Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

“Let the Sunshine In” with Tony-Winning Legend Melba Moore

After blazing trails at the Met and in the Broadway cast of Hair, Melba Moore reflects on her groundbreaking career while celebrating a pair of new gospel and dance releases.

Just Doing Me
Melba Moore
Mirror Ball Recordings
24 July 2020
The Day I Turned to You
Melba Moore
Hitman Records
15 October 2019

In December 1976, Melba Moore made history at the Metropolitan Opera House. An Evening with Melba Moore at the Met marked the first time a Black pop artist headlined a one-woman show at one of New York’s most prestigious venues, a breakthrough noted by Billboard and JET magazine alike. Moore’s triumphant performance was met with four curtain calls while a review in the New York Times described her voice as a “bewitching instrument” that’s steeped in a style of “improvisational daring, intensity and emotional involvement” (14 December 1976).

Moore remembers the thrill of standing on the same stage where contralto Marian Anderson had broken ground in 1955 as the first Black soloist from the world of opera to perform at the Met. “The way I really felt? I should be singing opera because that’s my natural voice!” she laughs. “I could sense the great tradition of classical music and my training. I didn’t feel so much that I was breaking through. I felt at home there.”

Whether performing the role of Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway or singing the Bee Gees’ “You Stepped Into My Life” on Soul Train, Moore has dazzled audiences from stages of all kinds throughout her career. It’s a versatility that’s fueled her success in R&B, disco, pop, gospel, and musicals. True to form, her latest projects reflect that stylistic range. Teaming with DJ Terry Hunter and George Pettus Jr, Moore recently released “Just Doing Me” (2020), an irresistible club track that’s already topped the charts at Traxsource, one of the prime tastemakers in dance music. “I never lost my voice, I never lost my health, I never lost my praise,” she testifies in the breakdown. Her resilience drives the beat forward.

A similar sentiment also informs “I’m Still Here”, the opening cut to Moore’s latest gospel album, The Day I Turned to You (2019). “That was written for me by the great Shirley Murdock and her husband Dale DeGroat,” she notes about the track, which previously doubled as the title song to her album I’m Still Here (2000). “I was Born Again but I didn’t know the lingo or understand it. Shirley said, ‘Melba, you have to have a testimony.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘It’s not an autobiography. A testimony is what did God do for you?’ She wrote ‘I’m Still Here’ so that I could have a song to sing that would tell what God has done for me in my life.”

Beyond new music, Moore is celebrating a special anniversary this year. Fifty years ago, she won a Tony Award for her performance as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in the musical Purlie (1970). “I had left Hair (1968) to do that,” she says. “Of course, there weren’t a lot of Black musicals. By the time I came along, that was kind of a renaissance time. Pearl Bailey was down the street in Hello, Dolly! and she was starring opposite Cab Calloway. It was just amazing to see the things that were happening on Broadway.”

Even though theatres and concert venues remain shuttered in New York because of COVID-19, Melba Moore’s career is thriving. In August 2020 alone, she received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Radio & Records, participated in Harlem Week 2020, appeared with Melissa Manchester on Quarantine, Cabaret and Cocktails, joined fellow Broadway royalty Sheryl Lee Ralph for DIVAS Simply Quarantined, and is currently preparing a performance for the Artists United Global Festival on 26 September 2020. Earlier this summer, Moore met with PopMatters where she discussed several aspects of her work in music and theatre, from becoming the first Black actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway to following a regimen that’s kept her voice in top shape for more than five decades.

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

On your new album The Day I Turned to You, you recorded a solo version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which you’d also recorded with an all-star choir on Soul Exposed (1990). When did you first become familiar with that piece?

In the ’80s. I was watching the NAACP Awards and I saw the great Dr. Dorothy Height. She was President of the National Council of Negro Women, which was bequeathed to her by Mary Bethune. I contacted her and asked if I could participate in her organization. She made me a Membership Chair. She created what she called Black Family Reunions in major cities that had a huge Black population. I came to the prayer breakfasts and I went to all the celebrations. I remember seeing the Clark Sisters for the first time. I already knew Pastor Shirley Caesar but I met Coretta Scott King.

