BWW Interview: KINKY BOOTS' Kevin Smith Kirkwood on Channeling Whitney Houston and the Future of CLASSIC WHITNEY: ALIVE!
Creating and starring in a solo show in which the late Whitney Houston, an undeniable legend with a complicated legacy, "comes down from heaven and is reincarnated" in your body is a swing for the fences.
But Kevin Smith Kirkwood does just that in CLASSIC WHITNEY: ALIVE!, which mostly sets the darkness of the singer's later years aside to focus on Whitney's "good times."
"I hope people will walk away feeling how much love I feel for Whitney Houston and remember how she touched the world with her music," he says.
Even still, there's also the daunting challenge of trying to channel one of the most iconic belters of all time. Ahead of the show's return to Joe's Pub on July 31, I spoke with Kirkwood over the phone about his "ballsy" decision to take on Ms. Houston's oeuvre, trying to get vocal rest while performing in KINKY BOOTS eight times a week, and when he first knew he could "do" Whitney.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
Tell me a little bit about how the show first came together.
Back in the day, I remember Leslie Kritzer did Patti LuPone's Les Mouches show from the '80s. She did it at Joe's Pub, I believe, and she did the concert front-to-back as Patti LuPone, with all of the dancers intact and every number, number for number. Rufus Wainwright also did a concert as Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall of her Carnegie Hall concert front-to-back. So I always felt that was a good idea.
And Whitney's always been an idol of mine. I've always emulated her vocal stylings, so I thought I would love to do a tribute concert like that for Whitney. I have on VHS, that I recorded in 1997, her CLASSIC WHITNEY LIVE concert, that I, to this day, will play when I clean my apartment. (Laughs) I just sing along with the whole thing. I thought that would be a great concert to do in the same format or fashion.
But then, over the years, I realized it's over two hours long, and it is also a concert where she does a lot of classic songs from other divas and not as much of her own catalog. So I thought, all right, let's come up with some other sort of idea. That sort of sat in my head for, I'd say, a good five, 10 years, actually. Then, once she passed away, it sort of became a little more urgent to me, the idea of doing it. I've been in KINKY BOOTS for several years, and I was looking for another artistic outlet on my own. My best friend, Natalie Joy Johnson, who's also a KINKY BOOTS cast member, she said, "Kevin, it's finally time to do the Whitney show. You should just do it." I said, "All right, let's try it." That was two years ago.
Putting it together, you said you had a starting point with CLASSIC WHITNEY LIVE. How did you choose the moments that were most important for you to cover?
I pored over hours and hours and hours. I tried to find every [bit of] rare Whitney Houston concert footage and interview that I possibly could. I knew and had seen a lot of things, but doing the research for this really opened up a lot more, like a treasure trove of Whitney Houston footage online. Then I just started to rank things in order of how much I love them to sort of cut it down to a respectable to time limit. That was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do. (Laughs) The thing about that, though, is because I've gotten to do it multiple times, every single time I've gotten to add numbers that I've always wanted to do. So the show's constantly been evolving.
Going into this latest version of the show, are there tweaks you've made since the last one?
Sure. Well, first off, we wanted to acknowledge that it's not the first time back. The whole show, I wanted to have a theatrical conceit of some sort so that it's a theatre piece and not just me getting up in a dress and singing some songs. I brainstormed, and that's how I came up with the idea that Whitney comes down from heaven and is reincarnated in my body to do this concert, which then justifies me looking like Whitney Houston also and trying to get her mannerisms.
This time, though, we've tried to acknowledge that it's been five years since her passing, and also that this is not the first time that she's been allowed to come down from heaven and perform for us. But it's always about a celebration of the music and the good times, so every time I just try and inject new numbers and new energy in the show.
Is there anything specific you can tease?
There'll be new costumes, new hair, and the one new number that I have talked about is "So Emotional," one of her number one hits. She did it live in Japan as a part of the I'M YOUR BABY TONIGHT Tour; I believe it was 1992. She does this amazing live arrangement with full-on musical instrumental breaks and a dance break, which we all know Whitney was not a Janet Jackson-caliber dancer, but she loved to move. So I'm taking that and doing it arrangement for arrangement, dance move for dance move, and we're adding that to the show.
Speaking of dance moves, will "Bobby Brown" and some of the other characters be making an appearance?
Absolutely. Bobby Brown will be there, Cissy Houston will be there, her long-time musical director and piano player Bette Sussman makes an appearance. And then there's one other surprise guest that I'm very excited about, let's just say.
Do you remember the first time you realized you could do a pretty mean Whitney [impersonation]?
Actually, as a little boy, I always sang in church, and I always had a high, belt-y voice. People would ask me all the time to sing Whitney Houston songs. I remember singing "The Greatest Love of All" at a community center function. I'm from basically the projects of Toledo, Ohio, and they had this community center that was an after-school program kind of thing. We would have a ceremony every year to celebrate the end of the year. I sang "The Greatest Love of All" a cappella, and one of the board members of the Friends program, it was called, offered to anonymously pay for me to have voice lessons, which was a huge, huge source of outside validation for me. And also because I sang a Whitney song, it also made me feel closer to Whitney's music.
