Billy Porter: 'I've Gotta Be Me'
Honey, everything's coming up Billy — again.
A Tony Award winner for his fearless performance as Lola, the drag heroine at the center of the hit Broadway musical Kinky Boots, Billy Porter sticks to his stomping grounds for Billy's Back on Broadway, the Out100 honoree's third solo album and first in nearly a decade.
Available today, the stage veteran's debut on Concord Records features 10 inspirational and empowering Broadway classics, including "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy, "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl, and "I Am Changing" from Dreamgirls.
Still appearing in Kinky Boots at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the former gospel singer explains how a good show tune can change your life.
The Advocate: What inspired Billy's Back on Broadway?
Billy Porter: It really feels like I'm circling back to an original dream that first emerged when I was a teenager in Pittsburgh, when the Broadway bug bit me in the ass. Barbra Streisand's first Broadway album, The Broadway Album, which came out in 1985, was so significant to me, so I always wanted to do something like this.
What about her renditions resonated with you?
Up until that point I had only done, like, shows in school. I had never really experienced someone reinterpreting a song from a show. I had no idea that someone could take "Putting It Together" and crack it open like that. That was interesting to me. It was the first time I realized that when a song isn't in a show, an artist has the right and should interpret it to fit whatever they're trying to say. So that's what I loved about it. It started me on a path of doing my own concerts and cabarets when I moved to New York in the '90s, taking a musical composition and making it my own, which is what the old-school divas have been doing for years.
How did you choose which songs to make your own on Billy's Back on Broadway?
I'm in a place where I want everything in my life to mean something. For me, life is about being positive and hopeful, choosing to be joyful, choosing to be encouraging, choosing to be empowering. Once I chose that theme, the music chose itself.
You're on top of the world right now with a hit Broadway show, a Tony, and a new album. Do you still need reminders to choose joy?
Don't forget the Grammy! [Laughs] Yes, every day. All you need to do is turn on the news and in five minutes you're depressed with the state of the world. Choosing joy is a completely active choice. It doesn't just happen. You can't just say, "I want to be happy." You have to take action.
Your rendition of "I've Gotta Be Me," a standard originally from the show Golden Rainbow, will no doubt resonate with LGBT listeners. Who knew Sammy Davis Jr. was singing a queer empowerment anthem?
[Laughs] There are a lot of those old songs that can be interpreted a little differently today. It spoke to the civil rights movement back then, and now it speaks to the civil rights of a different group of people. It’s interesting. The feel, rhythm, and texture of a new arrangement can really open up a person's mind to receiving the lyric differently. You can get a whole new interpretation of these songs you thought you knew. It's like "On the Street Where You Live," which is also on the album. I used to sing it at a lot of AIDS benefits during the height of the AIDS crisis, and I changed it to past tense and made it a reflection on loss.
Do you feel a responsibility to use your celebrity and creativity to inspire people, particularly LGBT youth?
Yeah, I do think it's a responsibility, but I didn't know that was the ministry at the beginning of my career. I grew up in the Pentecostal church, where being gay wasn't really allowed, so I had to get to the place where I understood that the only thing I could do was be the best version of myself. Being that best version meant I'd be swept to the forefront of a movement, but that was just a happy accident. I was fine being in the closet at the beginning of my career because that's what you were supposed to be — until I realized that it didn't serve anybody and I was left feeling utterly empty. This is who I am, so I've gotta be me.
Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the Tony-winning Kinky Boots score, joins you on "Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy," a duet made famous by Streisand and Judy Garland on The Judy Garland Show.
Cyndi is a dear friend and so supportive. She's such a godmother of individuality, so it wouldn't make any sense for me to make this album without having her on it. Hers is the kind of energy I'm trying to embrace as an artist, so I needed the lady in the building!
Did you have to arm-wrestle Cyndi over who got to be Judy and who got to be Babs?
[Laughs] No! Our vocal ranges are so different, so it was more about figuring out what key we could both sing in, because the song's generally sung by two women.
Which traditionally female-sung show tunes do you sing in private but wouldn't dare do in public?
Oh, my. I can't really say there are any! I recorded some of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" on my last record, so I'm not really shy about singing big girl songs. I mean, "A Piece of Sky" from Yentl was my audition song for 15, 20 years.
You've been performing in Kinky Boots on Broadway, living in Lola's fabulous skin, for more than a year now. Was it hard to shake her off when it came time to record your album?
I'm not one of those actors who gets so taken by a role that I can't live my life. I'm the type of actor who goes to work, transforms into a character, takes you on a journey, and then comes back home to be Billy. When I'm in it, I'm in it, but I know how to get out of it. When you can't shut it off, you're a crazy person. I'm not crazy.
Billy's Back on Broadway is available now.