I took my daughter who was little at the time. My then-husband and I had her in a French bilingual school in New York City called Fleming. When she went back, my daughter said, “I met Coretta Scott King and we have to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday!” [laughs] It was an all-white school except for her and one or two other Black kids. I think a little white boy played Martin Luther King!

Dr. Height said, “Melba, why don’t you sing the Negro National Anthem at our prayer breakfast?” I said, “Dr. Height, what is that?” I didn’t know that we had an anthem that identified us as a nation. Of course we came here as slaves, and so we were not really considered what we actually are — a nation within a nation.

I took the song to my record company at the time, Capitol Records. The head of A&R was Black so he understood my passion, but also on the label were these gospel singers BeBe & CeCe Winans. They went out and got all these wonderful artists to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, so I had Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Howard Hewett, Freddie Jackson, Jeffrey Osborne, the Clark Sisters — I love them so much! I can’t remember everyone. Debbie Allen did the video for us. Jesse Jackson did the narration on the audio version and Lou Gossett, Jr. narrated the video version.

In the beginning, I didn’t want to do a solo version because I knew that many African Americans as well as other people didn’t realize that we had a national anthem. They would think it was my hit record! I said, “If we get all of these other African American icons on it, then we can explain it.” Of course, Dr. Height and Congressman Walter Fauntroy helped to get it into the Congressional Record on the record as the official Negro National Hymn, because it’s a hymn. The song, like “We Shall Overcome”, has become known for a movement.


Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

That’s a fascinating backstory, Melba.

It’s a lot. Because of the Black Lives Matter movement now, the whole revolution has to go on so that Black and brown people are set free and, as a result, everybody. We have to have a movement so that everybody’s kept safe and healed.

Having lived through different social movements and seen social progress over your lifetime, in what way does Black Lives Matter stand out from other movements?

We are finally saying, [incredulously] This is not still happening? As we continue to evolve, and we see that somebody is brutalized and murdered … it’s going to touch you too, eventually. There have been generations now, that are not just Black, that see that this cannot continue because we all suffer. Maybe we don’t talk about it all the time. Well, maybe in the past we didn’t have the platform to talk about it. We all have to be the source of the healing. We all know that nothing comes to fruition without the suffering. It’s the labor pains. We who have been through this before want to have our part in the solution.

Your voice is such a powerful conduit for healing. At what point in your life did you realize just how wide your vocal range was?

[laughs] It’s still growing and that’s because it was so small. I’m a small person, a small spirit, and I have a small voice. I have to do spiritual, vocal, and physical aerobics! Naturally, when you grow older, very often, you lose a lot of your top range, whether you’re a man or a woman.

In the beginning, when I was doing my first Broadway shows, and recording studio work, I really was a lyric soprano. I had no “bottom”. You couldn’t hear me from [points] there to there. I took voice lessons. I took aerobics. I took a lot of lysine, those are proteins. Breathed hard, ran a lot, and continued to build up the lungs. I swam. I still do. I do all of those things and my voice continues to build.

Now that I’m a senior, I have the middle and the bottom, but I haven’t lost the top. There’s a spiritual thing going on that I don’t know how to explain except that it’s an anointing. In a minute, I’m going to be able to sing as high as Mariah. [laughs] My voice is continuing to grow. The more you learn how not to eat the wrong things or give it the right exercise that it needs, and that means spiritual exercise too, the more you stop impeding it, the more these places come in so you have a wholeness. You’re more flexible. It’s a type of rejuvenation.

In the 1960s, you did a lot of session work in New York as a background vocalist, especially with singers like Ashford & Simpson and Joshie Jo Armstead. How did you become part of that community of background singers?

I was teaching vocal music in the public schools of Newark, NJ. I had a talk with my stepfather, Clement Moorman. I said, “Daddy I love teaching. I’m excellent at it, but I can’t go in there again. This is what you want me to do, even though I’m good at it and it’s a steady job. I need you to help me see if I can be an artist. If it fails, I can come back and teach.”

