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Sondheim wanted Porter for 'Into the Woods' revival

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

The national Sondheim network was abuzz when, in his April production of "Company" at Carnegie Mellon, guest director Billy Porter changed the character Marta to Marty, thus further outing the question of the sexuality of Bobby, the central character.

In May 2000, Carnegie Mellon graduate Billy Porter sang "Farewell to Kresge" as the Carnegie Mellon drama program prepared to move into a new theater. Porter's directing of "Company" at CMU this spring drew attention in Sondheim circles. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

The phone calls and e-mails came into the Post-Gazette: "Did Bobby and Marty kiss?" "Does Sondheim know?" "How did this affect Peter's proposition to Bobby?"

The talented Homewood native and CMU grad (class of '91) says he made his request to Sondheim through mutual friend Daisy Prince, director daughter of Hal Prince. And Paul Salsini, editor of The Sondheim Review, confirms that Sondheim told him he had indeed given Porter permission -- because it was only a college production and because he knew Porter's work. (Sondheim also stressed that it "doesn't mean it could be done elsewhere and in no way should it be viewed as a blueprint for future productions.")

Porter, who is currently in Las Vegas directing Chaka Kahn in a tribute to Stevie Wonder, has done several Broadway shows ("Miss Saigon" right out of CMU, then a featured role in "Grease," then "Smokey Joe's Cafe"), including singing James Thunder Early in the recent 20th anniversary concert version of "Dreamgirls" (the CD is just out). But as he pointed out in his "Company" program essay at CMU, although he loves the Sondheim canon and knows it backward and forward, he has never performed in a Sondheim show. So just how does Sondheim know Porter's work?

Last summer, director/librettist James Lapine auditioned him for the Baker in the then-upcoming Broadway revival of "Into the Woods." Impressed, he asked on the spur of the moment if Porter would like to come back and read for ... the Witch! (That's the role originally played by Bernadette Peters and now being played by Vanessa Williams.)

"I don't need to come back," Porter said. "I know it." So he sang "The Last Midnight" -- "in the original key." He has that kind of voice.

Soon Porter had a call from his astonished agent saying Lapine wanted him to come back to audition properly for the Witch. "So I went in. He asked if I knew the rap" -- the Witch's difficult rap about her garden. "I've heard of it," Porter drily replied. "So I sang it from memory and he was banging on the piano laughing. Hey, I could sing Cinderella's part if I had to! Then I sang 'Stay with Me,' and I sang it like me [in his rich pop voice], and I could see his excitement. He said it was the best he'd ever heard that song sung. So he asked me to come back to sing for Stephen."

First, Lapine wanted Porter to meet with musical director Paul Gemignani. "I knew why," said Porter. "The quality of my voice makes it sound I'm riffing." He figured they probably wanted a more Broadway sound. "So we met -- I flew back [from Los Angeles, where he now lives] on my own dime." But after they had worked together, Gemignani said "Do it your way -- he'll either love it or hate it."

Apparently, Sondheim loved it. "He laughed, he sat on the edge of his seat. It was the day I never thought I'd get to have. After all, my work is not synonymous with Sondheim. It was amazing. Basically, they wanted me."

The idea was for him to play the Witch as Warlock. It's a parent, Lapine pointed out: It's a dysfunctional family, and a father can be dysfunctional, too. "Anyway, I wrote it."

"But the producers didn't want me." They wanted a more family-oriented tilt to the revival. So there was a struggle: "Sondheim, Lapine and Gemignani wanted me, but the producers didn't."

Come 9/11, Porter thought, "I'm not going to get it." This was not the time to take chances.

"It didn't matter I was a man -- it mattered that I wasn't a star." Obviously, since Williams is playing it now, it doesn't matter that he's black, either. "If I was Will Smith, I'd be playing that part."

Porter has no regrets: "I know I nailed it to the wall."

He's not a star yet.

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