Then every time, growing up, that I've ever done drag, people have said, "Oh my gosh, you're tall and skinny and you have cheekbones. You're looking like Whitney Houston." Those few things are what made me feel like I might have the tools to do a successful Whitney Houston tribute impersonation.
Speaking of drag, had you done drag regularly before KINKY BOOTS?
Yes! I've done drag for Halloween, I've done drag for gay pride, but then performance-wise, I haven't done a lot of club work. But I've done a lot of theatre work. I've done some other theatre, where I've done drag. Most notably, I was a member of a drag a cappella group called The Kinsey Sicks. They've been around for 25 years. Right now, they're getting rave reviews in Washington, D.C., I believe. They're an a cappella group who calls themselves "America's Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet." I got my Equity Card understudying two of them in their Off-Broadway show called DRAGAPELLA back in the day, and then I went on the road with them for a year and a half. That was my major drag work, so KINKY BOOTS is definitely not my first drag experience.
Is one more nerve-wracking than the other: doing Whitney's music live or being Whitney live?
Oh, definitely doing Whitney's music live is more nerve-wracking, for sure, because, you know, she was the voice. And I'll always admit, she's a singular talent that was born Whitney Houston, and it is ballsy to get up and try and sing an hour and a half of her music. But again, I think people walk away really appreciating how much I love her and how much she informs my singing and my artistry.
That being said, singing that music, I have to take care of myself. There's a lot of vocal rest happening this week, there's a lot of extra steaming happening this week, there's a lot of acupuncture, and a lot of sleep. Vocally, it's probably the most stressful part of it, on top of doing my eight shows a week here at KINKY BOOTS.
How did you first come to Whitney's music, and why do you think you identified with it so much?
I think I remember when her first album came out. I remember hearing "Saving All My Love for You" playing out and her voice coming out of the record player down the street at our neighbor Judy's house. Because we actually didn't have a record player, we only had an 8-track. But Judy Jordan had a record player, so she was very popular. All the kids would come down and hang out at her house and listen to music. I remember hearing "Saving All My Love for You" pouring from the record player and being like, "Who is this woman?" And I looked at the album cover and she looked so regal and poised and stunning and powerful. Like I said, coming from a poor neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio, she represented all of those things: grace, poise, beauty, but, most importantly, success. The boundaries that she was able to break were so inspiring--- her and people like Michael Jackson. The things they were able to do on, for instance, MTV, at a time when they weren't playing a lot of Black artists, Whitney Houston was in the mix. There was a lot of pride there, seeing her in that, and I think that made me sort of latch onto her image even more.
You mentioned that the show is focusing on "the good times." Early on, had some of the other stuff worked its way in and then you decided it was better without it, or had you decided from the jump that you wanted to focus on her talent?
I knew early on that, if nothing else, I wanted the show to be respectful of her legacy. That being said, there are also just facts. She did die young, younger than would've been hoped or expected. She did have some tragic moments in her life. So it's not like we totally shy away from that. For instance, like I said, we mention the fact that she's not here anymore. There's a line that says, "Everybody knows how it ended for me. But I'm gonna take you back to the beginning," acknowledging that there's some tragedy there.
We used to close the show with a song called "Don't Cry for Me," which is not a Whitney hit. It was a hit of Cece Winans's that Whitney covered. But Whitney loved the song so much that CeCe actually sang it at Whitney's funeral. The words are, "No one is to blame, my death was meant to be / Don't carry guilt or shame, the reason why I came you will see / Don't cry for me, my life was always meant to be." And in that sort of way, we wanted to acknowledge the tragedy in her life because that's fact. But that's not what we dwell on.
You've been in KINKY BOOTS for several years. What has it been like having so much creative input on this in a way you might not have in a project that was written by someone else?
It's amazing! I consider myself an artist, I really do. I consider myself a true artist. I like to stay creative, and I like to stay busy and working on lots of things. I think I have things to say about the world and culture that I think artists are capable of doing and commenting on.
I'm the kind of actor-performer who's also a creative artist and really loves to create things and produce things from the ground up. I think I've always had that, and I think I will definitely always do that. And I've just been lucky to have a stable, secure job in KINKY BOOTS that allows me the time, space and money to do my own thing.
What made you want to do this show again at Joe's Pub?
Honestly, the first time I did it, I didn't know if it would be a one-off concert, and I didn't know how people would receive it. It ended up selling out days before the show, and it got such a great response from audiences, that it was amazing to think that I could continue doing it. I've even got offers from places around the country, and AMERICA'S GOT TALENT reached out to me two days after that first performance two years ago. I've just been surprised at how well the show's been received and that there are possibilities for the show. I'm just grateful that people are responsible to it, and I'm open to wherever it takes me.
Kevin Smith Kirkwood's CLASSIC WHITNEY: ALIVE! Returns to Joe's Pub on July 31. For tickets and information, visit www.publictheater.org.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.