He was taking me around to some of his colleagues and we were in some office building on Broadway, probably the Brill Building. Valerie Simpson was sitting in the office too. She was waiting to see somebody. We began to talk and exchanged numbers, eventually. She asked me if I read music. I said yes, I taught music! She got me involved with studio backup singing. I loved being a background singer because of the group effort. We always had so much fun. You see yourself developing. It’s exciting.

One of the recording sessions was for the Broadway musical Hair. It was being performed by Galt MacDermott. He wrote the music for Hair but he was being accompanied by Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni. They were the two male stars. They also wrote the lyrics to all the music and they wrote the book.

Wow, I didn’t know that your work as a session vocalist brought you to Hair.

One thing led to the other. I was like an American princess. I was a school teacher, middle class. I’d seen them on TV but I never knew what hippies were. [laughs] Jim and Gerry didn’t have any shoes on, and we’re in New York City, you know what I’m saying? Gerry looked like his fingers were stuck in a live plug. He had this wild, bright red, bushy, curly hair. He walked up to me and he asked me “Would I like to do Hair?” [laughs] I said, “Excuse me? I do not have a Bachelor of Arts degree in music to do nobody’s hair!” [laughs] He explained to me that it was going to be a Broadway musical, but at that time I hadn’t even been to see a Broadway show. My mother had taken me to the Apollo and I knew all about music, but nothing about theatre.

The recording session was about two weeks long so we did all the music for Hair. Now remember, I read music, right? I’m reading the sheet music and it says, “Gliddy gloop gloopy, nibby nabby noopy, la la la lo lo.” I said, “What the heck is that?” I thought something was very strange about these people, to say the least!

They explained that, if we wanted to, all of us could come and sing for the director and the producer. If they said okay, we could probably all be in the show because they were looking for strong singers and for people who were not studied actors, who looked like real people. That will show you how my luck was, my blessings in theatre. I went down and sang for them and got into the show, my first Broadway show.

You started out in the original Broadway cast of Hair as the character Dionne. Then you became Shelia, which Diane Keaton had played, and made history as the first Black actress to replace a white actress on Broadway. At that time, did it feel like a groundbreaking opportunity?

Absolutely. When I entered the show, my thought was, Oh fantastic! I’m going to learn how to act on the job. In the character of Dionne, my most important feature was to be a parody of the Supremes. We were all in this one big red sequined dress, three girls. I was Diana, of course! [laughs] The song we sang was [sings] “White boys are so pretty”. Diane Keaton’s trio was down on the floor and they were singing how beautiful Black boys were! [laughs] This is typical of what Hair did — it broke all the rules. Nobody ever said that out loud in public with each other.

Diane eventually left the show to co-star with Woody Allen. I forget the name of the show that he was doing but she went with him, and he got her into movies and she was gone. They had a series of people trying to do the role of Sheila that they weren’t happy with. My girlfriend Lorrie Davis — a Black girl who played the part of Abraham Lincoln — said, “Y’all don’t ever let no Black girls try out for the part. How come? Why don’t you let Melba try out for it? She can sing. She can act.” That’s how I go the role of Sheila and wound up replacing Diane Keaton and being the first Black actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway.

We were revolutionaries. We wore Afros and, for me, coming from a middle class education, you couldn’t wear an Afro. You couldn’t wear your own natural hair and of course those were rules made by white people who probably didn’t even know what kinky hair was. I mean, they’d seen it, but that was our hair! I got accustomed to breaking the rules within a very safe environment. After we got hired and got into rehearsal, then they put in the nude scene and said everybody had to do it. So we said, “Hell no!” Then they made it voluntary. I thought, I wonder what that would be like, so I participated in it to see.

Being part of such a large ensemble, was there a particular moment in Hair that you looked forward to every night?

