Movie musicals of the past owe Billy Porter an apology.
“My feelings have been hurt for the decades and decades of musical movies that have been made without me,” the Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Award-winning actor told Broadway Direct with a deadpan expression over Zoom even though it’s still unclear if he was half-joking. “I’m going to be serious. They made The Wiz without me and it hurt my feelings.”
Porter’s referring to the 2015 NBC Live presentation of The Wiz. But can you feel a brand new day? There’s no one else who could play The Fab G in Cinderella, the latest movie musical starring Camila Cabello, like Billy Porter. The role, he says, is a genderless one and a modern take on the Fairy Godmother for a new generation.
“But my feelings don’t need to be hurt no more. Because now I understand what the universe was holding out for. It doesn’t get better than this, right?” he said.
As an impressionable young man, Porter saw first-hand that playing a role like this was possible after Whitney Houston triumphed as the Fairy Godmother in the 1997 made-for-TV movie musical of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
“It was my biggest dream to grow up and be and be the male Whitney Houston,” Porter said. “That’s the only Cinderella that I have ever cared about. So, it’s a good one. My 14-year-old little, sissy self was doing backflips when I got the call to play the Whitney Houston part.” It’s likely no coincidence that Porter’s look as the Fab G designed by Ellen Mirojnick resembles Houston’s. She designed both gold costumes for the two Cinderella movies.
While Porter is singing praise for director and screenwriter Kay Cannon for finally casting him in a movie musical, he spent his early career days fighting to be seen. Before rising to fame on Pose and for his knockout red carpet fashion haute couture, back in the ‘90s, Porter was knocking on audition doors for Broadway shows.
“It was very, very different,” he said of the time around he made his Broadway debut in the original cast of Miss Saigon. “Artists of color were relegated to being in the back; being in the ensemble. My white contemporaries were always working, were always playing principal lead characters that I couldn’t get an audition for because of the color of my skin. So it’s really real. The struggle has been very real.”
Porter’s big break came when he was cast as the Teen Angel in a 1994 revival of Grease. He went to the audition with a rearranged Otis Redding-stylized version of “Mooning” from the show “to fit inside of what it would be for a Black person to be playing one of these roles in this historically white show,” he recalled, noting that more of this story can be found in Unprotected, a memoir he wrote during the pandemic that will be released October 19, 2021. It worked and Porter got to perform an epic eight-minute soulful version of “Beauty School Dropout.” “That’s how they got the idea for me to do that with the Teen Angel and that’s how I got the gig.”
But his show-stopping number didn’t help creatives see color-blind casting. When producers were casting for the 1998 revival of Cabaret, Porter says he wanted to audition for the Emcee, but would not be seen.
“As a matter of fact, word came back to my team that that’s not the story they were telling. So the answer was no, I couldn’t have an audition,” he remembered. “Well, those of us who know that story know that it’s about racism, know that it’s about racism against Jewish people. It’s about oppression. Shortly after I was dismissed from that conversation, I came across a book in Barnes & Noble called Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany. I bought multiple copies, sent them to the creative team, and signed them ‘we were there. We were always there. Love Billy Porter.’ So I’ve been fighting for this for a really long time.”
Porter carved out his own career path since he says years ago he didn’t feel there was a place for him. He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Lola in Kinky Boots. It was recently he bravely revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that he’s been living with HIV for the last 14 years. After Cinderella premieres on Amazon Prime on September 3, he’ll be recognized for his work against AIDS by being honored at the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS fundraising gala on September 17. He’ll soon focus his attention on directing with City Center’s Encores production of The Life, and What If? a high school coming-of-age film.
And he’ll be applauding this year’s Tony Award winners from his couch on September 26th as well as the progress that’s being made within the industry. It’s stories from Porter’s past that still resonate today, as the Broadway community pushes for more diversity, representation, and inclusion. Porter is one of the founding members of Black Theatre United, an organization formed during the height of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests to protect members of the Black theater community. He signed a document called A New Deal for Broadway that outlines how the industry will be different as it reopens from when it shut down in March 2020.
It’s something Porter couldn’t be more proud of. “For the first time in history, we are talking about it out loud,” he said. “Talking about it in plain and honest terms, and truthfully in a way that we have not been afforded the opportunity to do in the past. So, that’s the good news.”
Cinderella is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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