The Center Presents: Vanessa Williams
The Palladium // Friday, Apr 1, 8pm ET
Multifaceted singer-actress Vanessa Williams has sold millions of records worldwide and posted Billboard Top 10 singles in genres including pop, dance, R&B, adult contemporary and jazz. Her hits have included “Dreamin’,” “Save the Best for Last” and “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s “Pocahontas.” She found similar success on Broadway (“The Trip to Bountiful,” “After Midnight”) and in film (“Soul Food”) and television (“Ugly Betty,” “Desperate Housewives”).
Williams’ career honors have included 11 Grammy nominations, four Emmy nominations, a Tony nomination and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has performed with the world’s most prestigious symphony orchestras, most recently with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
Tickets are available at thecenterpresents.org.
Janelle Morrison: We are so excited to have you grace our stage in Carmel. How great is it to be back out performing in front of live audiences?
Vanessa Williams: It’s great to be back in big arenas and concert venues, and it’s great to have audiences in the seats. I guess I was one of the lucky ones—I worked throughout the pandemic and did three concerts during the pandemic. I did a concert with myself and Renée Fleming at The Kennedy Center in September of 2020 that we streamed with a socially distanced [live] audience, and I did a Christmas TV special [“Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas”] for PBS that we shot outside in December of 2020. And I also did “Live from the West Side,” which is a Broadway streaming show.
JM: Rather than be idle over the last two years, you’ve continued your passion for advocacy and co-founded the Black Theatre United. How important is it for people to support and to create equity in the arts—in your opinion?
Williams: The most powerful thing I did through the arts was to establish “Black Theatre United” with 16 of my other Broadway pals. Audra McDonald and LaChanze both reached out to me right after the George Floyd murder, and we were all stunned and basically motivated to do something. We didn’t know what we were going to start with and what our agenda was going to be at first, but we knew that we had to take action, and so the most meaningful move forward—that we did in unity—was to bring attention to disparity and the lack of equity in Broadway and the business of commercial theater and repertory theater in general. Stacey Abrams was one of our first town halls with Dr. Jeanine Abrams McLean, VP of Fair Count. We had Viola Davis as one of our facilitators for our platforms, and we talked about the law, and we talked about how you need to show up to make things happen.
Beyond having our town halls, we got a chance to sponsor EDI [Equality, Diversity and Inclusion] training for commercial theater—across the board—including theater owners, creatives and the union. And not just the productions in the front—yes, we need to be seen and have more facing productions that you see on the stage, but we’re talking about behind the scenes as well, in boards, management, staffing, theater ownership and concessions. So, we’re addressing all of that stuff, and I think that’s been the most meaningful thing that’s come out of the deep dive at what’s happening in everyone’s lives right now.
JM: The passing of the great Stephen Sondheim last year shook the theater world. He is truly an irreplaceable icon. Share with me what it’s been like having worked with some of greats like Mr. Sondheim throughout your career.
Williams: I had an amazing weekend performing at the “50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center” event. We did a whole section on Steve [Sondheim]. I’ve been so fortunate to work with incredible people that have come before me and created a path for me so that I can continue to create avenues for people behind me. I’ll be 59 next month, and part of me is like “Oh my god, I don’t feel 59—where has the time gone?” And now, when I walk into rooms, I’m usually the oldest person there and people see me and my career differently. Where I’m just happy to start my next gig or adventure, they see the culmination of everything that I’ve done and talk about the influence that I’ve had. So, it’s a very interesting time in life that I can reflect on. I am really thankful that I worked with Steve twice and worked with him on “Into the Woods,” and to have had these amazing opportunities and memories.
JM: What advice do you give to the up-and-comings?
Williams: I don’t give advice. I can only give examples of what has worked for me because everybody is their own individual and is equal—there is no less than or more than. For me, it’s what’s worked for me in my life. I was 20 years old and a junior in college when I became famous overnight, but that’s my journey. That’s my story. So, when I talk with people one-on-one, I tell them that the bottom line is to sell your skill set. What are you good at? What do you like to do? Let’s start from there and see where that takes you because you never know who’s going to be watching you that could be giving you your next opportunity in life. Yes—it’s great to have plans, but be a futurist. You’re in charge of your future. It’s not just “Dream it and it will happen.” You have to work toward what you want to do; believe in it and visualize it and then go after it.
JM: How do you define success?
Williams: I think “success” changes through stages of life. I wanted to achieve, to prove that I could do it, but maybe that’s just my personality. I’m ambitious and adventurous, and that gives me satisfaction. I know a lot of people think that success means monetary achievements, which of course you hope that happens when you’re doing what you like, but again, [success] is personal and it’s relative. In the grand scheme of things, it is what gives you peace and ease. If you’re doing what you love and you’re happy—then that is success.
JM: What would you like the audience to take away from a night with you?
Williams: Music is a beautiful language, and I get a chance to kind of display a variety of different sides I have, and my likes through music and my ensemble—which is my band that’s been with me for forever. They will get an opportunity to see and listen to stories and get a slice—for a couple of hours—of who I am and what I have to offer.
JM: What’s next for you? Your kids are older now, and so as you are enjoying this next phase of your life, what are some projects that you are working on or would like to do in the future?
Williams: I’m rehearsing next week for “Anyone Can Whistle” at Carnegie Hall on March 10, and I start rehearsals for a play on Broadway called “POTUS.” We open April 14, so I will be in the thick of it through the middle of September.