It’s been such a long time that I can’t talk about a particular moment. I remember I discovered that you didn’t have to be depressed. When I was standing in front of the audience getting ready to do some comedy scene — well the whole thing is a comedy, of course — I remember it came to me: Oh, I’m going to say these words and they’re funny. That showed me you can choose to be happy. I thought, Let me work at that. I began to realize that I had been depressed all my life.

There were people and relationships that formed. We called ourselves, and we were called, the Tribe. We cared about and loved one another. I remember one of our cast members Emmaretta Marks was missing and we didn’t know where she was. They were going to fire her but the cast said “No, let’s find out where she is and take care of her.” That really was something that we lived.

I see those moments as moments of realization that you’re part of a tribe. My family was so broken. My mother was a single parent. She was trying to take care of my grandmother who had had strokes and couldn’t speak. My natural father Teddy Hill was a well-known band leader. My mother probably worked with him and fell in love with him, made love, and had me. I don’t really know the story because they never married. There was no connection.

The new family that I had with my stepfather Clem made me really truly appreciate the human tribe. I think that’s why our relationship was so special to the point that when he was on his deathbed, he invited me to come and lay down with him so he could tell me how much it meant for me to be a part of his family and the difference that I made in his life. I tried to make him understand that you’re special to me daddy because I know what it was like not to have you. I always prayed when I was little to have a sister and a brother and I got one!


Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of your role in Purlie. How did you develop the character of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins?

She came directly from my governess, or my nanny, whose name was Lula Hawkins, which is awfully close to “Lutiebelle”! [laughs] She was from the backwoods of Salisbury, North Carolina. She didn’t know how to read or write. She was an orphan. She lived with sharecroppers. When my mother was away, trying to earn a living to take care of me and my grandmother — and also become a star — the only influence I had was Mama Lu, so I talked like I was from the backwoods of North Carolina too. [laughs] Mama Lu was my connection to the south and she’s the reason I got a Tony Award.

Let me give credit to dear Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. They had great hard-earned success breaking through the racial prejudice and the barriers and writing something for themselves. Purlie would be what we call today a “gospel musical”. It was about the church. It was about a preacher. Ossie Davis wrote it because there was nothing for Black people to do on Broadway. Phil Rose helped him make it into a musical.

“I Got Love” was your showstopper in Purlie, but I was surprised when you told me a few years ago that it wasn’t originally part of the show.

When I auditioned for Purlie, I auditioned for Phil Rose, who directed and produced the musical. He really had very little interest in the music aspect of it. I never sang for him. At the time, the conductor for the pit orchestra was a beautiful Black female musical conductor, Joyce Brown. She had conducted in Hair, so she knew what my voice was like. She said, “You really ought to hear this little girl sing!” When we told Phil that I had done the Broadway show Hair, he said, “Don’t tell anybody that. That ain’t a real show.” It was very disrespected by the fellow theatre producers and writers on Broadway. It wasn’t respected by them at all, so he never heard me sing.

In the beginning, I had the title song “Purlie”. It brought the house down, so then we were in previews and people said, “Well, who is that young girl? You need to give her another song. She only has that one song.” Gary Geld and Peter Udell wrote “I Got Love” especially for me to accommodate my range so I could hold those long long long long notes. That’s how I got “I Got Love”

Take me back to the night Jack Cassidy announced you as the winner for “Best Featured Actress in a Musical” at the Tony Awards.

[laughs] Jack Cassidy was a wonderful actor and celebrity. He was one of the hosts of the Tony Awards. He was always drunk! He mixed my name with another artist. I think he called “Melissa Moore” or something. I heard Pearl Bailey. I knew her voice and she said, “It’s Melba Moore!” out loud. The whole audience started saying “Melba Moore”! I thought, Oh my God! Why are they calling my name? I had almost left because I didn’t know anything about the Tony Awards. Fortunately, I didn’t leave and I was there to receive my Tony Award.

