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Broadway star Billy Porter brings Kinky Boots home to Pittsburgh

The CAPA and CMU grad also anticipates what follows his big hit

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Billy Porter in Kinky Boots - PHOTO COURTESY OF MATTHEW MURPHY
  • Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy
  • Billy Porter in Kinky Boots

Billy Porter’s had a pretty decent couple of years. In 2013, he won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for best actor in a musical, for playing the drag queen Lola in Broadway hit Kinky Boots. In 2014, while still starring in Kinky Boots, the Pittsburgh native released a solo album of standards titled Billy’s Back on Broadway, and his own play While I Yet Live received its debut production off-Broadway. Nor is Porter slowing up. This past April, during his hiatus from Kinky Boots, PBS aired his Live From Lincoln Center special. Porter even found time to guest-judge on So You Think You Can Dance.  

Porter, 45, is savoring such successes — including what promises to be a triumphant return to the local stage as Pittsburgh CLO hosts the touring production of Kinky Boots, Aug. 4-9. But he’s also looking ahead. It’s not just that his Kinky Boots contract ends in January; Porter recently told CP he has another Broadway role lined up, though he couldn’t yet divulge the show’s title. It’s also that he’s getting deeper into writing — a development that surprises even him. “I never ever ever set out to be a writer,” he says.

Porter, after all, first made his name with his voice. He grew up in East Liberty and Homewood; he sang gospel, attended Pittsburgh CAPA and studied theater at Carnegie Mellon University. He graduated from CMU in 1991 and, thanks largely to the vocal chops that made him a 1992 winner on Star Search, transitioned to Broadway. In the 1990s, he appeared in shows including Grease, Five Guys Named Moe and Miss Saigon.

Then came what Porter calls “the lean years.” He just couldn’t get roles. That might have had partly to do with his voice changing over time. But mostly, Porter has said, he was both pigeonholed by showy roles like Grease’s Teen Angel and, as a gay black man, simply shut out of other opportunities.

Porter worked the whole time, including acting and directing jobs back in Pittsburgh. (He starred, for instance, in City Theatre’s fine 2004 production of Topdog/Underdog.) But for 13 years — a show-biz eternity — Porter was off Broadway. That set the stage for what The New York Times called “one of the most remarkable rise-and-fall-and-rebound stories in New York theater in recent years.”

Billy Porter photographed in 2005 at City Theatre, in Pittsburgh, in rehearsal for his one-man show Ghetto Superstar - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Billy Porter photographed in 2005 at City Theatre, in Pittsburgh, in rehearsal for his one-man show Ghetto Superstar

In 2010, Porter was cast as Belize in an Off Broadway revival of Angels in America, exactly the sort of great, high-profile role he’d been seeking. That led to his successful bid to originate the role of Lola in Kinky Boots, the Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper musical based on the 2005 film about a struggling, small-town British shoe factory that turns to making high-heeled footwear for drag queens.

During those lean years, however, “Not getting work sort of pushed me to try other things and to challenge myself in other ways,” says Porter. He studied screenwriting at UCLA. In 2005, he premiered his autobiographical one-man show, Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am) at New York’s famed Public Theater (where he was then an artist in residence).

While I Yet Live, his autobiographical drama based on his upbringing, drew mixed reviews in its premiere production at Primary Stages. But Porter says the experience of its staging was “life-changing.”

“I didn’t know that I could write,” he said in a recent interview with CP, by phone from Manhattan. “The lack of [stage] work is what helped me discover that that can be a part of my creativity, a part of my art.”

It’s now a pretty big part: He’s also “developing some television-show ideas,” he says, adding, “I’m writing a gospel musical. I’m also writing a book.” The latter is a memoir of those lean years.

With that unnamed new Broadway role looming, Porter admits to some “separation anxiety” about leaving Lola and Kinky Boots, which he calls “the piece of art that changed my life.”

Next week, though, what will be foremost are those eight performances at the Benedum Center, with a fabulously bewigged and sequined Porter belting numbers like the saucy “The Sex Is in the Heel” and the introspective “Not My Father’s Son.”

Asked why he’s taking this special, Pittsburgh-only turn in the show’s touring version, he says it’s partly for local folks who can’t make it to New York. But especially, he says, it’s for children of color who, like him, grew up in disadvantaged neighborhoods. “I see those kids now, and I know that it’s important for them to have representation, and representatives from their community who have transcended expectations,” he says. “It’s important for me to come back to being in the midst of that, so that those young people can see that: There’s something different, there’s something to aspire to.”


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