Billy Porter Almost Played the Witch in Into the Woods Revival | Playbill

Billy Porter Almost Played the Witch in Into the Woods Revival

Seth talks to Vanessa Williams about Barbara Cook and discusses the upcoming The Life Encores production.

Billy Porter
Billy Porter ABC/Rick Rowell

Happy March aka a continuation of my birthday month. James threw me such a great birthday show on Stars in the House. It was a game night with me, James, our kid Juli, Paul Castree, Andrea Martin, and Jack Plotnick as moderator. Not only was it super fun, but an anonymous donor matched all donations. So far we’ve raised over $6,000 for The Actors Fund. And the anonymous donor told me there’s no limit. So if you watch the show, which is still online, and donate at StarsInTheHouse.com in honor of my birthday, the matching continues. One of the most fun aspects of the night was the fabulous videos James had people send in. He surprised me with amazing videos from Norm Lewis (in front of the enormous orchestra he was rehearsing with for his Carnegie Hall concert), Chita Rivera (looking fabulous), Audra McDonald (mentioning that she couldn’t sing because she didn’t want to disturb people on set and also because it would be in head voice and she knows I would not wanna hear it), and Tina Fey (who rightly busted me for arbitrarily being sugar- and/or gluten-free–Tina never knows when I come over if I’m going to hog all the desserts, or insist I order from a delivery service that’s vegan and sauce-free). You can watch Tina's message to me here

The funniest video of the night came from Jack Plotnick who proved he knows me very well. 

You can watch the whole fabulous show (and have your donation doubled!) here: 

Exciting news on the dog front: last Chanukah, James got DNA tests for our doggies through Embark. You swab their saliva and it tells you the exact kind of breeds they are. Not surprisingly, Mandy was a mutt mix of lots of breeds. But we were shocked that Bagel, whom we also adopted from Animal Care Center (the same place we got Mandy from), is a purebred Beagle. We had no idea he was so fancy. Anyhoo, James got a notification to check the Embark site, and turns out they found relatives of Mandy. Not only distant relatives, but they found Mandy’s brother. Yes! Ziggy shares more than 40% of Mandy’s DNA, so it means he is from the same litter. We contacted the owners and found out they adopted him from Animal Haven in downtown NYC a few months before we adopted Mandy and then they moved Ziggy to South Carolina. But I asked for photos, and I totally see the resemblance. We’re so curious if they remember each other. We’re going to have a doggie family reunion when they visit NYC next. Embark also found Bagel’s brother. His name is Oscar, but we haven’t heard from the owner’s yet. Stay tuned!

On the left is Mandy. On the right is her brother Ziggy.

I just got back from Toledo, Ohio, where I did a fundraiser for the Valentine Theatre with Vanessa Williams. We had a great time. She’s getting ready to go to Broadway in POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive with an amazing cast of hilarious women. Of course, Vanessa sang “Save The Best For Last,” and when we talked about it, I found out she wasn’t the first choice to sing that song. It had initially been offered to Barbra Streisand, who turned it down. It wound up going to Vanessa, and as we know, became a huge hit. According to Wikipedia, R. LaMont Jones Jr. from The Pittsburgh Press picked it as her album's “centerpiece,” calling it "a real-life, down-to-earth song” that Barbra Streisanland "will no doubt wish she had been given. But with Williams' soulful delivery, it's hard to imagine anyone doing it better."

Someone needs to tell R. LaMont Jones that Barbra had her chance. Rumor has it, the song was also turned down by Bette Midler and Celine Dion’s people. I guess the universe “saved the best (offer) for last.”

Seth with Vanessa

Vanessa is getting ready to costar in Anyone Can Whistle, and she told me about how hard Sondheim music is to learn. She recalled the first day of Sondheim on Sondheim rehearsal when she sat next to Barbara Cook. Barbara was 80 at the time, and although she was an excellent musician, she didn’t read music. While the notes were being plunked out for her, Broadway’s premier soprano was relentlessly cursing. Vanessa was so amused she wrote down Barbara’s curse words in her score. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of “Mother f*ckers!”