The very next day, it was all over the news and the media. I remember being at Sardi’s. One of the very well-known Broadway actresses was explaining to me how it works. She said, “Once you get this award, you’re not the same person.” I had gotten very steeped in studio work and commercial work. I think the next day I was going to do this Coke commercial and I had to cancel it because I was a “star” now and the fee and everything was just not acceptable. [laughs]

Seriously, it changed so dramatically. You were just projected into another stratosphere. All of a sudden, I began to be invited for all the major TV shows. That’s why I have such a great TV history now with Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Ed Sullivan, Bea Arthur … I can’t remember them all! [laughs] I did everybody’s TV show. I learned how to do TV because of the Tony Award. It really put me on the map immediately.

Fifty years ago, you also released your full-length debut album Living to Give (1970). What were your expectations going into record your first album?

Just to begin to experiment as a solo artist and to start to develop my style. I didn’t really know what I wanted to sing so I was depending on whoever wrote and produced it to tell me what to do, like they always did in background sessions, and to experiment and see where I should go because in theatre, they tell you exactly what they want … except of course in Hair and Purlie they don’t! [laughs]

2020 actually marks several anniversaries. Another anniversary is the 50th anniversary of New York’s PRIDE parade. One of the places you performed at earlier in your career was the gay bathhouse, Continental Baths …

… Oh yes! [laughs] I don’t remember how I got booked there. I remember Bette Midler played it so I thought I should play it too! I had incredible, wonderfully talented beautiful people around me. At a certain point, I got booking agents and they booked me there. I remember the dress I wore. It was beautiful white see-through!

Coming from theatre where you portrayed characters, how did you establish your individuality as an artist, as “Melba Moore”?

In the beginning, especially as a recording artist, you have to find an identity because you’re in direct competition. There’s a playlist and there’s only so many people that are going to get on that playlist. You have to somehow catch people’s attention. I’d start to think, “If I could just sing like Aretha Franklin, everything would be okay!” [laughs] My heart’s still broken that Aretha’s passed away. You know how there are people you love and I guess you think they’re going to live forever because you love them. It’s kind of a magical miracle, the feeling and inspiration that you have about them. You listen to them and you sing their songs.

As a matter of fact, that’s how my version of [Van McCoy’s] “Lean on Me” came along. Several people had recorded “Lean on Me” but Aretha’s version was the one I paid attention to! I knew I could never sing like Aretha, but I kept singing “Lean on Me” and this style came. It developed into a total song and performance. I had my own musicians arrange it. I finally got to work with Van McCoy and record “Lean on Me” as a result of the work that my then-husband Charles Huggins did with our company Hush Productions. It was for Buddah Records [sic]. Of course, Van McCoy almost singlehandedly ushered in the disco era with the disco hustle [“The Hustle”].

In the late ’70s, you returned to Broadway in Timbuktu! (1978). I’d love to know the impression Geoffrey Holder made on you as a director.

Geoffrey Holder was a one-man band and a giant. He’s so tall. He was a dancer and he was a choreographer. He was a director. He was a costume designer. He had visions of brilliant color and opulence. He was … big! And beautiful and just very Afrocentric but a lover of all mankind. He saw Timbuktu! as a way to bring to Broadway a kind of Americanization of Afrocentric-ness. The costumes were just so beautiful and so opulent and so … gentle, but powerful. The strong men carried Eartha [Kitt] on their shoulders. [laughs] They really did!


Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

Yes, Eartha Kitt played the role of Shaleem-La-Lume in that show. What did you observe about her as a performer?

She was just her own self. She was from that era where you had to be very strong and very independent in whoever it is that you are. I’ve heard her autobiography now. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t know she’s from South Carolina because she speaks like she’s from India or somewhere. You have to have your own identity, but let me talk about somebody like Pearl Bailey. Totally different type but absolutely herself. Now how you gonna come in and do Hello, Dolly! after Barbra Streisand? Because you’re Pearl Bailey! You don’t even survive if you’re not very very strong. Everybody in her era, they were all athletes and they were all dancers. My dear Diahann Carroll was so beautiful, soft, and gentle but so strong, so herself.

I recently interviewed Pete Bellotte, who produced your album Burn (1979), and he still has such great memories of working with you.

We had fun! I was no Donna Summer, but we had great fun and he’s wonderful.

