Entertainment » Music

Billy Porter on 'The Soul of Richard Rodgers' and Classic Broadway Humanity

by Joel Martens
Sunday May 7, 2017
Billy Porter
Billy Porter  (Source:Photo by Donald Traill/Invision/AP, File)

Most of you know Richard Rodgers. Even if you aren't familiar with his name, you certainly have heard at least one or two pieces of his music. Say you're not a fan of musical theatre? That's okay (though it casts some serious doubts about your character); I'm betting you've heard Ella Fitzgerald sing "My Funny Valentine, sweet comic valentine..." or "Bewitched, bothered and bewildered..." at least once.

Rodgers was more prolific than most, in his own right. But, as part of the musical powerhouse that was Rodgers & Hammerstein, they inhabited the stratosphere, giving the world classic musicals such as "South Pacific," "Carousel," "The Sound of Music" and "The King and I."

Old school you say? I'd challenge you to go beyond the perceived naïveté and dig a little deeper into the soul of each before you write them off. If you look and listen carefully, you'll see that just below the surface, there's some pretty powerful stuff. Music that covers topics such as sexism, domestic abuse and racism, cleverly disguised by a beautiful melodic line. Songs like, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," with lyrics such as, "You've got to be taught to hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year, it's got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You've got to be carefully taught..." Surprisingly relevant for some of the things we're currently facing, wouldn't you agree?

Billy Porter has become a beloved Broadway fixture himself, at this point. A Tony and Grammy Award-winner, he has dedicated his life to the stage and all the beauty-and power-it offers. Music is his platform, and with his latest album, "Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers," you will come to know what a master he is. Classic "showtunes" turned on their ear and laid bare, revealing their deeper meaning. Truth be told, the soul of Rodgers was always there, we just needed to hear it in a new and different way.

Porter has a deep appreciation for his chosen platform and a mind and voice that he is prepared to use to create conversation that, for some, may challenge. In the end, though, isn't that what art is really all about? Making you feel something and maybe changing your perspective?

Get ready to be enlightened.

I'm curious to know why you chose Richard Rodgers?

Why not Richard Rodgers? (Laughs) Really, he was from the golden age and in the golden age, pop music was his kind of music. It was the music that was on the radio and he was one of the most prolific song writers, and the most successful. He was the Beyoncé, the Kanye West, the Drake, the Adele of his time, that's what his music represented.

That unfortunately has fallen by the wayside, so I chose him because his music was so ubiquitous and still is in many ways. Everybody knows a Richard Rodgers song, even if you don't know that you know one, most people usually do. "My Funny Valentine," most people in the world know that one. As a result, when you deconstruct it and take it from the classic to the contemporary and change it, people who know the original have a different reaction to the fresh arrangement and those who have never heard it before, receive it like it's something completely new. That's why I chose Rodgers.

How you managed to remake Rodger's classics so contemporary is in large part due to your skill as a musician, but it was such an education to re-hear the worlds he wrote and how relevant they remain.

Yes. They've never really stopped being timely, that's the sad part. They were pushing the envelope, too. When you think about Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," they make you fall in love with the beautiful white blond lady, who in the end turns out to be a racist. That's why he sang the song "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," he was calling out the racism. We forget that, because it is so popular and we do it in high schools, though they suck the politics out of it. We manage to forget that "Carousel" is about domestic abuse, and the fact that the woman in the show stays with him.

You're right. We as a culture tend to bleach out the bad stuff. Was that part of the motivation for some of your music choices?

We were working on many of the songs pre-election-and then post-election-the songs took on a whole different meaning. "Edelweiss" was always on the record, but the politics of it came forward after the election. We were working on "Wash That Man," but it became political (Laughs) after the election. It was supposed to be a woman, but after the election, it became Todrick Hall and myself. I remember thinking, "We are the exact people, who they are trying to silence and erase." I mean, they took us off the fucking census... They just erased us.

I know, it's pretty unsettling... and just a little terrifying.

No, it's not. I'm not terrified, I am done being terrified. Now it's time to start fighting. We have had to do this before... and we will do it again.

We certainly have, and if there is one group who can step up to the fight, it's the LGBT community. The silver lining is that it is activating people in a way I haven't seen in years.

That's true. We're engage again. I've been trying to say this for years, "Child, it's not over. We still have work to do." As a black man, not much has changed, and we have been trying to tell ya'll that for years. You say, "Black Lives Matter," and we were clowned. "All lives matter you guys, we're beyond racism, we're beyond all that. It's just not where we are, so get over it." Well, now everybody knows, and everybody sees that we're not past it. We have to stay focused and vigilant and should remain engaged and to fight for the rights that we've won.

They don't just stay there, you have to fight to keep them. I think that's the hard part and has been the hard reality to face. Once you do have these successes, to not take them for granted and to stay vigilant.

I interviewed Jeff Nichols as a part of promoting the film "Loving," and he said something that really stuck with me. He talked about the idea that equality is not something we achieve because, as a society, we're always evolving, and so it is something we must stay aware of and constantly redefine.

That's a really beautiful sentiment, and it's the truth.

It's not in any way a hopeless statement, it just means we have to stay vigilant and keep on our toes.

Right. Like democracy means we have to come out and vote in the primaries and not just the general election. We can't sit on our asses, Democrats need to learn some things from those Republicans. They never stop working, they never stop the rhetoric, or sit back and think they have won anything. They cheat and they cheat and they cheat and they cheat, the whole time, even if we're winning, they just rewrite the rules. We're sitting here thinking we've won something and so we can sit and eat bonbons and celebrate. (Laughs) "We got a black president... it's all in the bag." (Laughs)

I'm loving this interview. It's so refreshing to talk to someone who isn't afraid to have an opinion.

Child, don't get me started. I've been trying to be nice, but I'm at the point where I'm thinking, "For who and for what?" The gloves are off and we need to step up.

Look, this album is all about love and I want to address all of this with as much love as I can. One of the things that was the most powerful for me
happened just recently. I was recently in Key Largo and Ocean Reef, which may just as well have been Mar-a-Lago, because every single person who
lived on this 25,000-acre facility was white. And, notably, everybody who served them was black. There wasn't a black person on that reef who wasn't in the service business. All except for the front desk-those who checked in the visitors-they were all white. It was horrifying to me.

It's really, really, hard sometimes, and as artists we need to keep working on it. I talk about this in my concerts and do all my political stuff in these places. I say, "I'm not coming here as a Democrat or as a Republican, I'm not here as a conservative or liberal. I'm coming here as a human being who is trying to reach across this isle with love and talk to ya'll so we can figure out how to come together somewhere in the middle. You never get everything that you want, it's a compromise, it's always been a compromise... always.

Copyright Rage Monthly. For more articles from Rage visit www.ragemonthly.com


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