When ‘Nessy Plays The Palace:
An Interview with Vanessa Williams
by Tony Phillips
As ABC's Miss America Pageant took another ratings hit this fall, our favorite alum leapfrogged from the catwalk to the control room to ink a prestigious two-album deal with Lava Records. That's right-Vanessa Williams is back, with the holiday-themed Silver & Gold (her first studio effort since 1997's Next) and accompanying concert stint this week at the Palace Theater. We sat down with this busy working mother of four to talk about the holidays, family and her gotta-see-it engagement, the latest highlight of a career that has taken her from multi-platinum recording artist to respected stage diva with well-received turns in Kiss of the Spider Woman, St. Louis Woman and Into the Woods.
What are your childhood Christmas memories?
Very traditional. My brother and I used to design our Christmas cards each year. We would get them printed and color them. I'm sure my parents have the originals. My mom used to play organ in church, so we would obviously attend. We always had a traditional meal and invited friends and family. It was a great time.
Your parents both teach music. Is your talent genetic?
Part genetic and part environmental, for sure. As an infant, my parents used to take me to the Westchester Baroque Choir rehearsals in a little basket and sit me next to the pipe organ. Growing up listening to Handel's "Messiah" and Bach seeped into my bones. Music was a requirement in our household. We had to pick and instrument and take it until we graduated.
I figured as much. You play the French horn, an instrument no child just picks up and starts playing!
Well, yeah. Between my parents' concerts and performing our own, we certainly had a lot of musical performance in our household. Piano, a little bit of violin, the recorder, of course, and I ended up doing French horn and melliphone in the marching band.
Your kids are musical too. It's a very Partridge vibe. Is that genetic or more about the tradition of the required musical instrument?
Well, I'm passing it along and they're fighting me all the way. My fifteen-year-old plays trumpet. My eleven-year-old son plays sax and Sasha, my four-year-old, just started piano this year. They're all very musical. My oldest is very talented. She loved to act and sing and dance, but around middle school she just didn't want to be compared to me anymore. That's when people started saying, "Oh, your mom's Vanessa Williams! Don't you sing?" So she basically focused on dance and doesn't even attempt to act or sing professionally now. And they're growing up in my same hometown. They're going to the same schools that I went to.
You feel pretty strongly about them growing up in one place.
Yeah, I didn't specifically want to return to my hometown, but when I was looking all over Westchester, we found a great house in my old neighborhood and it just made sense because my parents are close and I travel a lot. And I don't have to second-guess the community. It's just comfortable for me.
If one of them sits you down and says, "Mama, I want to sing," would you be horrified or making the outfits?
Well, they've grown up backstage so I certainly wouldn't be surprised if they wanted to be involved in some aspect of show business. They also know what hard work it is doing eight shows a week and only one day off. It's an agreement before I do a show. I say, "Hey guys, I'm doing this for a year. Between rehearsals and doing a show, I'm not going to be here to put you to bed so here's the cell phone." Unfortunately, I miss a lot of stuff.
I talked to Deborah Cox when she was going into Aida and she thought Broadway was the best daycare ever invented.
It's ideal because you're home during the day so you can get them off to school and be there when they come home. You basically leave right before dinner. But when I was doing Into the Woods a couple years ago, my middle daughter — she's going to be horrified when I tell you this — but she called and said she got her period and I was at the theater. The guilt of being backstage putting makeup on while her life is being transformed… It was a joyous occasion and I could only participate over the phone. But that's my life and she understood it. And again, I love it. There's nothing like having an ensemble that is truly talented and is your second family — not only the ensemble but the musicians, the crew, everyone that makes up a show. I keep in touch with many people for years.
This new record, Silver & Gold, isn't your first holiday album. What makes it different from your 1996 recording Star Bright?
This one is done for a measly budget because the record industry is in such shambles. No one is getting any money so we really called in favors in terms of mixing and playing. It was the first time my producer Rob Mathes did an entire record for me and he did a phenomenal job with the resources we had. He flew to Abbey Road, did all the arrangements himself, got the orchestra to play beautifully in a spectacular room that the Beatles recorded in. Legendary.
Are you a big Beatles fan? I was curious about this Abbey Road business.
I am, but Rob loves to cut strings there because the orchestra is phenomenal. They did Titanic and Lord of the Rings and they're really fantastic musicians, but the room itself is Studio One. It's about four stories high so it sounds beautiful. There's less time tweaking the sound. It's perfection. I also like to say we recorded some of this in London. It brings a special quality to it. Like you said, it's classic, it brings a classical element to the record.
Your first album, The Right Stuff, brought you a slew of Grammy nominations. Who were you up against?
Tracy Chapman. I lost to her.