What distinguished Pete as a producer from other producers you worked with at the time like Van McCoy or McFadden & Whitehead?

Well, you mentioned McFadden & Whitehead, you mentioned Van McCoy, and you mentioned Pete Bellotte. Each of them are artists. They have very distinctive styles. If you’re not a writer or a producer, what you do is step into their environment and you see if you fit. I was trying to find something that fits. If I’m another type of singer, like let’s say my queen Aretha, then you make everybody fit you! [laughs]

Pete Bellotte did most of the writing for Donna Summer. You know what her music sounds like [sings “Hot Stuff] and those kinds of instrumental arrangements and sounds. Donna and Pete [and Giorgio Moroder] brought dance music to such a high until Barbra Streisand wanted to sing with Donna, okay? My ex-husband Charles Huggins had that genius of going and getting these incredible songwriter-producers and letting me have them.

What did disco offer you as a vocalist versus other musical styles?

We all understand that, especially when you’re sheltered by anything, you need joy, you need energy, so dance music in some form or another is always gonna be here. It’s universal. We think that because it’s so joyful, it’s frivolous, but joy is not frivolous. It’s your survival and that’s really what I know is the essence of it and why it continues to reinvent itself and allow all different kinds of styles and personalities, and tempos, to enter into it and just flourish the garden.

Right after working with Pete Bellotte, you co-produced Closer (1980). There are some exceptional singers backing you on that album like Luther Vandross, Tawatha Agee, and Brenda White-King. Dennis Collins was also one of the vocalists on Closer. He told me that he learned breath control from listening to your album Melba Moore Live! (1972). When you think about those vocalists, what quality did they bring to Closer?

As an ensemble, they were fabulous musicians. I felt like all my training was being used. I felt like I was part of the tribe! You hear these beautiful voices and all different styles but they come together. Luther’s voice always stood out. I can hear him, but his voice blends. It’s beautiful. When I’ve played the music back lately, to just listen back, I hear that incredible voice. And Tawatha’s voice is just one of a kind. Each one of them is really a great solo artist … and then they’re singing behind me!

They were so gifted and of course because we were studio workers, we learned business and discipline, so you had to learn other aspects of it because you were part of somebody’s ensemble. And didn’t Luther learn the business, honey? I remember seeing some of his first shows and he’d drag out a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets. He was hilarious! [laughs] but we all were! We’re funny people.

Disney+ recently broadcast Hamilton. It reminded me how Showtime aired a production of Purlie starring you, Robert Guillaume, and Sherman Hemsley back in 1981. How did Purlie get from the stage to cable television?

I’ll take credit for that! Well, part of the credit. I thought Purlie should be put on tape. Nobody was doing that. You don’t usually have a Broadway play and just put it on tape. Maybe you bring it to movies or something. We taped it like a Broadway production of a play, but on tape. I convinced my then-husband Charles Huggins to see if he could get Phil Rose to do it again. Phil said, “Yeah, if you let me direct it.” That’s easy because my husband didn’t know anything about direction. Of course, I didn’t have a problem with that. I think we helped Phil raise the money so we unofficially co-produced it.

I never lost touch with Lutiebelle. Maybe it’s because people were always asking for “I Got Love”! We had different costumes. I looked at how to do my hair and pay a little bit more attention to the details myself. It felt very good and comfortable. Fortunately, God’s been good to me. He hasn’t let me show my age too quickly! I could get the confidence because I was an actor and I’m allowed to pretend, so why not pretend to be younger! [laughs]

I would love to know how it felt to perform opposite Robert Guillaume, who played Purlie in that particular production. He has such a presence about him on the screen.

Robert Guillaume … To me, he’s just hilarious. He was very friendly, so I didn’t feel any intimidation. His voice is classical. A beautiful voice, too. He never sang anything but classical music. He was just a nice man. Of course I had great admiration for him because by then he was already a TV star, so I knew he was a wonderful actor.

