Call Answered: Kevin Smith Kirkwood: Classic Whitney: Alive! at Joe's Pub
"Greatest Love Of All," "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "I'm Your Baby Tonight," "I Will Always Love You" are just some of Whitney Houston's biggest hits!
Broadway's Kevin Smith Kirkwood, currently starring in the Tony Award winning musical Kinky Boots, is one of Whitney Houston's biggest fans. She inspired him, taught him, and helped make him the performer he is today.
It's quite fitting then that Kevin created a tribute show to his idol in which he channel's the voice, look and spirit of the late icon Whitney Houston as she ascends from the choir of heaven and inhabits Kevin's body to perform renditions of special live concert arrangements of her hit songs.
After four sold-out NYC, shows since 2015, and taking this show around the world on Atlantis Cruise, "All At Once," Kevin is back at Joe's Pub, being "The Queen of the Night" with his show Classic Whitney: Alive!, this Monday, January 29 at 9:30pm. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I always remember singing in church as a young boy and I started conducting the youth choir at around 12 or 13. Even then, I was always mesmerized and inspired by artists like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. They broke so many barriers for African American people back then. My two younger brothers and my cousin would get together and pretend we were a group and make up songs with full on choreographed routines. But, when I was in the 6th grade, I sang Whitney’s "The Greatest Love of All" at a community center function and a woman on the board of directors decided that she would anonymously pay for me to have voice lessons.
Well, that was an amazing validation for my talent and so encouraging. But, it was Fr. Ron Torina, a priest at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, who would cast me in the chorus of my first musical (Hello, Dolly!) and introduce me to the world of Broadway. He was the first person to really sit me down and say, “Kevin, I think you really have something. Don’t go to Ohio State. (I had a full ride scholarship to OSU lined up). You should move to New York City and make a go of it!” With his encouragement, I realized that what I’d loved to do since I was a little boy could be a legitimate career path that would take me around the world. He pointed the way to Fordham University and I went off to pursue a dream of performing on Broadway (and beyond) and making him proud. I know he’s smiling down right now.
2. On January 29, you are bringing back your show Classic Whitney: Alive! to Joe’s Pub. What initially made you want to create a show paying tribute to Whitney Houston? I’ve ALWAYS been a HUGE loyal Whitney fan! Her music, her voice, her beauty, her poise, her success, it all spoke to me on a deep level. I recorded her 1997 concert Classic Whitney: Live! from D.C.’s Constitution Hall on VHS and I would play it on loop till I had the whole concert memorized, banter and all. I’ve always since performed her music and I knew that at some point I would do a tribute show of some sort.
I remember loving Rufus Wrainwright’s 2006 Carnegie Hall show where he paid tribute to Judy Garland by doing her 1961 Judy at Carnegie Hall concert. I was also extremely inspired by Leslie Kritzer’s Patti LuPone Les Mouches show around the same time. I LOVE HER and I loved how she BECAME Patti and also that she did the concert including banter and costumes, riff for riff. I initially saw myself doing something similar, perhaps with Whitney’s D.C. concert. But, after realizing that that concert is over two hours long, and she doesn’t actually perform that many of HER hits, but more a tribute to other classic divas, I realized I’d need to revamp the idea. When she died, I was honestly heartbroken. I remember that afternoon my phone started blowing up with texts and calls from friends who knew what she meant to me. I had been tossing around ideas for a tribute show for a long time, but after we lost her, the thought of doing something to show my love for her and to keep her memory alive suddenly became much more immediate, pressing, and necessary.
3. What are you looking forward to about this return engagement? The show is so much fun for me to do as an actor! I get to pay tribute to an artist that helped shape me as a singer and just PLAY! I’m looking forward to feeling the energy of the audience again. The show is a fun, good, time because she was fun, her music was fun, and she loved performing! And I love feeling people’s enthusiasm for Whitney and her music live and in the room!
4. What did you learn from your previous engagements that you feel will inform this return run? You know, I can’t believe the first show was in November of 2015! The original idea was to do a one night tribute and celebration concert. But this will be our fifth show in New York City! I’ve also gotten to do the show sailing around the world on a few Atlantis Cruises, so each time I’ve been able to learn new things. I’ve gotten to change, update, and adapt the show as time went on.
For instance, the last show referenced that it had been five years since she’d passed. Also, we always change up the set list, guests, costumes/hair and such to make it feel like a fresh live experience for return fans of the show. But one specific thing I’ve learned overall is that Classic Whitney: Alive! is more suitable for a ‘late show’ audience! And that has nothing to do with the content (let’s face it, Whitney’s music, even in it’s most R&B moments, was always "family friendly"). Nor whether or not the audience enjoyed the show (we all know those quiet matinee shows where the audience just smiles non stop, then LEAPS to their feet at the end). But once we did a show at 7:30pm (as opposed to our usual 9:30pm or even 11pm on cruises) I realized the very real difference between an early and a late audience. Whitney was a headliner! And for some reason, wink wink, the later audiences come more prepared for (and ready to enthusiastically support) a fun party! That’s what the show is. It’s a party and celebration of the music and the good times.
5. What is the most challenging part of performing her music? The most challenging part of performing her music is singing 75 minutes of her hits, back to back, wanting to live up to people’s expectations, and respectfully honor her memory after an 8-show-week belting the top line in the score of Kinky Boots on Broadway. But I’m not complaining. Lol.
