DEBUT OF THE MONTH: Phillip Boykin of THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS
Actor Phillip Boykin is currently making his Broadway debut in the role of 'Crown' in The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess opposite co-stars Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier. The production opened on January 12th at the Richard Rodger's Theatre. The classic story by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward is set in Charleston's fabled Catfish Row, where the beautiful Bess struggles to break free from her scandalous past, and the only one who can rescue her is the crippled but courageous Porgy. Threatened by her formidable former lover Crown, and the seductive enticements of the colorful troublemaker Sporting Life, Porgy and Bess' relationship evolves into a deep romance that triumphs as one of theater's most exhilarating love stories.
Boykin originated the role of Crown in the production's sold-out world premiere engagement at Boston's American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). With a creative team which includes Tony-nominated director Diane Paulus (Hair), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), and two-time Obie Award-winning composer Diedre L. Murray (Running Man), the show marks the first time that George and Ira Gershwin's legendary masterpiece has returned to the Broadway stage in more than 35 years.
Boykin is no stranger to 'Porgy and Bess'. He has performed in the roles of 'Crown' and 'Jim' in Germany, Portugal, Japan and most recently Australia and New Zealand. He has also performed on international tours with the “Golden Gospel Singers” and the “Harlem Gospel Singers” and was a featured soloist with the “Spiritual Singers of Harlem”. He was nominated for a National Broadway Theatre Award for his performance as 'Joe' in the National tour of 'Show Boat'. His opera credits include the role of Inspector Watts in Stephen and Scott Schwartz's Séance On A Wet Afternoon and the role of Crown in the New York City Opera's production of Porgy and Bess.
In a recent chat with BWW, Boykin shared his thoughts on what it was like to finally appear on the Broadway stage in a play that has literally been a part of his life since the time he was a little boy growing up in West Greenville, South Carolina.
Let's start at the beginning. I understand that you are one of ten children in your family and I read in an interview where you said 'As a little boy, I did all my singing and performing just to see my mother smile." Was it hard to grab your mother's attention among so many siblings?
Yes, I have six brothers, three sisters, and none of them do anything in the arts or sing or act or anything like that. Out of all ten children, I'm the only one that graduated from high school and of course, the only who went on to college. I think some of my brothers and sisters may have a GED that they got through a night school program. And all of them have been in trouble with the law at some point or another and I would see how sad it made my mom. So I made up in my mind that I wanted to do something to make her smile so I started singing. I loved to see her face just light up when I told her 'Mama, I'm going to Europe with the North Carolina School of the Arts Orchestra' and then she would tell people that 'Oh yes, Phillip's going over to Europe and he's going to be singing with the orgestras', which she pronounced 'orgestra' with a 'g' in it. I would chuckle but that just made me so happy!
That's wonderful. And I understand as a boy, you used to listen to an old recording of 'Porgy and Bess'.
Oh yes. My uncle had the album of the High Performance of Porgy and Bess with William Warfield and Leontyne Price on the cover and I began to sing after listening to that album. I wanted to be a singer. Recently, I was interviewed for a community outreach program and I told them that I believed it was important for kids to see people like themselves, like on that album cover or on the stage or anywhere that they can identify with someone, as I identified with Warfield and Price. I played that record over and over and tried to sing the songs and all of that. That's how it started and it's quite amazing that I'm making my Broadway debut in that same show.
Talk about fate!
Yes it's outrageous. One of my first voice teachers I ever had encouraged me to learn 'Plenty of Nothing' and 'There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon' and all the songs from Porgy and Bess and I learned them and here I am!
And you've been in many other productions of the show as well.
Oh yes. I've performed in either the ensemble or in the role of Jake, Crown, I've understudied as Porgy and I've played Nelson and Jim, the smaller roles in the opera. I've been in some role in Porgy and Bess since 1996.
And how did you come to Diane Paulus' production in Boston?
Well since I had been performing Crown and it was on my resume, the casting company remembered me and asked me to come in to audition for Porgy. So I did. And at the audition they told me that they wanted to raise the key of Porgy's music so I was like [in high-pitched voice] 'singing high' and it was a little too high for me so I knew I wasn't going to get that. I had a talk with them and said "I can't sing in that key' but then they called me back and asked me to audition for Crown and when I did that, that was it. Also, I had worked with Diane before on a workshop she had done at A.R.T and she remembered me from that. She knew I could sing and act a little so she called me back and I passed!
Well I would say you do a little more than 'act a little'! Did you know right away that the production was destined for Broadway or did you learn that news during the run?
Well, you know as a performer, I'd go into shows and say 'yeah we're going for Broadway. It's going to be a Broadway show', and it has never panned out! (laughing) Till now that is, till now! I had heard talk about it going to Broadway but I wasn't sure at all. I was just trying to do my best for A.R.T. in that performance and if it went to Broadway, wonderful, if not I would be on to the next show. That's how it is, you never know. A lot of the Broadway shows will open one night and close the next day so even if you know it's going to Broadway, you don't know how long it will last. I was so happy when I finally got the contract. It said 'Broadway - Crown in Broadway's Porgy and Bess'!
That must have been thrilling.
Yes it sure was!
The show was surrounded by some controversy before it arrived on Broadway regarding some of the creative changes that were made to the original piece. I was wondering if that had an effect on the cast in any way or if you just went about your business.
