s so simple, but it’s complicated. It’s like one of those things where you say, “just be yourself.” It sounds so easy, but it’s not always necessarily the easiest thing to do. And that song represents those catch-all phrases to me. I love “Luck Be A Lady” because it is the furthest deconstructionist take of something on my album, so it goes the furthest away from the original, and the arrangement is rooted in a contemporary gospel sound and I love that. I love “I Am Changing,” because that was from Dreamgirls and that’s the show that sort of started the whole thing for me. I love “Not My Father’s Son.” It’s a complete different arrangement from the original that I do in the show, it’s more of an R&B soul version of it. And I would have to say, “But The World Goes Round” because it transports me to a whole other time.
What do you hope fans (and non-fans) take away from listening to this album?
That music is truly the universal language. It doesn’t matter what your background is, it doesn’t matter where you come from, we can find ways to communicate and co-exist on this planet in a way that is uplifting and encouraging and hopeful. I just hope that it connects in that way, I’m a very spiritual person, and I hope that comes across in the music. That there’s hope.
And how has the Kinky Boots experience been, coming up on celebrating almost a year on Broadway?
I’ve waited my whole life for this.
So basically, you’re gonna ride the wave for as long as you can.
Until something better comes along, and that’s a tall order. I was watching old reruns of Johnny Carson and Tony Randall was talking about The Odd Couple, and talking about how in the actor’s life, it is so rare that the synergies of a role and the commerce of it come together. Because very often, you can get something that’s perfect, but nobody cares and nobody sees it. But when all those things can simultaneously swirl together and create a groundswell like Kinky Boots has, and make a mark and transcend the genre of Broadway, that’s so rare.
Please don’t say we’re going to have to wait another decade for another CD release.
No! [laughs] Because I think I’m at a place where people will wanna hear me now. And I have an actual record deal where people will say, “Okay, time for another album!”
And this is going to be big, which is so exciting. Do you see yourself promoting with smaller shows around New York, among the theatre crowd?
Sure. I mean, I’m not sure quite yet how the promotion of this is in conjunction with doing eight shows a week. I know that my first gig centered around the promotion of the album is doing The Boston Pops. The whole album is with an orchestra. So, I’ve gotta figure out, “Okay, how can I travel to these different pilot places and perform that album with people and get my face out there that way?” So that’s the first angle, but we’re still working. And of course, I’ll do smaller venues as well and smaller shows as well. It’s just a matter of how I balance that with my show schedule.
You can pre-order Billy’s Back On Broadway now at Amazon.com. Listen to an exclusive: