Billy Porter likes to think of his new album as “resistance with sass.”
For “Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers,” the Tony-winning “Kinky Boots” star puts a fresh, contemporary spin on 12 classics from the Rodgers songbook. He’s called in a few A-list collaborators, too, including India.Arie, Pentatonix and “Hamilton” veterans Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson and Leslie Odom, Jr.
Many of Rodgers’ contributions to musical theater, of course, have gone on to become staples of Americana. Though musicals like “Carousel” and “The Sound of Music” have been performed countless times around the world, Porter feels the political messages at the core of those shows still resonate today.
“Because they’re so popular, because they’ve become so ubiquitous in our culture, because we’ve seen high schools do them, all of the politics have been sucked out of these shows,” Porter, 47, told HuffPost. “These people were pushing the envelope way back then! They were pushing it through art, and having these conversations through their work. It was thrilling!”
For Porter, “Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers” fit perfectly into what he described as his “life’s mission,” which is to show “how the past influences the present and, hopefully, the future.”
“Richard Rodgers’s music transcends time, race, ideology – everybody on the planet, even if they think they don’t know a Richard Rodgers song, probably knows one,” he said. “Pop music used to come from the theater, and the charge was lead by Richard Rodgers and his collaborators. They were the Kanye Wests, the Drakes, the Adeles of their day.”
Though he began recording his album well before President Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November, Porter said the 2016 election had a heavy influence on the final product, which hit retailers April 7. The actor-singer dropped the album’s first single, a plaintive “Edelweiss,” on Inauguration Day, because the “Sound of Music” ballad is “a prayer for a country in crisis.” Similarly, the actor-singer originally had a female vocalist in mind for the “South Pacific” ditty, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” but instead, he hit the studio with Todrick Hall to record it as a duet.
“They’ve taken gay men off the census, so we have to stay visible. They want to erase our presence,” Porter said. “We have to be active, and as artists, we get to do that through art. This is when we are needed the most.”
It’s been a particularly busy few months for Porter. In addition to “Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers” and a series of concert engagements, the star is at work on two new plays. The first, he said, is called “The Untitled Sex Project” about “the lost generation of gay men who lived through the AIDS crisis who… know how to fight, but don’t know how to live,” and is currently in development at New York’s Public Theater. The second will be a contemporary gospel musical that has the working title “Sanctuary.”
On a personal note, Porter married his longtime partner, Adam Smith, in New York on Jan. 14, just 16 days after getting engaged. Trump’s rise to power, he said, was the impetus for the couple’s decision to tie the knot so quickly. “I’ve been in this climate before,” he explained. “I lived through the AIDS crisis; I’ve been on the front lines fighting for a lot. I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to do it alone, and we were going to get married anyway, so it was just like, ‘Let’s do this now please!’”
The conflux of politics and Broadway theater has made headlines as of late. In November, the smash musical “Hamilton” faced a conservative backlash after one of its stars, Brandon Victor Dixon, delivered an impassioned speech to Vice President Mike Pence when he attended a performance.
Porter, who collaborated with Dixon on “Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers,” said he isn’t concerned about similar repercussions for getting political. “I call bullsh*t on that,” he said. “It’s been since the beginning of time that artists have been the ones who speak truth to power, and they know it. I stand on the shoulders of the people who came before me, and I will never be silenced.”
Listen to “Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers” below.