Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Host and accompanist Seth Rudetsky was in his usual hilarious and conversational form and asked Williams plenty of in-depth questions between songs throughout the hour and 45-minute concert. "Stormy Weather," a song that is often identified with one of Williams' mentors, Lena Horne, got the evening off to a perfect start, with Williams' performance infused with strength and sincerity. She sang that song when she appeared in 2014 as one of the special guests in the show After Midnight on Broadway.
Rudetsky asked Williams about her past and how she started performing, and she said that since both of her parents were music teachers it was just assumed that she'd pick up an instrument and learn to play. But her love of dance and the feeling she had when, as a teen, she saw Stephanie Mills in The Wiz on Broadway piqued her interest in musical theatre and she was soon appearing in many shows at her school. Her school and college years at Syracuse University included performances in several shows that weren't your typical Broadway blockbusters. She talked about how she played the lead in Dear World, which was a Broadway flop, and also appeared in the rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, a show that is rarely done even though it won the Tony for Best Musical. "Love Me" from that show received a funky, upbeat take from Williams. Her performance of "The Other Side of the Tracks" from Little Me, the audition song that she and all of her classmates had to learn in college, was fun and bright.
She spoke about her four children and how she met the man who would become her third husband ("third and final" as she put it) when they were both touring Egypt. She then performed two songs dedicated to her children and her husband. The first was a beautiful version of the ballad "Bill" from Show Boat, a song she sang when she played Julie in a production of the show that was filmed for PBS. She said she sang at her wedding but changed the name to her husband's name, Jim. She also sang a beautiful paring of "The Sweetest Days," a song that Williams wrote for her four children, that segued into "Children Will Listen," which she got to sing when she played the Witch in the 2002 Broadway revival of Into the Woods. Seth asked her what it was like working for Sondheim, something Williams got to do twice as she also co-starred in the Broadway production of Sondheim on Sondheim. She said it was both surreal and frightening but that she was incredibly honored not only to work with him but to also have him write new lyrics for her to sing.
Seth also mentioned that she has played several larger than life divas on TV, but in person she is one of the most down to earth individuals he knows. She then sang a sassy performance of "Peel Me a Grape" as an homage to the divas she's played as well as the ones she's met in person. She spoke about some of the women she's worked with who she said weren't divas at all, including Barbara Cook and Chita Rivera. She took over for Rivera in The Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway, and her delivery of the title song from that show was a knock out. She also performed, with Rudetsky, the beautiful pairing of Follies' "Losing My Mind" with Merrily We Roll Along's "Not a Day Goes By" from Sondheim on Sondheim, which she sang with Cook in that show.
The final part of the evening focused on Williams' pageant days and the controversy she faced when nude photos she took in her college days surfaced toward the end of her year-long reign as Miss America. She said it was both incredibly rewarding and also somewhat difficult to be the first African-American Miss America. She spoke about how there were bomb threats at the various appearances she made and also how people threatened to kill her and her parents. She mentioned that her parents never changed their home phone number and they were still listed in the phone book during her time as Miss America as they didn't want it to change their personal life, refusing to live in fear.
She said that after the photos came out, the way she was treated both by people in the entertainment industry and by strangers was shocking but that it only made her want to prove herself even more. Shortly after the controversy, she said she was approached to take over the female lead in the Broadway production of My One and Only but learned later that the Gershwin estate refused to hire her even though Mike Nichols, who helped in directing the musical, and co-star Tommy Tune were ready to put her in the show. She also talked about how she was asked to audition for a role in the film The Lion King but also heard that Disney didn't think she was a good fit for their brand. Fortunately, once Williams went into the pop world, where she said she could control her image and the style of music she sang and sold millions of records, Disney asked her to sing the pop single from their film Pocahontas, "Colors of the Wind." Her performance of that hit song in this concert was filled with warmth and a clear connection to the moving lyrics.
Rudetsky mentioned how the Miss America organization apologized to her and asked her to appear on the 2016 show but wondered how difficult that was for her to accept and to decide to appear on the show. Williams said that she made peace with what happened a long time ago and that she feels that holding any resentment or bitterness will only eat you up inside, so it's better to make amends and move on with your life. That comment segued beautifully into a performance of Williams' biggest pop hit, "Save the Best for Last," before a rousing encore of "Happy Days Are Here Again," the song she sang at the 1983 Miss America pageant that helped win her the crown.
At the performance, they announced that the "Broadway @ Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts" series will continue next season with four concerts; the first will take place in November.
Vanessa Williams performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, April 7th 2018. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found at www.scottsdaleperformingarts.org.