BWW Interview: Vanessa Williams of THANKFUL FOR CHRISTMAS at The Sheen Center For Thought And Culture
It's November. Halloween is over, Thanksgiving approaches, and it's a mad dash through Christmas to the first day of 2020. And Santa has sent New York City two early Christmas gifts. The first is a brand new, shiny, beautiful arts and cultural center in downtown Manhattan, a place where artists can go to create work, and people can go to find art. The second is one of show business' great artists and great stars.
Vanessa Williams is a board member of THE SHEEN CENTER FOR THOUGHT AND CULTURE and she is welcoming the arts complex and the festive season with a holiday concert featuring her close chums Norm Lewis, Michael Urie and Bernie Williams. The evening of music will take place at The Sheen Center on November 18th and the proceeds will go right to the organization, to help fund their great work.
As the days leading up to the special event fall away, and before the last minute rehearsals begin, Ms. Williams was kind enough to give me a call so I could find out what it is that makes The Sheen Center so very special, and what treats are in store for the lucky audience at THANKFUL FOR CHRISTMAS.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Vanessa, I'm so excited to see THANKFUL FOR CHRISTMAS at The Sheen Center on the 18th!
VW: Yeah, The Sheen Center, which a lot of people don't realize... it's down in The Village and we've got The Black Box Theater in the bottom. We've got The Loreto Theater, it seats about 350 plus. We've got studio space upstairs, actual apartments for directors and creatives that want to stay and work out any of the creative steps... plus a recording studio. So it's just, you have a place that they're really trying to highlight as a performance space downtown, and I'm kicking off the Christmas season on the 18th. We're doing a concert with me and my pals. Norm Lewis is going to do a couple of songs. Michael Urie is going to do something from The Grinch. I've got Bernie Williams, who's a former Yankee, going to be playing a couple of songs as well. Rob Mathis, who is my musical director and has produced two of my Christmas albums, but also has worked with Sting, and I think he's right now working with Elvis Costello. He's all over the place. So he's going to be MD'ing the night and it's just an opportunity to kind of kick off the holiday season, and also introduce people to The Sheen Center. It's a cultural place. So they have talks, they have film premiers. They've got spoken word, they've got art exhibits. It's multicultural, even though the archdiocese has funded it. It's a multicultural, multiracial religion, artistic space. So I'm happy to be, not only part of the board but also happy to be kicking off its very first gala on the 18th.
The Sheen Center is a completely new facility?
VW: Yeah! It used to be... I think it was at school. Then it was a homeless shelter and now it's a performance space. It's got an area for art exhibits. The Black Box has been fantastic for readings and small productions. It literally could be an off-off-Broadway space that showcases people. It's another alternative for off-Broadway theater.
So, for artists looking to find an artistic space, should they just contact The Sheen Center and say, "Hey, I've got something that I would love to find a home for"?
VW: Yeah!! Absolutely!
How did The Sheen Center get you involved?
VW: I did a talk, a Q & A, kind of like what Seth does, and Inside the Actor's Studio when they have two chairs and you talk, and then you get up and sing. I did that with Father Edward Beck, who was like a contributing priest on CNN, and who's been a dear friend for the past nine years. He was doing a series of talkbacks. He did it with Kelli O'Hara, he did it with Raul Esparza, as well as myself. So we did these Q & A's and then music. And that's how I was introduced to the space. And once I was there, they nabbed me for the board. And that's how I got involved. So I've been involved for about two years.
When you got there and saw the space in person, could you see immediately the potential that it had?
VW: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! Not only musically... if you want to do a dance program or music, but also that I love the cultural aspect of the talkback. They've had political talks with two different sides of an issue that ended up in friendship, as opposed to screaming at each other. It discusses politics. It discusses art, there're movie festivals. They allow directors to come and talk and it's a really cool space where you know that not only are you going to get a good show, but you're also going to get some cultural aspect to it.
Now, about the concert, Thankful for Christmas. The people you have singing with you are people with whom you've already had wonderful work relationships. Did you just call them up and say, "let's have some fun" and they jumped right in?
