BWW Interview: Ledisi Channels & Honors Nina Simone in LEDISI: THE LEGEND OF LITTLE GIRL BLUE
The powerhouse singer that she is, Ledisi takes on the songs of legendary Nina Simone, honors them and makes them uniquely her own in LEDISI: THE LEGEND OF LITTLE GIRL BLUE (A MUSICAL JOURNEY INTO THE LIVES OF NINA SIMONE AND LEDISI), opening at The Wallis December 13, 2019. Transcending a wide range of musical genres, Ledisi will take you on her own path of musical discoveries, while describing the influence Ms. Nina Simone has made on her.
Ledisi ever so graciously blocked open some time to answer a few of my tuneful queries.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Ledisi!
Thank you for making time and space for me.
At what time of your life did you first discover Nina Simone? (teenager? already studying music?)
I really understood her in my mid-20's.
You performed NINA AND ME at the Apollo Theatre March of 2018, and MISSISSIPPI GODDAM: A HOMAGE TO NINA SIMONE this past August at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Would you consider LEDISI: THE LEGEND OF LITTLE GIRL BLUE a continuation of MISSISSIPPI GODDAM, and NINA AND ME? Or a completely different tribute to Nina Simone altogether?
The show I will be doing at The Wallis is the original concept for the idea of Nina and I together. A small glimpse into my journey and the two women who influenced me along the way. The main ingredients are still the same. There's Nina's music and my music, sung by me. This has been a three-year journey to get to this small step. This is still a work-in-progress and a new way for me to grow as an artist. I am grateful to stretch out at The Wallis. Originally, I was only going to do a week. The shows were selling so fast they asked if we can do more. So... to answer your question every show has been different. Especially this one.
Any particular Apollo Theatre audience response to NINA AND ME surprise you?
Hmmm ... all of this surprises me. The Apollo was the first time I had a director. I asked my friend Grammy/Emmy Award Winner Gregg Field to help develop a show for my narrative and the audience loved it. It wasn't until then I heard people say, 'This needs to be in a theatre.'
How about that of the Royal Albert Hall audience response to MISSISSIPPI GODDAM?
I still have not processed that one. It was everything you dream of as an artist. I was painting Nina's music with The Metropole Orchestra, conductor Jules Buckley and The Legend Lisa Fischer. I still can't believe that happened.
What qualities of Nina Simone drew you to her initially?
Her rebellion, her music, her vulnerability and her black womaness are all the things that drew me to her. Nina stood in her blackness like a Goddess and demanded to be treated that way. The way she shook things up by mixing genres of music. Her blues, Broadway on "Mississippi Goddam," respect for classical and church made my head spin. She was an exquisite pianist. The way she expressed the words like a conversation is a master class in storytelling. Her phrasing cuts through even when it's soft and the notes were an afterthought. The feeling always won me.
I had the good fortune to interview Billy Porter last year for his THE SOUL OF Richard Rodgers at The Soraya. (interview link here) What fortunate forces of nature led to Billy producing LEDISI: THE LEGEND OF LITTLE GIRL BLUE?
I met Billy Porter while I was an understudy on Broadway for CAROLINE OR CHANGE and workshopping THE COLOR PURPLE. Billy and I became friends while singing with the Broadway Inspirational Voices. I have always been a fan of how he blended different genres of music in his shows. So, together we bonded over music. Mr. Porter became my mentor and encouraged me to embrace my love for theatre. He was directing ONCE ON THIS ISLAND in Los Angeles and asked me to play Asaka. That is where I met producer Suzi Dietz, actors Leslie Odom Jr., his wife Nicolette Robinson and Bryan Terrell-Clark. When I decided to do this show in a semi-theatrical way, my first call was asking Billy to be involved, and Suzi showed up right behind him. I am so grateful they are here guiding my team and I through this.
You grew up in a musical household, performing publicly at age eight with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. When did you realize you wanted to follow in your parents' footsteps?
Watching my mom record and hearing the playback, that was it for me. I fell in love.
Who were your singing idols?
Such an unfair question because I could take up this whole interview naming off people. Also, there are singers and then there are sangers. (Laughing) My parents were sangers. They introduced me to everyone I named. This is not my full list and in no particular order because I love so many genres of music. My singing idols: the Great Leontyne Price, Queen of The Blues Dinah Washington, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, Legend Patti LaBelle, Goddess Chaka Khan, Queen Patsy Cline, The Lady Ella Fitzgerald, Sassy Sarah Vaughn, King Luther Vandross, Mama Africa Miriam Makeba and one of my favorite rebels - Queen Barbra Streisand.
What advice did one of your mentors give you that you still live by today? And who gave you that advice?
"Always be ready. That way you'll never have to get ready." - Sheryl Lee Ralph
You were in San Francisco's long-running BEACH BLANKET BABYLON from 1990 to 2001. Did you have to wear one of their humongous hats that they're known for?
Yes, I did. Balancing a six-foot wig on my head while singing and tap dancing eight shows a week was not easy. But we made it look easy. That was our job. Steve Silver introduced me to the world of cabaret and musical theatre. That place became my introduction to everything Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, how to bevel and the importance of red lipstick. Sigh... I learned so much there.
Would you share a fun memory of your stint with BEACH BLANKET BABYLON? I hear it's closing this New Year's Eve.
Our backstage shenanigans had ratchet themes that were funny and not appropriate for the public. (laughing) I will say I was hired, fired and rehired by Steve Silver. When he hired me the last time, I had to audition again in front of the audience, I had to tell him why I wanted to come back while the people who were auditioning hummed "Amazing Grace" behind me. (laughing) My favorite moment was the 25th Anniversary when past and present cast members were on stage performing together, dressed in silver costumes. It was beautiful. I'm not happy it's closing.
In an alternate universe, if you could invite Nina Simone for a cup of tea (or something stronger), who else would you like to chew the fat with at that table? Any particular question you'd like to ask all of them? Or individually?
I would first hug her and say, "I love you and Thank You, Dr. Simone for your Legacy." I would ask if I could ask a question. And if I could, I would ask, "Was it all worth it? Is there anything you would do differently?"
There are so many people I wish I could talk to. I come from extraordinary singers and one of them has transitioned. I wish I could tell my dad I love him one more time. I would ask him how I am I doing so far? The last time we spoke he said my best is yet to come. You just keep doing your work and you'll see. Mom is coming to the show. There could be all these famous celebrities in the room and she is the one I look for. She is my first SuperHero.
Do you have a favorite Nina Simone song?
Hmmm... No. Nina is a mood. It's hard to pick one. It depends on how I'm feeling.
Which Nina Simone song that you're performing at The Wallis would you love The Wallis audience to leave the theatre humming/singing?
Whatever song makes them feel good.
Thank you again, Ledisi! I look forward to hearing Nina Simone through your amazing vocals.
For ticket availability and show schedule through December 29, 2019; log onto www.thewallis.org