Multi-talented Pgh native Porter reflects on career and new album

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Billy Porter is enjoying his life right now. He is currently starring as Lola in the Award-winning Broadway musical “Kinky Boots,” for which he won the 2013 Drama Desk and Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical.

“I felt excited, relieved, refreshed and vindicated because I’ve been doing this a long time and was told that the version of myself that I have recently been honored for is not bankable,” said Porter who resides in New York and is a graduate of the Professional Program in Screen Writing at UCLA and is an adjunct professor at his alma mater Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama.

On April 15—after almost a decade—the East Liberty native released his new solo album, “Billy’s Back on Broadway” on Concord Records, the project was produced by Rob Mounsey. It features 10 classic songs made famous on the Great White Way that focus on inspiration, hope and empowerment. The album’s title is homage to Sammy Davis, Jr.’s recording of “Sammy’s Back on Broadway.”

“I chose the material because it was rooted and based in encouragement and hope,” Porter said. “I wanted to put out something that would allow people to be encouraged and inspired for their future. Once I settled on what I wanted to say, and the journey I wanted the listener to take, the songs made their presence known rather quickly.”

Porter enlisted the help of Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award-winning rock goddess Cyndi Lauper—who penned the score for “Kinky Boots”—to duet with him on “Happy Days/­­Get Happy” a ditty made famous by Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland.

“Cyndi Lauper is a part of ‘Kinky Boots’ and it seemed like the perfect fit,” Porter said. “She’s one of the Godmother’s of individuality. She forged a path for so many of us that didn’t fit into the status quo. I learned so much and have felt so inspired by her journey as an artist and human being before I even knew her. She’s a blessing and a gift and I’m so thrilled she said ‘yes’ when I asked her to sing on this album.”

Growing up in the Steel City in the 1980’s, Porter dreamed of one day being a Broadway star. He grew up singing gospel in the Pentecostal church and transitioned to theater making his Broadway debut in the original cast of “Miss Saigon.”

“Seeing Jennifer Holliday from ‘Dreamgirls’ perform on the Tony Awards telecast and later discovering Barbara Streisand by listening to her albums at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh really changed everything for me,” Porter said when asked what made him want to become an entertainer. “When Barbara released her first Broadway album, I was about 15 years old and I thought: ‘One day, I’m going to make my own Broadway album—just like Babs!’”

Porter released his first solo album “Untitled” on A& M records and a second effort “At the Corner of Broadway+Soul,” was released on Sh-K-Boom Records.

BILLY-PORTER-AS-LOLA-KINKY-BOOTS-large570

BILLY PORTER AS LOLA

In addition to his role as “Lola” in “Kinky Boots,” and “Miss Saigon,” Porter has also performed in “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Grease,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” and “Dreamgirls.” Porter’s off-Broadway and regional credits include “Angels in America,” “Romance in Hard Times,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “A Chorus Line” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” His one-man show, “Ghetto Superstar: The Man That I Am,” debuted at the Public Theater in New York City in conjunction with City Theater of Pittsburgh and was nominated for a 2005 GLAAD Media Award. Porter was also named Pittsburgh’s Performer of the Year 2003-2004 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Porter is just as brilliant in the director’s chair as he is on Broadway or in the studio. He directed a critically acclaimed recreation of “The Wiz” and birthed a musical revue entitled “Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Music of Stevie Wonder.” The show starred Chaka Khan and ran at Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel during the spring of 2002. He also conceived and directed “Being Alive” a musical celebration that aligns the cannons of Stephen Sondheim and William Shakespeare and blends them with the soulful musical styles of the African-American experience.

“Being Alive” made its world premier in the Summer of 2007 at The Westport Country Playhouse and immediately transferred to the Philadelphia Theatre Company, inaugurating their new Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

This fall, Primary Stages will present the World Premier of his play, “While I Yet Live.”

Until then, Porter is having the time of his life playing “Lola” in the Broadway production of “Kinky Boots” which is based on a 2005 British film.

“I saw that movie and I said to myself, ‘if there’s anything I could do, I would do it.’ I set my sights on the role of Lola. I love the character and what it stands for. These people who we don’t always understand are as viable as anyone.” Porter said. “This particular character was in my wheelhouse. It is sassy and emotional and I was able to access all that I needed. I’ll be with ‘Kinky Boots’ until they drag me out on a stretcher. I’m trying to be in the moment as much as I can. I’m loving ‘Kinky Boots’ and I’m loving the way people are receiving my character.”

Porter’s film and television credits include Sundance Film Festival features “The Broken Hearts Club,” “Intern, Noel,” “Shake, Rattle & Roll” where he played the title role of Little Richard, he also had a recurring role on the soap opera “Another World.” Other television credits include “Twisted,” “Law & Order,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “A Very Rosie Christmas,” “The Tonight Show,” and multiple appearances on the “Rosie O’Donnell Show.”

Most recently he guest-starred on “Law & Order: SVU” as a teacher accused of inappropriate behavior with his student.

This summer he will take the dais as a guest judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.” His original song “Time” has been featured in the hit show twice. Porter will also appear in the film, “The Humbling” starring Al Pacino.

Porter has opened for Rosie O’Donnell and Aretha Franklin, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Philly Pops and soloist for President Bill Clinton and various benefits throughout the United States.

“I walk through the doors that are open I don’t want to be limited. I love theater because it is immediate and if you don’t see it when it happens you’ve missed it. Film and TV are beyond me. They are permanent. The work continues on. It’s a legacy,” Porter said.

 

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