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The Bright Stuff

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Shining star Vanessa Williams illuminates Houston’s Brilliant Lecture Series.

By Gregg Shapiro

You would be hard-pressed to find a performer more versatile than Vanessa Williams. As a singer, Williams has had numerous hit singles and best-selling albums. As an actress, she has played leading roles in the Broadway musicals Into the Woods and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She has also performed regularly on the big and little screens, with memorable roles in Ugly Betty and Soul Food, to name a few. She has even co-written a book with her mother, Helen. The definition of a born performer, Williams will perform at The Corinthian in downtown Houston on April 13 as part of the Brilliant Lecture Series. I had the pleasure of speaking with her in mid-March.

Gregg Shapiro: We are speaking the day after your birthday. I want to wish you a happy birthday, belatedly.
Vanessa Williams: Thank you!

Did you do anything special to celebrate?
I was in-flight from Guam, so I spent my birthday in a zillion different time zones. I had a total of eight birthday cakes all week, from every restaurant that I went to and every event that I attended in Guam. I flew in there last week on Monday and they got word that it was my birthday. Everywhere I went they sent me a cake. I finished it last night when I came home. My mom made me dinner and, of course, a birthday cake. I had a total of eight cakes [laughs]. When I left Guam I was serenaded by some wonderful Chamorro dancers and island music. It was spectacular.

Speaking of anniversaries and special occasions, 2018 is the 30th anniversary of the release of your first album, The Right Stuff. Do you have any plans to commemorate the occasion?
We’re working on something. I don’t know right now, but we’re trying to figure that out.

When you are on a concert tour, such as the one that will be bringing you to The Corinthian in Houston, how much of the music is drawn from albums such as The Right Stuff and The Comfort Zone, and how much comes from your performances in Broadway musicals such as Into the Woods and Kiss of the Spider Woman?
It’s a combination of my hits —“Save the Best for Last,” “Colors of the Wind,” “The Sweetest Day,” “Dreamin’,” and “Love Is”—which people all know from the radio. I also do a Broadway section, which is wonderful. I do some Sondheim, and one from Into the Woods. I do my covers that I’ve done, some jazz, and R&B. It’s a nice mix of Broadway, R&B, pop, and jazz.

I’m glad you mentioned covers, because you covered songs by Bill Withers on The Right Stuff as well as on your most recent album, The Real Thing. What does a songwriter such as Withers mean to you as a singer?
I grew up with Bill Withers’ music. I’m a huge fan of his. I love his songs. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a phenomenal song. He wrote and sang. I got a chance to meet him in the studio. He came and surprised me when I was recording his number. It was a great opportunity to tell him how much I adored his music and songwriting. I’m at that age now where my kids are like, “This is a great song!” And I say, “Do you want to hear the original?” And they’re like, “Oh
my God!” Most of my kids are very appreciative of the origins of where a lot of these songs come from.

It’s been almost 10 years since the release of your 2009 album The Real Thing. Is there a new recording in the works?
Yes. We started in January or February. We’re mixing now, and it will be out in the fall.

You recently returned as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. What can you tell me about the experience?
It’s great! Any time Ru calls, I’m there for him. It was great because it was his All-Stars. Shangela had judged before, and is just amazing. It’s fantasy and the creativity is unbelievable—what the queens come up with for their costumes and makeup and ideas. Also, learning the choreography so quickly. They had to do a huge number that they learned immediately. I’m so impressed by their talent. The resilience, and how they can up with some fantastic ideas and then make them come alive.

Have you ever had occasion to see a drag queen perform a number dressed as you?
We did an episode of Ugly Betty where there was a drag queen doing Wilhelmina. The whole episode was me going incognito to this club to see who was doing me. When they cast it, our producer asked me if my brother would be into it. My brother, Chris Williams, is an actor. I said, “Oh my God, he’d love it!” So my brother plays me in drag. I think it was one of the proudest moments my mom ever had [laughs]. Both of her kids, performing in the same episode of a hit show on ABC. That was probably the most fun.

As a performer who has appeared on TV, in movies, on Broadway, and on recordings, would you say that you have a preference for one type of entertainment over the others?
I just got off the road after three weeks with my band. It’s wonderful, because we’ve been performing together for 20 years. We started off with Luther Vandross back in 1997. There are so many tunes that we know, and so many ways that we can shape a show. That’s my natural go-to. There’s something about Broadway. I think it’s because I grew up doing shows and wanting to be on Broadway in musical theater—that first day of rehearsal when you get your new music and you’re sitting in a semi-circle around a piano with your music stand and you’ve met the cast for the first time. Then you hear what you’re doing, and it’s always thrilling. The fact that you’ve put it up so quickly, and then it’s opening night. You pray that you remember everything—our choreography and your words and your breath support. I think musical theater is probably the most thrilling because it’s the most familiar to me.

Speaking of Broadway, are you planning to see your Ugly Betty co-star Michael Urie in Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway this fall?
I saw him opening night when he was off-Broadway. Of course I’ll support him!

What: Vanessa Wiliams in concert
When: 8 p.m. on April 13
Where: The Corinthian, 201 Fannin St
Tickets: BrilliantLectures.org

This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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