East Liberty native steps off Broadway to bring 'Kinky Boots' home
After 23 years in professional theater, five Broadway shows, three single albums and multiple performances of his first one-man show, Billy Porter's performance as Lola in “Kinky Boots” turned him into an overnight star.
“I can pay my bills on time. I have a place to live and, all of a sudden, people think I have ideas worth listening to,” Porter says. “My play that has been floating for four years and sat on people's desks got produced.”
The play, “While I Yet Live,” debuted last September at Primary Stages in New York City.
Since debuting on Broadway and winning the 2013 Tony Award for best actor, he also has been invited to direct a production of “The Colored Museum” at the Huntington Theatre in Boston and starred in “Billy Porter: Broadway & Soul” as part of the PBS series “Live from Lincoln Center.”
“This isn't happenstance,” he says.
He has even acquired a personal assistant: a necessary decision but one he's still a little embarrassed by.
“I need one. But I'm blue collar. I'm from Pittsburgh,” says the East Liberty native with diplomas from Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts School and Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama.
From Aug. 4 to 9, Porter will leave Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where he still stars in “Kinky Boots,” to return home to play Lola in the show's national touring production.
Kyle Taylor Parker, who normally plays Lola in the national tour, will take over Porter's role in the Broadway production while Porter plays Lola during the run in Pittsburgh, as part of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's summer season at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
“I'm really, really happy to do it,” Porter says. “It's all about my hometown. I wanted to come home and be the representative for kids in my community who don't have any positive representation.”
For Porter, “Kinky Boots” and the role of Lola, an articulate, confident, intelligent drag queen whose quest for a good-fitting pair of high heels saves a financially troubled shoe factory, was a convergence of the right show, the right role and the right actor.
It was never a question of his talent, Porter says.
“Everyone understood the talent. It's the use of that talent,” he says.
Porter spent years being told, “You can't be that black. You can't be that gay. You can't sing that way.”
“All of a sudden, there was Lola and (I had) everything required for that show to work,” he says.
In addition to Porter's Tony, “Kinky Boots” also received Tony Awards for best musical, best score, best choreography, best orchestration and best sound design.
It's an upbeat musical with some fun and colorful dance numbers, an award-winning score by Cyndi Lauper and a positive message about accepting yourself and others.
It's also come at just the right moment, Porter says.
“What Lola represents inside our culture at this moment and how timely it is to have acceptance in this package. I never imagined I would see the day when gay marriage would be the law of the land,” he says. “The most profound thing for me is that I was at the forefront of all this.”
Although he has periodically taken leaves to work on other projects, Porter has now played Lola for more than two years — the longest he has ever done any role.
Other projects are beckoning: He's developing shows for TV and has made commitments to a new musical planned for Broadway next spring.
But he's not ready to let Lola go yet.
“I promised myself I would do it until it was time to leave. It's not something I want to come to an end. I want to honor it and do it for as long as I'm supposed to,” he says.
Born: Sept. 21, 1969, East Liberty
Education: Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School; 1992 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama
Significant stage roles
2013, Lola in “Kinky Boots,” on Broadway
2010, Belize in “Angels in America” at Signature Theatre's revival in Arlington, Va.
2005, “Ghetto Superstar,” which he wrote and performed as a one-man show at Joe's Pub at Public Theater in New York City and at City Theatre, South Side
2004, James Thunder Early in “Dreamgirls” at Pittsburgh CLO
2004, Booth in “Topdog/Underdog” at City Theatre, South Side
1999, John in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway, replacement
1994, Teen Angel in “Grease,” Broadway revival
1992, Broadway debut understudying three roles in “Five Guys Named Moe”
1984, Stage debut at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera as a townsman in “110 in the Shade”
2013, Tony Award for best performance by a leading actor in a musical
2013, Drama Desk Outstanding Actor in a musical
2013, Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album
2009, NAACP Theatre Award winner for best direction of a musical for his production of “Once on This Island” at Reprise Theatre Company, Los Angeles
Other recent credits
• “Billy Porter: Broadway & Soul,” appeared on PBS and local affiate WQED-TV on April 3, 2015, as part of the “Live from Lincoln Center” series
• His play “While I Yet Live” debuted at Primary Stages in New York City, September 2014
• Guest judge on “So You Think You Can Dance,” June 2014
• His album “Billy's Back on Broadway,” debuted April 2014
• Guest appearance on “Law & Order: SVU” in November 2013 in a role written for him. He played a singing coach/TV talent-show star accused of sexually abusing a student.
• Adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama