You’ll be hard-pressed to find a performer more versatile than Vanessa Williams.
As a singer, she has had numerous hit singles and best-selling albums. As a singing-dancing actress, she has played leading roles on Broadway in the musicals “Into The Woods” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” She has performed memorably on the big and small screens in “Soul Food” and “Ugly Betty,” to name but two works. And she’s as comfortable playing comedic parts as she is doing dramatic ones.
The self-described “mother of four fierce kids,” Williams has co-written a book with her own mother, Helen Tinch Williams, who was a music teacher (as was Vanessa’s father, the late Milton Augustine Williams Jr.) Both parents have had a profound effect on Williams’ life and career. But it’s fair to say that she has a special relationship with her mom, turning pages for her as she played the organ at St. Theresa’s Church in Briarcliff Manor for Mass and weddings when Williams was a child. (Williams, who grew up in Millwood, was one of the first African-American students to attend the Chappaqua public schools from first through 12th grades, before going on to Syracuse University. It was, in a sense, a prologue to her trailblazing time as Miss America in 1984.)
Mother and daughter will be on hand to discuss their candid memoir, “You Have No Idea,” at Norwalk Community College May 12, the day before Mother’s Day.
Warm in person and always professional with the media, Williams was a pleasure to speak with:
We’re talking the day after your birthday (March 18). I want to wish you a happy birthday, belatedly.
Did you do anything special to celebrate?
“I was in-flight from Guam, so I spent my birthday in a zillion different time zones. I had a total of eight birthday cakes all week, from every restaurant that I went to and every event that I attended in Guam. I flew in there last week on Monday. They got word that it was my birthday. Everywhere I went they sent me a cake. I finished it last night when I came home. My mom made me dinner and, of course, a birthday cake….When I left Guam, I was serenaded by some wonderful Chamorro dancers and island music. It was spectacular.”
Speaking of anniversaries and special occasions, 2018 is the 30th anniversary of the release of your first album, “The Right Stuff.” Do you have any plans to commemorate the occasion?
“We’re working on something. I don’t know right now, but we’re trying to figure that out.”
When you’re on a concert tour, how much of the music is drawn from albums such as “The Right Stuff” and “The Comfort Zone” and how much comes from your performances on Broadway in musicals such as “Into the Woods” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”?
“It’s a combination of my hits — ‘Save The Best For Last,’ ‘Colors of the Wind,’ ‘The Sweetest Day’ and ‘Dreamin” and ‘Love Is,’ which people all know from the radio. I also do a Broadway section, which is wonderful. I do some Sondheim, a couple of numbers from different musicals and one from ‘Into the Woods.’ I do my covers that I’ve done, some jazz and R&B. It’s a nice mix of Broadway, R&B, pop and jazz.”
I’m glad you mentioned covers because you covered songs by Bill Withers on “The Right Stuff,” as well as on your most recent album “The Real Thing.” What does a songwriter such as Withers means to you as a singer?
“I grew up with Bill Withers’ music. I’m a huge fan of his. I love his songs. ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ is a phenomenal song. He wrote and sang. I got a chance to meet him in the studio. He came and surprised me when I was recording his number. It was a great opportunity to tell him how much I adored his music and songwriting. I’m at that age now where my kids are like, ‘This is a great song.’ And I say, ‘Do you want to hear the original?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Most of my kids are very appreciative of the origins of where a lot of these songs come from.”
It’s been almost 10 years since the release of your 2009 album “The Real Thing.” Is there a new recording in the works?
“Yes. We started in January or February. We’re mixing now and it will be out in the fall.”
You recently returned as a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” What can you tell me about the experience?
“It’s great! Any time Ru calls, I’m there for him. It was great because it was All-Stars. Shangela had judged before and is just amazing. It’s fantasy and the creativity is unbelievable — what the queens come up with for their costumes and makeup and ideas. Also, learning the choreography so quickly. They had to do a huge number that they learned immediately. I’m so impressed by their talent, the resilience and how they can come up with some fantastic ideas and then make them come alive.”
Have you ever had occasion to see a drag queen perform a number as you?
“We did an episode of ‘Ugly Betty’ where there was a drag queen doing Wilhelmina. The whole episode was me going incognito to this club to see who was doing me. When they cast it, our producer asked me if my brother would be into it. My brother (Chris Williams) is an actor. I said, ‘Oh, my God, he’d love it.’ So, my brother plays me in drag. I think it was one of the proudest moments my mom ever had (laughs). Both her kids are performing in the same episode of a hit show on ABC. That was probably the most fun.”
As a performer who has appeared on TV, in movies, on Broadway and on recordings, would you say that you prefer one type of entertainment over the others?
“I just got off the road after three weeks with my band. It’s wonderful because we’ve been performing together for 20 years. We started off with Luther Vandross back in 1997. There are so many tunes that we know and so many ways that we can shape a show. That’s my natural go-to. There’s something about Broadway. I think it’s because I grew up doing shows and wanting to be on Broadway in musical theater. That first day of rehearsal when you get your new music and you’re sitting in a semi-circle around a piano with your music stand and you’ve met the cast for the first time. Then you hear what you’re doing and it’s always thrilling. The fact that you’ve put it up so quickly and then it’s opening night. You pray that you remember everything — your choreography and your words and your breath support. I think musical theater is probably the most thrilling because it’s the most familiar to me.”
Speaking of Broadway, are you planning to see your “Ugly Betty” co-star Michael Urie in “Torch Song Trilogy” on Broadway this fall?
“I saw him opening night when he was Off-Broadway. Of course, I’ll support him.”
Finally, you mentioned your mother Helen. In 2012, you co-wrote the book “You Have No Idea” with her. As both a daughter and a mother, what would you say is the secret to a good mother/daughter relationship?
“Communication, obviously. And not being afraid. I think the biggest obstacle is that you withhold information because you are afraid of the reaction. You’re either afraid you’re going to disappoint or you’re going to get some kind of anger or defensiveness. Out of my four children, I hope that my kids know that they can come to me with anything, no matter how embarrassed or disappointed they feel I will be. But I’d rather know and be able to help them than not know. My mother has said that I am a much different parent than she was to me. I’m a different person and I had different circumstances. I did the best that I could. I’m happy that my kids feel that they can tell me anything.”
The Fairfield County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority presents a book signing and discussion with Vanessa Williams and Helen Tinch Williams from 1 to 5 p.m. May 12 at Norwalk Community College’s PepsiCo Auditorium, 188 Richards Ave. Tickets are $65.00. For more, visit vanessawilliams.com/calendar/.