Well the only effect it had, it just made us closer, it brought us closer together. And it made us realize that a lot of people were very familiar with this show and were very passionate about the original version, which is wonderful - we are too. And as I said, it just brought us together and made us want to do an even better job with the show. But no, it didn't bother us at all. Our producer flew up after the big article in the New York Times came out and he talked to us and he told us that we had his support. You know at that point, we hadn't even seen the entire show yet. We had just been working on scenes, we had never seen the show from the beginning to the end at that point. So when all that came out, we were like 'just wait a while and see, it's going to be a wonderful piece. We stand behind it fully and we want people to come out and see it before they make any judgement for themselves.'
Yes - that's only fair.
I hope I didn't say anything incorrectly! (laughing) I certainly don't want to start trouble again - though Crown would!
Well speaking of Crown, I have to admit that as I was watching your villianous and powerful performance during the show I thought to myself, 'Wow, I think I'm a little scared to interview him!' And it wasn't until you came out for the curtain call and your big, bright smile broke out on your face that I realized you were really a big teddy bear!
(Laughing) It's so funny because Crown is so far from my own personality. And I actually use that character as therapy sometimes - yes! You know sometimes when things don't go your way you want to just scream and be mad at the world? Well I get to do that through Crown.
How do you maintain that level of intensity throughout the entire performance?
Well, for me, it comes from being on stage with who I think is the greatest actor in the world, Audra McDonald. Her energy feeds my energy and the audience's energy. They feel that they're standing right there with us and it's electrifying and it truthfully makes it rather easy. Those energies are why I'm able to do it. Also, I've done Crown for years and years, so I learned a way to yell and scream so it doesn't hurt or damage my voice at all. I use what are called the 'false vocal chords' and they make a growling sound as if you were singing like or talking like Donald Duck. Those are the false vocal chords and I developed a way to use those and make it sound as if I'm really yelling and really angry. But it's actually just a technique I developed from playing the role so much.
There are so many physically demanding scenes in the show. Is that choreographed or does it happen organically between you and Audra?
Well, when we started working on the scenes originally, we just got on the stage and we sang to the music and we talked about what the characters would do or what we thought the characters would do. For example, when I first reappear as Crown and I go directly to Bess and grab her, we talked about what we thought the characters might or would do in that instance. We just did it over and over and over until we came out with what we are doing now. It's working so we're gonna keep it going.
You make it so believable. Has either of you been injured during those emotional physical scenes?
Oh wow yes! Yes yes yes. In the scene in which I have to change Bess' mind about me and about what she's feeling toward Porgy, and I try to make her remember the past that Bess and Crown shared. In that scene, I have to hold her tightly. When we first starting to do it in Cambridge, I lifted her for maybe two or three weeks and I injured my left shoulder. So then to compensate, I started holding her with my right arm and injured my right shoulder! So by the end of the run up there, both shoulders had been injured. But I had that break before we opened in New York which gave me enough time to heal. That's all I needed in the first place - some time. And I've been fine ever since. And everything else between us is just wonderful kisses. Audra's a good kisser!
Don't tell that to Will Swenson!
(Laughing) Oh I won't! You know I see Will outside of the stage door some nights and I'm like 'Hey! How are ya? Good night! Bye Bye!' (laughing) He's a nice man.
What was your debut like on Opening Night?
Oh it was amazing. I had been dreaming of being on Broadway forever, forever. And when it finally happened it was just overwhelming. When we had the Gypsy Robe ceremony, they asked all of the people making their debuts to come to the center of the stage. From the moment I got there, I started crying. I was just bawling. I was thinking about the years of dreaming and praying and hoping and wishing that I would get into a Broadway show. All the auditions that I did, hiring coaches, hiring acting coaches, I didn't think it would happen. And it all came together at that one moment at the Gypsy Rose ceremony. I just was weeping and David Alan Grier was laughing at me. Making fun of me!
Then at my debut... opening night at Porgy and Bess, a work that I've known the majority of my life, a wonderful American masterpiece. And to be up on that stage with four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and having major scenes with her, and David Alan Grier who I so loved watching on television growing up and of course, Norm Lewis - it was just really, really wonderful.
Was your mom able to be there?
No, actually my mother passed away in 1992.
Oh I'm sorry to hear that.
And part of the reason I broke down that day was that Joshua (Henry) came up to me at the ceremony and he hugged me and he said 'I know your mother is very proud of you' and THAT did it! I don't know how he knew about her passing on or anything. But out of no where he said, 'I know your mother is very very proud of you'. I just hugged him and cried all over again.
I think I'm going to cry.
I'm trying to hold them back myself! But it has really been exciting though.
What advice would you give a young performer who dreams of coming to Broadway just like you had?
Wow, you know, every night after the show I give out autographs at the stage door. I just live for that one on one time with the audience. I just talk to kids, to young people and even adults and I tell them 'I am 41 years old and I'm just making my Broadway debut. It can and will happen for you if you don't give up on your dream.' When I was younger, that was the name of one of the shows I did, 'Don't Give Up On Your Dream' and I got to play the lead character in that show and sang, 'don't give up on your dreams, no matter how dark things may seem'. I sing that song to myself all the time. And that's what I tell them, 'Don't give up. No matter what your dream is, whatever you want to be. Just don't give up!'
The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is now playing at The Richard Rodgers Theatre. For tickets and further information, please visit: www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com.
Photo Credit: Michael J. Lutch, Walter McBride