Vanessa Williams wants you to know that even when you’re not seeing her on TV, she’s out there working hard to entertain you.
After two highly successful stints on network television (“Ugly Betty,” “Desperate Housewives“) and a steady stream of guest stints (including “The Good Wife” and “The Mindy Project“), Williams is readying for a full-fledged return, headlining the dishy VH1 drama “Daytime Divas,” set in the competitive and ego-driven world of an afternoon talk show in the vein of “The View” (based, appropriately on former “View” host Star Jones‘s knowing novel “Satan’s Sisters”).
In the meantime, Williams has kept her chart-topping, awards-winning singing voice in peak form, performing both on Broadway and in concert around the country. And before “Daytime Divas” premieres, the former Miss America will hit the airwaves on May 28th as one of the all-star roster of performers for the PBS broadcast of the National Memorial Day Concert at the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., singing a classic of Americana, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
The singer/actress joined Moviefone for a peek at what she’s got in store for audiences, and why she loves hearing how she made her fans cry.
Moviefone: Here we are in an era where a lot of people have their own ideas about what it is to be an American. I wanted to know your feelings about being an American, and why you wanted to celebrate it by taking part in the National Memorial Day Concert.
Vanessa Williams: This is not my first time being a part of this PBS Memorial Day celebration, so I was happy to get the call again. In terms of Memorial Day, personally, we come from a long line of military. My great-great-grandfather was one of the first colored troops to participate in the Civil War. My grandfather was in World War II, my father was in the Army, my uncle was in the Air Force.
So I understand the significance and the importance of the military, and I also know what a privilege it is to live in the United States and be an American. As much chaos, and disagreement, and tension, and fear that’s going on right now, the bottom line is we are lucky to be in this great country. We are lucky to have a voice, and lucky to be able to exercise our rights, and when you travel the world, it’s great to come back home.
As you think about the things that make you happy and proud to be an American, what things really top the list that are the little intangibles that you appreciate?
The fact that we have the freedom of education. Being a woman, being a minority in this country, the trailblazers that have gone before us have opened paths so that we can live a life that we dream about and actually have it come true, whether it’s financial or aspirational, in terms of professional. The possibilities are endless when it comes to this world. Sorry to get in the grand scheme of things, but that’s what really, I think, kind of hits home with me.
And of course, my creature comforts of having plumbing that works, having food that’s clean and safe to eat, having a secure neighborhood — which I’m talking about my particular life. Those are aspects that I work hard to have, but also have them as part of my life.
In terms of Memorial Day and the concert, it’s great to be reminded that our legacy, and what we were founded on, is the freedom for us to be American, and to exercise our rights. I’m proud, I’m singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” this year. They asked me to sing that, and it couldn’t be more appropriate, because of the world knowledge that we have, I think now, with everything online, and viral, and happening instantly, we know when there’s disturbances, and catastrophes happening, minute by minute, and peace is one of those things that you can’t ignore.
The fact is that I think people really understand the importance of world peace, so that’ll be my little addition to the PBS show, the Capitol concert, and I’m proud to be there and try to be a voice of unity.
Tell me what it’s like to be on that stage in that context, with the people who come out to see you for that particular show.
Singing with the Capitol behind you, it’s very elegant, it’s very stately, and it’s got some gravitas. It’s important that when you get the phone call that you’ve been selected to be a part of an American celebration. So I’m always honored, and we’ve got a full orchestra. Again, it’s a very elegant evening. PBS does it like no other.
Some of the great songs that we cherish about America are not the easiest to sing. Tell me your experience in figuring out how to pull off some of the performances of these great, timeless songs that can be challenging for any singer.
My particular song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” is one that’s not very challenging, and is one of those things that we had to sing in chorus pretty much every year. So when I was given the suggestion, I called my dear friend and my musical director to kind of do a contemporary version of the song — he literally left about an hour or so ago. We were figuring out how we were going to approach it, and I think we came up with something that’s kind of unique, and cool, but also still equally as beautiful.
The challenge would be the National Anthem, which I’ve sung at a Super Bowl, and World Series, and U.S. Open, and [the trick] is to make sure that you start comfortably enough where you have somewhere to go and be able to hit the final notes for the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Again, it’s always an honor, no matter what the venue, no matter what the occasion, to be asked to sing our National Anthem.
It’s always great to hear you sing, and it’s always great to see you on TV. We’ve been seeing more and more of you again recently. What’s been fun for you to kind of come back and do shows like “Daytime Divas”?
I personally don’t think that I’ve been away, because I’ve been working my a** off, always! So if I’m not on television, I’m performing my concerts on the weekends. I just had a show yesterday. I have a show in St. Lucia next weekend. If you don’t see me, it doesn’t mean that I’m not working! I did “Trip to Bountiful” on Broadway with Cicely Tyson, and I did “After Midnight,” which is a musical. Then we did “Trip to Bountiful” in L.A. and Boston. In between that, did a pilot for Fox that didn’t get picked up.
I wish it was a few years of rest and relaxation, but it hasn’t! But I think that I’m happy for “Daytime Divas” to premiere. It starts June 5th. Yet it’s another talented group of actors, and writers, and let’s hope that it finds an audience.
Can you tell me about that joy that you found in performing when you were first starting out, and getting your first opportunities to sing and perform in front of people, and the way you feel about it now?
The lucky part for me is, I started in chorus and, obviously, doing musicals. But the lucky part of me being a recording artist is when I do my show, I can not only sing all my songs that still hold up and people still sing along, but also dip into the Broadway shows that I’ve done and be able to do a whole different approach, where people who might not have seen the show will get an education on musical theater. Then do tribute stuff, where I can sing some of the songs that were inspirational to me while I was growing up.
I’ve been lucky to be able to have over 30 years of material and fans that have followed me through my career, that I have a connection with. Probably the most satisfying part for me is when people sing along, especially “Save the Best for Last,” or “The Sweetest Days,” or “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas.” But also when I see people connect, and they tell me their stories about why these particular songs mean something in their lives. Whether it’s a wedding song, whether it’s a prom song, whether they had an issue with their spouse, and this was the song that got them back together.
I think the two biggest comments are, a.) I sound like my record, and b.) “You made me cry.” That’s a very big compliment. I still sound like I do, and when I connect with my audience, there’s a connection back.
With such a multi-faceted career, are there still a couple of big bucket list items, goal posts, that you’re like, “Yep, I’m going to get to that too! That’s going to happen for me”?
I’ve performed on “Saturday Night Live” twice, and done one skit, but I would love to host. That would be because I’m a big fan of the show. So that could be a possibility. I have done a movie musical for television. I did “Bye Bye Birdie” for ABC back in ’95, but I would love to do a movie musical, which would be great.
I’m just starting to direct, and I think that’s going to be really interesting, and challenging, and exciting. I’m always up for a challenge and to learn. I think that’s one of the new things that I can tick off on my list.
Sounds like you actually are saving some of the best for last.