VW: I did! Yeah! And Norm agreed, and Rob of course, and Michael Urie, I know he's down at the public right now. I was very mindful of people's days off.
So... can I have any tidbits? Like what are you going to sing?
VW: So luckily I have my two Christmas albums that are out there. One of my favorites is called "Starbright," which was written by Rob Mathis, so he'll be playing. It was the title of my first Christmas album. So I'll be doing that. I'm singing "Baby It's Cold Outside" with another friend of mine who has his own band. To make it easy, I said: "Norm whatever you want to sing, just give me the chart and they'll work it out." And Michael, of course, will do his own thing. I'll get a chance to chat, bring them on stage, talk about our relationships. It's just a warm, intimate and very casual night.
You've done two Christmas CDs and some Christmas movies. It's clearly a special time of year. Did you have a favorite Christmas song while you were growing up?
VW: I think the one that always evoked the most emotion of "Silent Night" just because the melody is so beautiful and it's just so quaint. My favorite "Silent Night" story was when Arnold Schwarzenegger was finishing up his final term as Governor and Maria called and said: "Vanessa, can you come up and do the Christmas.. we're having a private Christmas party for his staff and all the people that worked there while he was at the Governor's office. We flew up to Sacramento and I was with Danny DeVito and Tom Arnold and Stallone. And we all went up to kind of a Christmas/roast. And I asked "What is his favorite song?" And she said "Silent Night" is his favorite song. So I did kind of a quick parody on his reign as Governor. And then I did "Silent Night" but I did "Silent Night" in German, and he got really emotional. And at the end when Maria was like "I can't even get him to cry! You get up there and you can get him to cry!" It was beautiful because it was one of his favorite songs growing up in Austria, and to sing it to German... Of course, I was doing it phonetically, off index cards. But it was very effective, to say the least.
And is that the song you sang to your kids at Christmas time when they were growing up?
VW: When they were growing up we had a Christmas Mass Pageant on Christmas Eve and they would recreate... you would get cast as either the angel or if you got the lead it would be Mary or Joseph, you are really doing well. But my favorite was one year they didn't have a vocal director for the Christmas pageant. I directed, my mom played, cause she plays the piano, she grew up doing that. And it was such a special night, cause I could actually choose all the music, rehearse with the kids, have my kids involved and it was glorious.
You just mentioned your mother. I want to say how fun it is to watch you and your mother on your social media. It's really a lovely slice of life to get to look at what a great happy family you have.
VW: (Laugh) Aw, thank you.
I've seen every play you've done on Broadway and I'm just dying to know if you're coming back anytime soon.
VW: I'm actually going to London. I just signed... I'm doing City of Angels at the Garrick Theater on the West end. I open in March.
I will buy a plane ticket after I hang up the phone.
VW: (Laughing) Josie Rourke is directing and I'm really, really excited. I've never done that. I've obviously gone to shows on the West End but I've never performed there. So I'm very, very excited and I'll be doing it from, we open in March and I'm doing it till end of July.
Vanessa, what is your favorite Christmas recipe?
VW: Well, my kids always... we started a lasagna tradition. So after Christmas mass, Christmas Eve, I prepare the lasagna before and let it sit. We go to mass and come back and have lasagna and the kids were allowed to open one gift. But now that I am an empty nester, we kind of... it's kind of free. But I usually do the traditional lasagna for Christmas Eve. I do a great mulled cider, which makes the house smell fantastic and everybody comes in and grabs their cup and goes straight to the stove and gets that, of course, a spike of rum. Um..what else... What else do I do? Depending on what, you know, whether it's turkey, do we want a ham? I just kind of ask the general question and then prepare it.
Vanessa Williams, that's my last question! I will see you at Thankful for Christmas on November 18th!
Perfect! Thank you so much, I appreciate it!
For information and tickets to THANKFUL FOR CHRISTMAS or for information about The Sheen Center For Thought and Culture, visit The Sheen Center Website
Follow Vanessa Williams on Twitter Instagram @vanessawilliamsofficial @VWOfficial and Facebook @OfficialVanessaWilliams