Broadway Up Close: Vanessa Williams, hosted by Seth Rudetsky

Up close and very personal

I came to see Vanessa Williams interviewed by Seth Rudetsky knowing there would be conversation. But above all, I was looking forward to experiencing her voice, range, and dramatic talent.

Vanessa Williams has plenty to say and sing. (Photo courtesy of the Kimmel Center)

The Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater was nearly full and judging by their responses, her audience seemed to have followed each step of Williams’s professional path: Singer, actor, fashion designer. Rudetsky, a musician, actor, writer, and Sirius/XM radio host (who also accompanied Williams on piano), interviewed her about the ins, outs, ups, and downs of her career.

A life onstage

They discussed Williams’s childhood and education in Chappaqua, New York; her time at Syracuse University; her interrupted reign as Miss America; her work with Stephen Sondheim in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods; her work in television series such as Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives; and more recently, her role as Jessie Mae Watts in the 2014 Lifetime film A Trip to Bountiful. Rudetsky also pointed the audience to her 2012 autobiography, You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love and Loss (and Each Other)

In 1994, after Vanessa Williams replaced Chita Rivera as Kiss of the Spider Woman’s Aurora, I saw her perform for the first time and was spellbound by her vocal range and dramatic talent, plus the physical daring necessary for the role. I was not alone. Although highly unusual, a second cast recording was made with Williams and a new principal cast. I saw her onstage again as Into the Woods’ Witch, and it was that talent and her compelling, intense, focused artistry, and unwavering determination to survive despite all, that I hoped to find at the Kimmel. I am sad to say I did not find it.  

An early round of discussion focused on aging, with Williams sharing that “50-plus is a struggle,” and Rudetsky telling her how beautiful she remains was a consistent theme of the evening. And beautiful she truly is – so very beautiful. However, as a fashion designer, Williams sold herself short in a skintight, black, slightly glittering full-length gown and glittering ultra-high spiked heels. Nixing that combination might make being 50-plus far easier (I can assure her on this). 

Lost momentum

Going from interview to song to interview may have hindered Williams’s dramatic range. Yes, her voice remains strong. But on this evening, though she showed sporadic emotion, the depth and passion for her opening number, “Stormy Weather” (think Lena Horne), and later “Losing My Mind” (think Bernadette Peters), seemed locked and lost. “Just My Bill” did have tenderness, and “Save the Best for Last,” a pop hit and her signature song, was fun to hear. Williams held her own with “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” but her rendition lacked the soul I remembered. (True, she was not costumed, her co-stars and orchestra were not present, and years have passed, but although I easily found Spider Woman in the rendition, there was no longer the underlying, shivering hint of her loving counterpoint, Marta.) Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me A Grape,” a demanding woman’s insistence on obedience for every whim, echoed the self-obsessed editor Wilhelmina Slater, whom Williams played on Ugly Betty.

As you probably recall, Williams rose to fame in 1984 as the first African-American Miss America, but several weeks before the end of her reign lost her title when Penthouse magazine bought and published unauthorized nude photographs of her. Toward the end of the show, Williams addressed the humiliation of the title loss, the unkindness she endured (evidence that “mean girls” remain mean), and her determination to find work. In those moments, Rudetsky’s interview moved from chatty to substantive. Williams explained that 32 years after her forced relinquishment of the title, with a totally different Miss America leadership in place, CEO Sam Haskell asked her to return as head judge for the 2016 pageant. She accepted, but her mother was against this decision unless she received a full apology. The apology was made, both to Williams and to her mother.  

For her curtain call, Williams chose the song that won her the 1984 pageant, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” It was the strongest vocal of the evening.

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