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It's intermission at Chicago: The Musical. Two audience members in row F are discussing Act I. In fact, the songs of Valerie Simpson came to Broadway even before Simpson herself. As a young girl in the Bronx, Valerie Simpson never imagined she'd one day perform on Broadway. Throughout the '70s and '80s, their own recordings were distinguished by immaculately sung and orchestrated productions, whether "Gimme Something Real", "Send It", or "Ain't It a Shame". They performed at some of the most renowned venues in the world, yet the duo scarcely saw themselves on a Broadway stage, even though the dramatic arc of albums like Street Opera seemed ripe for theatrical adaptation. After more than 50 years in the business, Simpson is surprising audiences, and herself, with a scene-stealing role.
It was not in my trajectory at all. Is there anything in your career as a performer that has come close to a Broadway-type experience or is this completely uncharted terrain?
Probably uncharted terrain. It goes to show, you just never ever know. I think the thing that stands out to me the most, Christian, is that I am amazed that I had to be talked in to somebody's bigger vision of me. This happened because I was at Clive Davis' home at a party.
Alicia Keys didn't show up and he asked me to sing two songs. Barry Weissler, the producer from Chicagojust happened to be there.
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He came up to me and said, "I can see you in my play on Broadway. I see you as Mama Morton. When I mentioned it to a couple of people, people that love me, they said, "Oh, we can see that!
I was just too caught up with a personal view that was limited. After your initial conversation with Barry, how were you cast in the role?
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He asked me to go look at the play. Before I even went to look at it, it took me a month-and-a-half to get back to him because I really just thought he was wrong. I'd seen my own friend Roz Ryan who was a wonderful Mama Morton.
Then I thought about Queen Latifah in the movie. I was thinking of a woman of a certain stature. She had to have that posture. I didn't think I had it, but he was seeing that in me. When I went up for the audition, I just went in there with all my stuff. I thought, I'm just going to go up there and show out! That's how I got the part. It was very quick. They put me in rehearsal nine days before I actually hit the stage.
It's different with a new show that's opening because you get the preview period. I was in previews on my opening night! I just had to jump in the pool and swim. How do you approach a role that's already so well-known, especially since the film version was an Oscar-winning success?
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I didn't really study it. I said, "Let me just see what this is for me. I can't be Roz Ryan, who I adore. You know what came to me?
She was in her shop ó the tall girl's shop. She was looking for a dress. This security guard came over and said, "Maya Angelou, what are you doing at Saks by yourself?
Don't you have security? Where is your security? She's got security because I'm here. I am all of that. That's the attitude that I tried to carry with this part. Oh my goodness. It's clever, colorful writing. It's my honor and my thrill to know the power of a lyric that's good for all time. When I sing "Class", I could be singing it about the circumstances of today or back when they wrote the song.
It's almost like they were cognizant of what was to come and they were cognizant of the moment they were living in. They wrote it that way. How would you describe the dynamic between Mama and Velma in that scene when they perform "Class"? I think you sense that Mama always had a special place in her heart for Velma, even though she was always trying to make some money on her!
It's almost like Velma growing up and realizing that she's moved up a notch too. Life didn't turn out like she meant it to, but she's grown with it and she's used to it now. You see a meeting of the minds. They're more on one level now than they were in the beginning of the play, I believe.
Valerie (of Ashford & Simpson) Has A Famous Singer Brother & Fans Surprised By Who He Is. Meet Valerie Simpsonís Brother. Valerie Simpson, has been hanginí in there ever since the passing of her better half, Nick Ashford.
Yes, the fact that Mama and Velma share that moment together in Act II is not something you'd expect to happen, based on the beginning of the musical. In a way, they're sharing this moment of sisterhood. I think at that moment, they come into a knowing. It seems to me that Mama Morton is a lover of women and men, so I wanted for you to sense a little bit of that.
What does "When You're Good to Mama" offer you as a performer? What do you get to do in that song? Show off! I like that I get that opportunity to look out at that audience and, for that moment, just be as sassy as I want to be and command that moment. I can't even begin to evaluate their strengths.
They are so professionally wonderful, artistically giving, and creatively embracing of a newcomer like me. Any little error in words I would have, they would have my back. I can't say enough about their graciousness. We all sink or swim together. They're always lifting me up and I so appreciate that. They made me better and they made me want to be better. Chaz Lamar Shepherd made his debut as Billy Flynn the same night as you, but you also share a history beyond the Broadway stage.
When did you first get to know him? I got to see him in The Color Purple when he was Harpo. He's such a wonderful songwriter, singer, and pianist that he would come to the Sugar Bar very regularly. Then he started hosting open mic on Thursday nights where he would just be very extemporaneous and make people laugh.
I got to see another side of him. He was hosting that night. I waited until the end of the night when it was just a few people. The Sugar Bar is like a home, a hub. I got up onstage and I said, "You're not going to believe what's happened to me.
I'm going to be on Broadway as Mama Morton in Chicago. Then Chaz came up onstage and said, "Valerie this is amazing. I just see myself up there with you. I see myself on Broadway with you. This was not in his thinking before that night! His manager was there that night. His manager reached out for an audition. He got the audition. He won the audition and we entered the stage on the 12th of March at the same time, just like he predicted.
To see the two of you owning yourselves in these roles, and then to see the response from the audience during your opening performance, was truly one of those nights that New York is made of. To see him command it, and become the character with the dancing and all of that, I was wowed. It made me so proud. So much of what we get at a Valerie Simpson concert, and what you and Nick brought to your shows for so many years, is an engagement with the audience. As Mama Morton, is it tempting to break the fourth wall?
I want to be an ensemble player.Valerie Loses Her Partner in Music and Marriage - Oprah's Next Chapter - Oprah Winfrey Network
It's not "The Valerie Simpson Show". Many in that audience don't know me at all, so I don't want it to go too far, but I'm also aware that Barry Weissler saw something in me, so I don't want to disappoint him. There's that fine line that I want to walk where I can give him some of who I am and leave something else there of my Mama Morton for the next Mama Morton. That's my journey. How do you maintain vocal health in order to perform night after night?
Basically, it's just being good to your body and not overeating.
All you really want to do is do the job. That's why I gave myself six weeks. They asked for a little longer but I realized I can really do what I know I can do. I feel like I can stay healthy and be on top of my game for six weeks. I'm a newcomer. I've been in this business for 50 years and now I'm the baby. I had to change my whole way of thinking, get rid of any ego, and just be a receptacle and receive what I'm being taught.
There's two David's that worked with me.
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