GYPSY OF THE MONTH: J.D. Webster of 'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess'
Following a $75 million, 1½-year renovation, New York's historic City Center reopens later this month with a gala production directed by Kathleen Marshall. Among those slated to appear in the Oct. 25 gala are Barbara Cook, who starred in several musicals produced by City Center in the 1950s and '60s; the New York City Ballet, which was founded at City Center in 1948; the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a City Center resident company since 1972; and Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy and Brian Stokes Mitchell, who've all had memorable roles in the City Center Encores! series over the last two decades. The gala will open with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg conducting The Encores! Orchestra—a nod to City Center's 1943 opening, when then Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia conducted the New York Philharmonic.
J.D. Webster will also be performing in the reopening gala. He may have been in more productions at City Center than anyone else. Last season, the Juilliard alumnus was in both Bells Are Ringing and Lost in the Stars, Encores! No. 16 and 17 for him. Webster's first Encores! show was Cole Porter's Du Barry Was a Lady back in February 1996—during the time he was performing in his first Broadway musical, Show Boat. He did all three shows in the 2007 Encores! season, and five more since then.
Right now, though, Webster also has his sights set on a big opening at another venue in town...Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, where The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is scheduled to begin preview performances on Dec. 17. He was in the new version of the operatic classic, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray and directed by Diane Paulus, that just completed its run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., last Sunday and is due to open on Broadway on Jan. 12.
Broadway casting for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess has not been finalized yet, but Webster is expected to continue to portray Mingo the undertaker. That role is one of the things in the Porgy and Bess libretto altered by Parks and Murray's revisions. They combined two characters from the original: Mingo, a fisherman (several men in the ensemble play fishermen), and an undertaker who appears in just one scene. So Webster's Mingo handles the undertaker's duties for Robbins' funeral and is also around for scenes involving the various residents of Catfish Row, the fictional waterfront district of Charleston, S.C., where Porgy takes place. He's in "Roll Them Bones," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," "I Can't Sit Down" and "Oh, Doctor Jesus," among other numbers.
Porgy and Bess is one of George Gershwin's masterworks and arguably the preeminent American opera, but some people feel its portrayal of a black underclass has not aged well. Webster says that concern has been addressed by the book revisions. "It has been very important to this creative team, as well as to the entire company of actors, to find the truth in these people and breathe a reality into the characters," he says. "[According to] research given us by the dramaturgical department, the people of Catfish Row were a specific subset of the African-American community, descendants of the Gullah culture down in that area. There's a great deal about it in the original novel; some of the dialogue [in the novel] is written in the Gullah, or Geechee, dialect." The Gullah background is even reflected in this new production's choreography, Webster says.
Porgy and Bess would bring Webster back to Broadway for the first time since the Wonderful Town revival wrapped up a 14-month run in early 2005. In the intervening years, he's worked on a number of new musicals, concert stagings and regional productions. They include the Two Gentlemen of Verona musical at Shakespeare in the Park; a NYMF show, The Jerusalem Syndrome; Jam & Spice, a Kurt Weill revue at Connecticut's Westport Playhouse costarring Mary Testa; and the concert presentation of South Pacific at Carnegie Hall headlined by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Reba McEntire. He was in the 2008 world premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre of An American in Paris—scored, like Porgy and Bess, by George and Ira Gershwin, and adapted from the 1951 Oscar-winning film. Webster also partook in all its readings and workshops prior to the Alley production.
The Gershwins and their contemporaries helped draw Webster into music while he was growing up in Norfolk, Va. "One of my church members gave me a Reader's Digest collection of Best Loved Songs," he recalls. "Getting lost in those pages, I developed a love for the American songbook. It kind of set the stage for what was to come." In his career, Webster has frequently performed music by American composers of the "golden age": His Encores! history includes Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee and Irving Berlin's Face the Music as well as St. Louis Woman, written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer; he's sung E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's words in Jamaica at York Theatre and Finian's Rainbow at Encores! and elsewhere; and he was one of the six Broadway talents who performed Spring Is Here, a Rodgers and Hart concert at Carnegie Hall held to honor Richard Rodgers' centennial in 2002. (The Variety review of that concert, which also featured Howard McGillin and Debbie Gravitte, said: "The evening's triumph was clearly J.D. Webster, a remarkably poised young tenor who...phrased beautifully and fused the songs with a burning intensity. Every Hart word and every Rodgers note were sublimely crystallized.")