Once again, I hadn’t studied acting, so I thought, Let me watch and pay attention. All the great actors around me helped put me at ease. When you’re not trained at it, you have to be a little more conscious about being your character and staying in the character. It’s funny, if you see great actors like Robert Guillaume on the tape they don’t quite look that way when you look at them in person. It does look like it’s kind of exaggerated. Then you realize he’s having to do it for the camera, and for the people in the audience he has to make it bigger. I also learned that you can’t do it too big because the camera magnifies you.

In the 1990s, you returned to Broadway in Les Misérables. How were you brought in for the role of Fantine?

I’d lost everything. I was in a little town called Hollywood, Florida. I had seen Whoopi Goldberg do her one-woman show, and I saw Lily Tomlin and a bunch of people, and I realized how they re-invented themselves. They created the theme. There was nobody else in the piece with them. They got the funding. They got everything to present themselves. I thought, I’m not a playwright but I know my story so let me try to do that.

I put my little story up in this little theatre in Hollywood, Florida. The gentleman who was casting Les Misérables had a home there. He lived in New York, too, of course. He came in to see my little piece and he saw me do some things from Porgy & Bess. He said, “I didn’t know you had that voice! I saw you in Purlie and everything. Can you sing classical music?” I said, “Yes that’s what I really naturally do.” He said, “I want you to play Fantine.” I had seen Les Misérables many times. I knew it was a female lead.

Several weeks passed and he actually called me back and said, “They’ve agreed to have you in it. I’m the one who casts so I said that I want you for Fantine.” I was the first Black female to do that role.


Melba Moore with Christian John Wikane / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

Recently, more than 300 Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theatremakers wrote a letter “BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre” that addresses the racism and inequities they’ve experienced in theatre. An organization called the Black Theatre Coalition recently launched, as well. In your experience on Broadway, did you ever encounter any discrimination or resistance from white directors, producers, or people in positions of power?

Not me personally but Purlie moved theatres two or three times because of racism and the work that people did to try to shut Phil Rose down. Racism is very strong in theatre. It’s power, it’s prestige, it’s money, it’s wealth. You have to earn your own, and figure out how to get it, and then figure out how to keep somebody from taking it from us!

Black audiences weren’t catered to. There was nothing on Broadway for them to come and see, and that was on purpose. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Jim and Gerry with Hair. They were breaking down the walls … strict, thick, high walls. A Black lady playing Abraham Lincoln? Come on! My girl Lorrie Davis said, “I’m gonna free the slaves!” [sings] “Happy Birthday Abey Baby.” That’s what she sang. And that was her personality but that’s why they hired us — we had certain personalities they could do these parodies on.

One of the crew here is a singer and he’d like to know what guidance you would give young vocalists who are planning on singing and performing.

It’s not just singing. It’s a whole series of activities that come together. You have to do things that make you breathe a lot. Exercise! What you eat is very important. Singers should never eat dairy and bread and cheese and fries. A lot of singers haven’t been told that. They don’t know why they get hoarse or they get laryngitis. Laryngitis can turn into bronchitis and bronchitis can turn into pneumonia. It’s a very serious issue.

You sing with the whole being. A lot of people who don’t know will just be singing with a voice. Whether you’re weak or strong, get your whole body in tune and in shape because the whole body needs oxygen all the time. Everybody’s body doesn’t work the same, so you need to learn the things that you can do and the things that you can’t do and try to discipline your life so that you get a nice balance of all of those things that you need.

If you’re not a strong singer, listen to people who are! [laughs] and imitate them. Maybe you don’t want their style, but you might develop their strength. Just learn from those around you. Take vocal lessons and coaching if you can do that. For some people, all the expression is in the singing and the vocalizations, but then your face is not telling a story. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to be an actor. Think about what you’re singing and feel as though you’re telling a story. That will make it more complete.

Last question, Melba. What do you think would happen if Sheila from Hair met Lutiebelle?

[laughs] I think Lutiebelle would say, “Child go put on some shoes!” Sheila would say, “Peace out!” Maybe I’ll create something where both of them can meet. It would be hilarious. The hippie meets the country bumpkin … and they’re both Black!