By Sharon Eberson
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Vanessa Williams has not been sitting out the pandemic, even though her London stage debut was shut down by the deadly virus that has ravaged the arts community.
At 57, the singer and actress maintains the glow of her beauty queen years and exudes the aura of the performer, activist, and mother of four she has become. You can see for yourself when she delivers the “Women of Broadway” finale, following Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti in the “Live From the West Side” livestream concert series that concludes on Saturday, Dec. 5.
Proceeds from the concerts benefit nonprofits nationwide, including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
For tickets and information on the Vanessa Williams virtual concert, visit the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust at https://trustarts.org/
“This is my third time I’ve been able to perform during the pandemic,” Williams said during a virtual press conference. “I did the Fourth of July ‘A Capitol Fourth.’ Then I went back to D.C. to open the Kennedy Center with Renee Fleming. And then I also did a Christmas concert, which was a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.”
“Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, With Vanessa Williams” is scheduled to air on PBS stations at 8 p.m. Dec. 15.
The London revival of “City of Angels” was cut short during previews, but Williams has remained much in demand back in the States.
In October, she participated in an Actors Fund benefit reading of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” with a cast that included John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Zachary Quinto, and Elizabeth Ashley.
“So, I’ve been able to do fun things, even sitting at home,” she said. “I’ve got my Zoom, I’ve got my ring light, we’ve got the script, and we can actually continue to be creative, but also it gives back to the community that’s struggling.”
The former Miss America, who starred on Broadway in “Into the Woods,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Trip to Bountiful,” also has conquered TV, including “Ugly Betty” and even as the voice of Captain Beakman in the animated series “T.O.T.S.” She topped the Billboard charts with “Save the Best for Last” in 1992. and hit No. 4 with “Color of the Wind” from Disney’s “Pochahontas.” Expect to hear both on Saturday, along with holiday fare. Her musical director for the concert is Rob Mathes, orchestra conductor for Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” and the Kennedy Center concert.
In the wide-ranging press conference with more than three dozen media members nationwide, Williams also spoke of her work as a founding member of Black Theatre United, which formed as the Black Lives Matter movement raised awareness of systemic racism in all walks of life.
She considers the theater veterans who founded Black Theatre United to be “the elders” of the movement that formed in June, and has continued its quest for equity and diversity in every corner of the theater world. At a fall virtual salon, “It was wonderful to open up the floor to younger Black performers on Broadway who have struggles and have stories that we haven’t heard,” she said.
The forum was a safe haven for participants to give voice to fears that any effort to speak out against racist practices might be met with the loss of work.
“That’s a reality, as a person of color on Broadway,” said Williams, who expressed pride that “we’re making headway” in assuring Black artists that there will be accountability for any racially motivated retaliation.
Here is more of what Vanessa Williams had to say ahead of Saturday’s “Women of Broadway” concert.
What can people expect in the livestream event on Dec. 5?
“I will of course be doing some of my Broadway hits, which have to do with Stephen Sondheim. I’ve worked with him twice, on ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Sondheim on Sondheim.’ I couldn’t squeeze in anything from ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ because that’s really a huge orchestral score, and doesn’t really translate to six musicians, which is our tops that we’ll be able to have on stage with us because of protocol. I don’t have my full band, but I will have one background singer, Shelley Thomas, who’s a Broadway gal herself, and she’s been touring with me forever.”
How have you been able to work so much during the pandemic?
“I’ve actually been one of the lucky ones to perform with live musicians and live people. Of course, there are precautions, and I think I took about seven tests when I was down at the Kennedy Center. They did the Cleveland Clinic protocols, so everything was really thorough.”
Is there a certain experience that you’re hoping people get through interactions with questions during your concert?
I hope people will get to know me and my musicians that have traveled with me for, geez, over 25 years now, and ask questions about the songs and how they came to be, and what are my favorites, and be able to get to know me as a person as well.
What are your thoughts on the fact that Broadway’s been shut down for so long?
“We were one week away from opening [‘City of Angels’] and Broadway closed down a week before, and we heard tricklings of people getting sick. … Friends of mine were canceling their flights over to see the show, so we knew that it was imminent, but we hung out for a week after, to help the show close. It certainly felt like the rug was pulled from under us. It’s our livelihood. You budget what you’re going to do … and if the show runs nine months or a year, that’s part of your income. So, a lot of people not only that I know, but in theater at large, are having a really difficult time.”
Tell us about your work with Black Theatre United.
One of the lucky things out of this tragedy is being able to be one of the founders of Black Theatre United. We mentioned my friends on Broadway, but Audra McDonald called, LaChanze, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Norm Lewis, Darius de Haas, we all basically galvanized on the heels of George Floyd, because that was really kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, and we needed to do something. So, a group of us started Black Theatre United, which also includes director Kenny Leon; Carin Ford, who’s a sound engineer; Lisa Dawn Cave, who’s one of the preeminent stage managers on Broadway, and we are working towards diversity, not only on Broadway but in theaters and across the country.
Can you see any progress is being made?
“Yes. Not only on stage and programming, but behind the scenes, and not just ushers, but staffing and artistic directors. And also, we’ve been able to highlight Fair Fight and Fair Count, for voter registration and the census. So, out of our … not being able to work, we have been able to really galvanize and make change, and that’s been the most proud thing that has come out of this.”
Do you think we will see the effects of Black Theatre United when things open up again?
“We’re seeing the effects now, thankfully. … Black Theatre United has hosted summits, and we’ve talked about people not even being aware that there’s been discrimination or retaliatory acts if someone is a whistleblower, because they feel like they’ve been discriminated against. So, there’s a lot of levels and different issues, but we’re in the thick of it, and we’re here to stay.”
What does that mean for the regional theaters you are supporting through this concert?
At the summits, we talked about programming. We talked about giving back to the community, utilizing the community, and having a mentorship program for people where the theaters are actually in their neighborhoods. So, there’s a lot of great ideas and dreams that we can actually help to effect change and make theater better, I think, across the United States. But this [pandemic] has taken a toll. … I understand the pressure that running a theater entails. I’m on the board of the Sheen Center, which is a cultural arts center in Manhattan, and I know what it’s like to perform there, but I also know what it’s like to be on the board and trying to look for sponsors and partners.”
You kind of touched on this, but what do you hope you can convey through this virtual concert?
“The message is one of unity and commonality. We all are touched when I sing ‘The Sweetest Days.’ That was written for my children. I have four children. So, no matter what’s happening, you can relate to having a family and remembering how wonderful and intimate those beautiful days were when they were children, and how you want to hang on to them. So, I think there are intimate themes that people can relate to, not only with my own music, my pop music, but also with some holiday music as well.”
Your parents were arts educators and you said earlier that “the arts are part of my being” because of them. As a youngster, was there an experience where you said, “I have to be on stage and do that”?
“Oh, so many. But I think when I went to see ‘The Wiz’ with Stephanie Mills, and I was sitting in the first row of the mezzanine, and I saw her sing, and she was a similar age — I was probably in middle school, and she was a couple of years older … that’s when I knew, ‘Oh my gosh, I could do this. This is a tangible goal for me.’ And it was electric.
“And I thank my parents for always exposing me to theater, and the ballet, and Alvin Ailey, and the opera … also, going to all their concerts. Both of them were music educators, so I had many, many concerts to sit through, but it made me appreciate the magic of the arts, and I am that person because of my parents.”
When you look to the future, what do you see for live theater?
“I can’t stress enough the fact that the arts are begging to come back, and after this is all settled, it’ll be wonderful to be able to have people enjoy real music, live music, seeing shows come back in town, and bringing back that commonality of enjoying live theater again..”