BWW Interview: Vanessa Williams Shares Why Symphony Shows Make her Heart Sing
"I'm a musician, so I always feel very at home with the musicians, and it's a luxury to have the ability to do symphony dates." -Vanessa Williams
Next week, Atlanta audiences get to witness a superstar take the stage with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Multi-award-winner Vanessa Williams will grace the stage of Symphony Hall to share her hits with us on September 14, and the humble artist assures us that she sees this performance as a privilege. Below, check out a conversation with the Broadway veteran as she discusses what makes symphony performances uniquely special, what we can expect from her show (spoiler alert: all the things), and why her concerts are always a surprise both for the audience and her.
It's so great to chat with you today! We are thrilled to have you perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Can you give me a picture of what your show will look like?
Symphony shows are obviously utilizing the full orchestra, so all my ballads are with full orchestrations, which is always a treat for me because I get to hear them fully-orchestrated the way they are done on the record. That is always a treat and makes my heart sing.
It sounds like it's the fullest version of your songs.
Yes! You know, when you have real strings in the session when you're recording, and then you're on the road, you have to do a synthesizer sample of strings, which is as close as you can get because you don't have the luxury of having a string section follow you everywhere you go, so when you get a chance to do symphony dates, it brings it back to the original sound. It's really great because most people say, "Wow, you sound like your record!" It's nice to hear the real thing.
I feel like you have so many songs to choose from! How do you pair it down?
Well, first you find out how long you have. Some symphonies will do half an hour, and then I'll have, say 50 minutes to do my music, so that kind of eliminates a lot of stuff. Or they'll open it, and then they'll bring me on. But in any case, what I do is my hits, obviously, so I do "Save the Best for Last," "Sweetest Days," "Colors of the Wind," "Love Is," "Dreamin."
Then I do Broadway stuff that I've done from INTO THE WOODS, SHOWBOAT, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, and then some uptempo too, like "Work to Do," a little bit of "Right Stuff" just to orient the audience who might not know my recording past and where it started back in 1988. And that's the great thing about doing symphony dates. You have your regular subscription patrons who see pretty much everyone that comes in to town and doesn't really know me as a recording artist, and then you have the young kids who only know me as an actress and are introduced to me as a recording artist.
Then you've got fans who have been with me since 1988. So I love to be able to have an evening that takes them through hits and also Broadway stuff if they weren't in New York, they get a chance to hear it live. It's a nice mixed evening.
It sounds like it's a good mix. I love how well you know your audience!
Well, my audience surprises me. Again, it could be as young as 10 years old who know me singing "Colors of the Wind" because they've seen POCAHONTAS, and then you have young 20s who know me from UGLY BETTY and didn't even know that I had a recording career back in '88. So it always surprises me who knows me from what, and that's the luxury of having longevity and being in my career for as long as I have.
Out of your Broadway cannon, what are your favorite songs to perform?
Well, there are a lot! So it always is thrilling to sing the KISS OF A SPIDER WOMAN song because people who saw that show know that it's the 11 o'clock number, and I had a huge dress, but I'm not doing that one.
I'm doing a mashup from SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM that I did originally with Barbara Cook who passed away probably about two years ago in October, but my singer who's been on the road with me forever, Shelly Thomas, sings with me, and that's always a highlight because it goes beautifully into some of Stephen Sondheim's best ballads, "Not a Day Goes By" and "Losing my Mind." It's a great arrangement, so that's always a show-stopper.
I have Carmen Ruby-Floyd who I worked with in AFTER MIDNIGHT, and she did an Elllington arrangement in AFTER MIDNIGHT that she'll do in the show, and I do some stuff from SHOW BOAT. There are a lot of hits, and it's always great to have the people that know Broadway react.
I always appreciate seeing the Broadway pieces thrown in performances like this, especially from someone like you who's had such a vast music career.
Yeah, you can always tell the Broadway aficionados are there when I start a song that's from a musical, because they all gasp, and their eyes light up because they know that they'll get a chance to hear it live.
That will definitely be me. What are some challenges of a symphony show like this?
Well, I've got a great musical director who has done a majority of the arrangements, so he calls the conductor beforehand and runs him through the charts, so when I get there we literally go through the entire show. So when you go in for a normal show, you have a sound check, you do a couple songs, and you're done, because you've done your show over and over again.
For a symphony date, they don't know the music, so you have to go through each song and each arrangement. So by the time the audience sees the opening night of this two-nighter, I've already sung the entire show once in the afternoon. So that's probably the biggest challenge.
That sounds intense.
Well, that's just what you do. It's part of the job.
What are you most looking forward to about this performance?
Symphony dates are my favorite, again, because I get a chance to hear the charts the way they're done on the album, so I guess selfishly, it's nice for me to be able to hear the live orchestra. I'm a musician and used to play the piano, French horn, and stuff, so I always feel very at home with the musicians, and it's a luxury to have the ability to do symphony dates. Not everyone does them.
So, of course I also have to ask, are we going to get to see you in a musical soon, or do you have any that you want to do at some point?
I have a couple projects that- we have scripts and ideas, and they need to be workshopped and developed. So I've got a couple of those personally. I had a Broadway workshop in August called CHERI, so we'll see about that. I'm also working on two albums. I just finished doing a children's book and just recorded that song, so I'm doing a lot of things.
Anything else you'd like to say to our Atlanta readers?
Just that I think there's a little bit of everything for everyone, and I'm excited to be back in Atlanta, excited to work with the orchestra there, and get ready for a great show.
American singer, actress and fashion designer Vanessa Williams is slated to perform alongside the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, September 14 at 7pm to celebrate the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's 75th Anniversary Season. Click here to purchase tickets!
Vanessa Williams is one of the most respected and multi-faceted performers in entertainment today. She has conquered the musical charts, Broadway, music videos, television and motion pictures. She has sold millions of albums worldwide and has achieved critical acclaim as an actress on stage, in film and on television.
Her albums "The Right Stuff," "The Comfort Zone" and "The Sweetest Days" earned multiple Grammy nominations and have yielded such classic hits as "Save the Best For Last," "Dreamin," "Work To Do," "Love Is," the Academy Award-winning single "Colors of the Wind," from Disney's "Pocahontas," and many others. Her recordings also include two holiday albums, "Star Bright" and "Silver & Gold," "Vanessa Williams Greatest Hits: The First Ten Years" and "Everlasting Love," a romantic collection of love songs from the 1970's. Concord Records released Vanessa's, "The Real Thing" in June 2009, for which she received a NAACP nomination for Outstanding Jazz Artist.