Yet he's also done plenty of newer shows. He was in the original Broadway production of Ragtime; played a principal role in Violet, with music by Jeanine Tesori, at Connecticut Rep; and was seen in both the urban-set a cappella musical Avenue X and the gospel version of Jesus Christ Superstar at the ALLIANCE THEATRE in Atlanta. When he's worked in opera, the classically trained Webster has leaned toward contemporary pieces. He had the title role in the world premiere of the jazz-tinged opera The Blackamoor Angel, produced at Bard SummerScape outside NYC in 2007, and has performed with the Center for Contemporary Opera, American Opera Projects, Aspen Opera Theater Center and New York City Opera's Showcase of American Composers.
Early in his career Webster sang the lead role of Joe in Blue Monday, George Gershwin's first opera that's often labeled a precursor to Porgy and Bess, in a production at the Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia (now known as Aurora Opera Theatre). More recently, he performed in Leonard Bernstein's liturgy-inspired Mass with the Baltimore Symphony, which played Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center after its debut in Baltimore. And in perhaps the ultimate blending of the classical and the contemporary, Webster belongs to the Hip-Hopera, which records operatic versions of hip-hop songs for distribution to urban radio stations. (It originated as a live feature on New York's Power 105.1.)
Webster holds a master's degree in vocal performance from the Juilliard School, but his undergraduate major was outside the arts. He entered the College of William & Mary "intending to be an accounting major," he says. "Something within me said I needed a career that was quote-unquote 'more practical.'" He ended up majoring in business management, still "practical" but more amenable to including voice lessons and theater among his college activities. He performed in school plays during the academic year and in shows produced by the Florida children's theater Fable Factory in summer.
Webster had gotten his early training in his hometown of Norfolk, participating in the junior music program at Norfolk State University and in the first summer session of Virginia's Governor's School for the Arts and performing in both plays and musicals at Norfolk Academy, the private school he attended for his last three years of high school. He also took private singing lessons throughout high school. In addition, he was heavily involved in music at church. He sang in the church choir from a young age, and as a teen, he directed and accompanied the youth choir (he's been playing piano since childhood).
Webster's strict religious upbringing did pose a potential conflict with his performing ambitions. Dancing was discouraged by the church, so he had to turn down the Leading Player part in Pippin's "Magic to Do," which opened a revue that was Webster's first show at Norfolk Academy. But just a few months later he was a dancing waiter in the school's production of Hello, Dolly! "In that time," he explains, "I began to realize that these artistic gifts, I quite honestly feel, are God-given and in a sense divinely ordered, so they're something I don't think I should shun but I should embrace and share." His family was mostly supportive, he says, and today Webster is still active in church. He attends Bethlehem Church of God Holiness in the Bronx, which is affiliated with his former church in Virginia ("so I came to New York with a spiritual family"), and is director of its youth choir.
While attending Juilliard, Webster worked one summer at Tennessee's Cumberland County Playhouse, where his roles included Gabriel in Shenandoah. He stayed at Juilliard after graduation, working for two years as the school's assistant director of admissions before his performing career got off the ground. Then, for a decade or so, he would return to a job in the admissions office whenever he wasn't getting hired as a singer or actor. Webster admits that experiencing such lulls repeatedly, "you start to question your faith in the business a little bit.
"But I think the faith is what's kept me in it," he continues. "It's about having faith that the artist within you is supposed to share, and I think that's more important sometimes than worrying about rent and such. I realize how blessed I feel that I've had longevity in the midst of this sometimes crazy industry. Every time I've thought of leaving, something manifests itself." On a few different occasions, Webster has gone for career counseling offered by the Actors Fund for people preparing to transition out of performing. "Every time, a job would come, and it was enough to turn me back around and remind me that I'm somehow supposed to still do this," he says.