Jody Whatley once told me when she was up for best new artist, her label didn't think she's win and flew her to the ceremony in coach. And, of course, she won and said they put her up front on the way home. Clearly, a Grammy's an instant upgrade but some say it can be a curse. Are you glad you didn't win?
Um, no! I would have loved to win. But it was five years after being Miss America and everyone still equated me with that. A Miss America who could sing and isn't it surprising that she has an album out? Every time there was an accomplishment in my career, it was, "Oh, it's that Miss America? Oh, she can act!" Or, "Hey, it's that Miss America! Oh, she can do Broadway, who knew she was so talented?" After 20 years, it's like, okay people! So I wasn't really expecting to win, but it was nice to be nominated.
Tracy Chapman reminds me of that other actress named Vanessa Williams. You remember her? I mean, the nerve!
Oh, sure. When I got accepted into NYU's new musical theater program in '81 they asked, "Which Vanessa Williams are you?"
The Vanessa Williams!
Well, I said, "Vanessa L." I knew from when I was a senior in high school that there was another Vanessa Williams from New York. When I was Miss America, I did the Macy's Day parade in '83 and they sent my AFTRA check to her in Brooklyn. She sent it to me. So I knew even back then that there was another Vanessa Williams. When I signed up for SAG, AFTRA and EQUITY, I always used my middle initial, but as a recording artist and actor I would just use my name: Vanessa Williams. She tried to contest it in '92 and it was in SAG court for a while. That year I used the L in terms of my billing. They eventually said, "You're both famous, you don't have to use it." So I went back to using my name.
What was it like working with James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim on Into the Woods?
James was obviously the director, the day-to-day man. And Stephen would come in occasionally. I'm going to write a book in January called Yes, I'll Even Eat the Baby. When we were doing rehearsals for Into the Woods in the second act, in this particular version, I actually take the baby and hold it for ransom while I'm singing. Staging-wise, it's very powerful, but when we came up with it in rehearsal at 890 Broadway, James e-mailed Stephen and said, "Listen, Vanessa's going to hold the baby now and we need some new lyrics." So Stephen faxes over these few lyrics. I still have them at home. The stage directions say, "The Witch takes a bloody hand and starts to smother the baby!" and "The Witch takes the baby and starts to eat the baby!" So James says, "Okay, you're not going to eat the baby!" After our wonderful run, we're all having dinner at Orso and I said, "I would absolutely love to work with you guys again. Anything you want. And yes, Steve, I'll even eat the baby. Whatever you need me to do." That's when the title was born.
Your bio mentions performing at the '96 Super Bowl, where you sang "The National Anthem." Cut to less than ten years later and we've got all hell — and costumes — breaking loose with Janet Jackson's performance on that same program.
I wish she would have 'fessed up. Clearly, as a dancer, it's "One, two, three, and flash!" Tivo over it again. It was definitely timed so take the hit and say so. I don't' know what her intention was. If it was to shock, then go for it, but don't say it was a costume malfunction. We live in a society of blame now. In terms of shock value, if she wanted to be on everyone's lips, she was.
But nothing punitive happened to her and I guess that's where I'm going with my question. I love the classy way your bio handles your Miss America ordeal. One sentence: "The controversy that followed only left Vanessa stronger and more empowered in her commitment to a career in the world of entertainment." In other words, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
So that's where you're going with all this!
Well, yeah. If your situation happened a couple years later, you would have been on Letterman joking about it.
Of course. I mean, look at Paris Hilton. Certainly times have changed. There are so many more media outlets now harping on celebrity. Back in the day, basically you had the major news and CNN. The shock value isn't there any more. It was twenty years ago. Censorship is the scary part. The FCC is fining everyone for everything and that's getting crazy. That's scarier than bringing the breast out on the Super Bowl.
Tell your fans what they can expect at the Palace this week.
We'll have some projections — some old video and Christmas memoirs. There'll be strings, a horn section, my regular band, three background singers and two dancers. We'll break it down in a few sections: jazzy, spiritual, hip and feel good because we want to make everyone feel good, have a good time and get the most out it. I'm happy because the Nederlanders are actually providing me the Palace from a meeting with George Faison. Over the summer, we went to talk to Jimmy Nederlander and he said, "Oh, by the way, do you want to play the Palace?" I thought absolutely! Let's get on this. Judy Garland played there!
Isn't that a lot of extra pressure?
It is, but I've got the material to back it up. I've got a great ensemble. And hopefully I've got fans that want to come see me.
So after all this: the new album, the show at the Palace… What are you getting yourself for Christmas?
What am I getting myself?
You repeat that like it's totally incongruous to splurge on yourself.
I'm just anxious to spend some time with my family. And get this album out there. This is my first one since '97. It's been a while so I'd like to reintroduce myself to the radio community again and get some heat, which would be great for me. That would be a great gift, to be on the radio again and to give back to all the people waiting anxiously for new music from me.
Consider it done.