Vanessa also remembered Barbara Cook’s final days. Barbara’s son called various people to come and say their goodbyes. Barbara was in an unconscious state, but Vanessa stood next to her and sang the song Barbara sang in A Little Night Music, “Send In The Clowns.” Then she was joined by Norm Lewis and they both sang “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along. Barbara never fully regained consciousness, but Vanessa remembers her fingers moving. Vanessa took that as a sign that she was enjoying it.

Sondheim on Sondheim wasn’t Vanessa’s first big Sondheim show. She was, as we know, the Witch in the Into The Woods revival. However, she wasn’t the only one up for the role. Billy Porter was on Stars In The House two weeks ago and we were talking about his amazing book, Unprotected. In the book, he talks about auditioning for the role of the Baker in the revival. He knew he wasn’t really right for it (especially because the original keys were way too low), but he wanted to show that he wasn’t just a trick voice . . . he could act. After he sang, James Lapine praised his acting, which was all Billy wanted. Billy was prepared to leave, but then Lapine told Billy that they were thinking of casting a male witch. What? How amazing would that have been? Lapine asked Billy to go home and learn “Last Midnight.” Billy responded, “Learn it? I know it! Hit It!” Billy launched into the song and nailed it . . . in the original key.

Apparently, both Sondheim and Lapine were onboard with Billy playing the role. The final callback was Billy, Vanessa, and Jennifer Holliday. Well, we all know Billy didn’t get the gig, but he did record this fabulous version of the Witch’s big act two song. 

I didn’t just see Billy on Stars In The House. On Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show, I had three major players from the upcoming Encores production of The Life: Billy, who is directing and rewrote the script as well as some lyrics; James Sampliner, who is redoing the arrangements; and Grammy winner Ledisi, who is playing Sonya, the role which won Lillias White her Tony Award. Billy talked about his rewrites and said he wanted to add context to the show, which he felt was originally too focused on the hooker with a heart of gold trope. The new script showcases the circumstances that made the characters have no choice but to pursue sex work. And Sampliner wants to take the arrangements, which were more in the style of showbiz sass, and make them all 70s funk.

I’m thrilled that Billy cast Ledisi in the show. Backstory: around 2003, Ledisi visited NYC and her friend Richard E. Waits introduced her to people who he knew would flip out over her talent. She came to my apartment on the Upper West Side, and I asked her to sing a little something. She sang “Yesterday” while I played. She began in a soulful belt and then did the final section up the octave. I almost passed out and immediately made her sing it again. Why? Because I had to call my sister, Nancy, at work, and put the phone on speakerphone so Nancy could go crazy. I knew I’d be working with Ledisi soon.

On that same trip, Richard introduced her to Linda Twine, an amazing Broadway music director (Big River, Jelly’s Last Jam, The Color Purple, and more). Miss Twine heard her sing and immediately brought her to meet Jeanine Tesori. She then calmly turned to Ledisi and said, “When are you moving here?” Ledisi had no plans to move to NYC. Miss Twine used a very calm and sweet voice, but within it there was the assuredness that Ledisi had no choice but to move to NYC. Miss Twine was not asking if she was moving here, she just wanted to know specifically when. That did it. Ledisi moved to NYC and became the cover for the lead role in Caroline, or Change on Broadway. And I cast her as one of the beltresses singing “White Boys” in my Actors Fund Hair concert. She was amazing, and so were her two co-singers, Brandi Chavonne Massey and Shayna Steele. Listen! 

After that, Ledisi’s recording career took off and she now has 14 Grammy nominations and a recent win. I can’t wait to see The Life. She’ll be singing the song that Cy Coleman wrote for Lillias White. Here’s Lillias in action.


My concert series is all set for March. This week is Major Attaway, who was the Genie in Aladdin. Next Sunday is Tony winner Lauren Patten from Fun Home and Jagged Little Pill. Then I have Derek Klena from Anastasia and Jagged Little Pill, and the final Sunday is Will Roland from Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill. That last Sunday is the Oscars, so instead of the regular 8pm ET time, we’ll be at 2pm ET. Get tix at TheSethConcertSeries.com, and peace out.

 
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