6. Which song from Whitney's catalog of music was the first one you knew HAD to be in this show? Which song do you think will surprise audiences most that you included? Well, the first song I knew HAD to be in the show was obviously her most famous hit, "I Will Always Love You." I say in the show, "No Whitney show would be complete if we didn’t include this next tune." And that’s the truth. But the first song I remember hearing of hers, before I saw a video, was "Saving All My Love For You." It will always be a landmark song when I think of my Whitney influence and is actually one of the few songs that I’ve performed in EVERY show thus far.
People might be surprised to hear "That’s What Friends Are For," which is a song she only did live once with Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Luther Vandross on the 1987 Soul Train Awards. We do it in our show with Whitney, her mother Cissy, brother Gary, and yes, "direct from the tenor section of the heavenly choir" Mr. Luther Vandross!
7. Another favorite Whiteny Houston song is “Miracle,” from her I’m Your Baby Tonight album. What is one miracle that has happened to you that you are grateful for everyday? I’ve always loved the song “Miracle” from her 1990 I’m Your Baby Tonight Album. It’s a beautiful ballad with a wonderful message. I believe that miracles can happen with everyday acts of kindness that can make a huge impact on someone’s life. I remember I was a junior at Fordham University, the first in my family go to college. I got my tuition bill for the year and my financial aid package had fallen short of the cost (around $10,000) and my family didn’t have the money to pay. I was faced with the thought of having to drop out of school. I made a call to Stan Pruszynski, the head of the Glee Club Alumini Association to inform him of what was going on. I conducted and helped revive (with the help of a few friends) the Fordham Men’s Glee Club. Well, after talking a few minutes, Stan told me that the Alumni Association had been saving up for a scholarship and that they’d decided that I would be the first recipient! I’m so proud to have received the Fr. Theodore Farley Glee Club Memorial Scholarship. And with that tremendous act of kindness, I was able to stay and finish out my college degree. I’m grateful for that miracle everyday.
8. I also love her song “Try It On My Own,” from her Just Whitney album. What is something you still want to try that you have not yet done? I grew up at a time when artists/singers dreamed of getting "discovered" and signed by a record label and that’s how you record your albums and put out your work to the world (like Whitney, did). But the music business has changed so much. I’ve always wanted to record an album. And now, with iTunes, Youtube and social media, we live in a world where you don’t have to wait until you are "signed" by a label. Artists can produce and share their work on their own. And like the song says, "I’m not afraid to try it on my own." Recording an album is definitely one of my next goals.
9. In 2009, Whitney Houston performed “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” on The Oprah Winfrey Show (the song taken from her album I Look To You). When has there been a time you were struggling and made it through and in looking back you were like, “Wow, I didn't know my own strength”? Like everyone, I’ve had many times where trials and tribulations have seemed so great, that I’ve wondered if I was going to make it. In the two years before I booked Kinky Boots, I was working several part time jobs to make ends meet while also auditioning. My agent at the time wanted me to stay in NYC and not take any tour or regional gigs so that I was available to book something in NYC on Broadway. Well, after a year and a half of auditioning, I hadn’t booked anything on Broadway and my health insurance had run out. So, I decided to go to New Hampshire to do some summer theater in order to get weeks for health insurance. While I was away, I had to turn down an audition for a Swing in a current Broadway hit, because I was too far away to make the audition. This did not sit well with my agents, and frustrated, they decided not to renew my contract. I was devastated. I even started to question whether or not I had the fortitude to stay in "this business." There was a lot of soul searching. I was at my lowest. I’d toured the world, made my Broadway debut, produced my own work Off-Broadway, worked with friends, done my own cabarets, met some amazing people and perhaps this was the end. But I kept my chin up and continued to work. And the same week I got back to NYC that September, my former agent had to forward three audition requests to me from casting directors. One of those auditions was Kinky Boots! Well, the rest as they say, is history. I booked the show, signed with new management at The Katz Company, and managed to pick myself up and put away that self doubt. But I will always look back on that time and remember to stay strong in the tough times, keep working and doing what you love, because you’re always exactly where you need to be, and you never know what’s around the corner.
10. If you could have sung a duet with Whitney Houston on any of her songs, which one would you have liked to record with her? That’s a tough question because I learned harmonies for EVERY one of her songs, even the non-duet tunes, just in case the universe was ever able to somehow line up that opportunity for me. Ha. But there is a duet that she did with Jermaine Jackson called "If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful" that I would have loved to sing with Whitney. It’s a beautiful duet with a gorgeous melody and sentiment.
11. Lastly, I want to combine your love for Whitney & Cyndi Lauper (since you are in Kinky Boots). I have a world in my head called “Madlauper Land” which is a place where only Madonna & Cyndi Lauper music is played. If you could create world where only Whitney Houston & Cyndi Lauper music is played, what would you call it? I think I’d call it “Whyndi Land”!
More on Kevin:
Kevin Smith Kirkwood made his Broadway debut in the Tony Award winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and earned a 2005 New York Innovative Theater Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor for It’s Karate, Kid! Kevin can currently be seen wowing audiences in Broadway’s Tony Award Winning musical Kinky Boots and stars as "Roxy" in the recently released feature horror film titled Condemned (written and directed by Eli Morgan Gesner and also starring Dylan Penn and Lydia Hearst).