Vanessa Williams is a Tony-, Grammy-, and Emmy-nominated superstar with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Williams was about to have her West End debut in City Of Angels when the pandemic shut down London’s theater district along with everything else. She spoke online with reporters about her career and being back onstage live — albeit without an audience — for her upcoming Dec. 5 concert benefiting a consortium of regional theaters and arts organizations, including Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. The live concert event will include beloved Broadway tunes, lesser known gems, heartwarming tales, and live Q&A with the star.
Q: People who can't go out to the theater now have the opportunity to see a live stream. What is it like to be a part of something that's a broader outreach in a different way?
A: It's wonderful because normally it's a private little performance within your theater. So that's…wonderful in that every performance is different and every audience is different. So you get that energy now [at home],…me with my band on stage. It'll be different because we'll be speaking to an empty house. But the fact that we have this Q and A incorporated into the evening will allow the audience to see it virtually, but also be involved in the night.
So I'm looking forward to it. And it's been a tremendous success with Patti Lupone and with Laura Benanti. I texted back and forth with Laura after she finished her show and she loved it. So it's a wonderful opportunity to not only make it an intimate evening, but one that will be much broader in terms of the visuals.
Q: With how tough everything's been, what do you hope people take away from this?
A: The message of unity and commonality. I mean, we all are touched when I sing “The Sweetest Days.” That was written for my children. I have four children. So no matter what's happening, you can relate to having a family and remembering how wonderful and intimate those beautiful days were when they were children and how you want to hang on to them. So I think there are intimate themes that people can relate to, not only with my own music, my pop music, but also with some holiday music as well.
Q: As a young person, was there an experience in a theater where you said, aha, I have to be there, I have to be on stage and do that?
A: Oh, so many. When I went to see The Wiz with Stephanie Mills, I was sitting in the first row of the mezzanine and I saw her sing — and she was a similar age [to me], I was probably middle school, and she was a couple of years older — that's when I knew. Like, oh, my gosh, I could do this. This is a tangible goal for me. And it was electric.
And I thank my parents for always exposing me to theater, and the ballet, and Alvin Ailey, and the opera, you know, all those wonderful things. Also going to all their concerts, their holiday concerts; both of them were music educators. So I had many, many concerts to sit through as well. But it made me appreciate the magic of the arts. And I am that person because of my parents.
Q: Tell us about your creative process. How do you go about setting up your set list for this?
A: First,…the length of time determines the set list. And then I think about the audience. Since this is a musical theater based community, … I will be doing a majority of the Broadway section [of my usual show] for the show. But of course, I'll ask my musical director, can we squeeze [other songs in]? Well, you have to do “Save the Best for Last” and you have to do “Colors of the Wind.” So depending on how much I talk, it depends on how many songs I can squeeze into the time allotted.
I've been lucky, you know, to have a song that was number one for eight weeks in a row, which is “Save the Best for Last.” That's one of those career highlights that is really unusual. So of course, I will end the show with “Save the Best for Last” and probably finish after that with a wonderful holiday song that everyone can sing along and feel warm and fuzzy about… I think it'll be just enough to hit all the boxes.
Live From the West Side — Women of Broadway will be live at 8 p.m. on Dec. 5, and available to stream for 72 hours after the live presentation. Tickets are available at papermill.org.