Webster has developed a "philosophy," he says, that gets him through all the ups and down: "All roads lead to now." He embellishes: "As I look back over my 16 years in this business, I've come into a sense that there seems to really be no coincidence. All of these experiences that I've had ultimately lead me to the present." These beliefs help Webster shrug off professional setbacks. For example, he has twice been in Broadway-bound productions of Finian's Rainbow but never actually did the show on Broadway. In 1999, he was in a Finian's Rainbow revival designed for Broadway. It played first in Miami and Cleveland—but was then shut down before its final out-of-town run in Los Angeles and never made it to New York. A decade later, the Encores! production of Finian's Rainbow transferred to Broadway, but "they had to reconfigure ensemble tracks in the show, so there was no longer a position for me," he says, summing up this 0-for-2 with "Coincidence? I think not! I guess I just wasn't meant to do it."
Similarly, Webster says about Porgy and Bess: "Perhaps I was just meant to wait until now." Not long ago, he auditioned unsuccessfully for a production of it at Virginia Opera. He'd also auditioned previously for director Diane Paulus—when she directed the premiere of Running Man, an opera composed by Diedre L. Murray. Webster didn't get the part in Running Man, so Porgy has been his first time working with Paulus. "One of the great pleasures in working on this production is the freedom the director gave us in developing our characters," he remarks. "She works in a collaborative style, and encouraged us to speak up."
Webster had worked on earlier shows with both Murray and Parks, the two women who've done the script adaptation of Porgy and Bess: Murray composed the music to The Blackamoor Angel, and Suzan-Lori Parks adapted the book for the 2002 Encores! production of Golden Boy. Porgy also reunites Webster with Phillip Boykin (who plays Crown), with whom he'd performed a couple of years ago in Alliance's Jesus Christ Superstar. Webster has been particularly thrilled about sharing the Porgy and Bess stage with ensemble member Roosevelt André Credit, who made his Broadway debut in Show Boat, just like Webster, some 15 years ago.
Webster got his Equity card on his Broadway debut, joining the cast of the Harold Prince-directed Show Boat revival from mid 1995 until it closed in January 1997. The following year, he was back on Broadway in Ragtime, filling in for a few months during a cast member's sick leave. His early credits also include the role of Nicely Nicely in Guys and Dolls at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Prior to 2000, Webster was known professionally as Joseph Webster. But then he switched to J.D., which some of his siblings have always called him (his middle name is Daniel). Webster was the only child his parents had together, but he has ten older Brothers and Sisters from his parents' first marriages.
As he's had virtually no dance training, Webster thinks of himself primarily as a "singer who moves." So it's a kick for him to get dancing bits in shows, like his "Midas Touch" solo in Bells Are Ringing last year, or the softshoe trio he did in Face the Music with Mike Masters and Walter Bobbie. He still remembers the audition to which director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall invited him for Wonderful Town—it was, according to Webster, him and "30 of Broadway's greatest dancers" (he got the part).
At Encores!, Webster has been getting more and more featured bits, such as "The Midas Touch" in Bells Are Ringing. In 2008's On the Town, in the role of Rajah Bimmy, he had his own song, "The Real Coney Island," and he opened Act 2 of Stairway to Paradise (2007) singing "FDR Jones" solo. Webster's other appearances at Encores! include On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, The Pajama Game, Follies and Applause. And it's all thanks to braving a blizzard in the winter of 1996 to keep his first appointment with Binder Casting, which casts Encores!
Also helping to seal his fate was a good working relationship with Rob Fisher, the longtime musical director of Encores! who hails from Norfolk too. Fisher conducted the New York Philharmonic in its 2007 concert staging of My Fair Lady, with Kelli O'Hara and Kelsey Grammer in the lead roles and Webster in the ensemble. In addition to all the shows they've worked on together in New York, Webster and Fisher collaborated on a Christmas concert with the Norfolk-based Virginia Symphony Pops! in 2002 called "Home for the Holidays."
Photos of J.D., from top: his headshot; at right, in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess with, from left, Heather Hill, Nikki Renée Daniels and Joshua Henry; left, with J.D. Goldblatt in Avenue X at the Alliance; in the foreground, with others in the ensemble of Two Gentlemen of Verona in Central Park, 2005; as Nicely Nicely in Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Guys and Dolls; on the right, performing the "Conga!" number with Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town on Broadway. [The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess photo by Michael J. Lutch]