Singer and actress Vanessa Williams will stop by the Kimmel Center on Saturday for Broadway Up Close, an in-depth discussion and concert with actor and radio host Seth Rudetsky, who will interview the Tony- and Emmy-nominated actress about her life and career, as well as accompany her on some of her biggest hits (and favorite deep cuts).
We chatted with Williams about why cellphones are removing intimacy from performances, and the song that makes her feel 18 again.
You have to cede control a bit with Broadway Up Close because it's not a show you're performing night after night.
It's like James Lipton with music. You talk about your life and your process, and you can sing a song that's reflective of your life at the time. It's much like when I was in Sondheim on Sondheim. It was his interview, and we would sing the songs that were pertinent to that part of his life. The audience isn't just seeing a show, it's spontaneous. It's never the same, the stories aren't the same. I want to give Seth information he doesn't know.
What's your prep like for something so loose?
We have our set songs. I couldn't assume he has my keys and my arrangement memorized, and we have segues planned, but the banter is unscripted. It might be the same story, but depending on the audience reaction and mood, it always changes.
There must be an added sense of intimacy in a show like this because you're in a smaller room than you normally perform in, and it's so personal.
If you demand intimacy, you can have 1,000 people in the seats and tell a story, and it's intimate. But everyone has so much access with their phones, and that shuts down the level of candor you want to have, because you don't know who is recording. One line might turn into news the next day. With performing, you could be coming down with a cold and just getting your voice back, but now every lick is always on the web. As a performer, you're wary and on edge because that luxury of not being seen is gone. My daughter [Lion Babe's Jillian Hervey] is a performer now, she does these gigs at these clubs. She doesn't have an opportunity to grow without being perfect, because everyone has access to everything you're doing now.
I've only thought about the problem of recording in terms of comedians who want to work out a set, but not give up good material to YouTube.
When you're at a certain age, when you have stories you can tell, you want to have that intimacy that you just don't have anymore. You have to be mindful of that and act accordingly.
When preparing for this show, what was a must on your list? What did you have to sing?
The show will be a chronological story of my life. When I think about being in college and majoring in musical theater, I think about a song called "On the Other Side of the Tracks" from a show called Little Me. They taught us that at Syracuse. Seth sits like a accompanist. It takes me back to being 18. The audience hears a different style of my voice. People love to hear my hits stripped down to me and a piano. But with that audition song, it shows the Broadway side and the hope that a young performer has with their whole life ahead of you.
You have a fruitful career onscreen, but you continuously return to the stage.
There is a visceral effect you get when you give to live people, and they receive it. Like, when people sing along. My songs have been out there for so long, it's almost like karaoke. Or they're completely silent because they're thinking about what that song means to them. I love watching the live action of that happening. There's a lot of people now that only know me as an actress and from television, and that's a whole group of fans. It's nice to be able to introduce them to another side of a performer they didn't know.
You mentioned your daughter. It must be hard not to be a total stage mom, considering you're in the same profession.
If she asked me for advice, I will certainly tell her. But she's done so well, and she's got her own vibe and her own crew. It's amazing when she was signed to Polydor UK at 25, I got signed to Polydor at 25. It's come full circle.