Photo: Jeremy Daniel (courtesy of Irene Gandy )

Ready for Her Cue: An Interview with Soul Legend Valerie Simpson

With dazzle, flair, and "all that jazz", Songwriters Hall of Fame legend Valerie Simpson makes her Broadway debut as Matron "Mama" Morton in Chicago: The Musical.

12 March 2018, the Ambassador Theatre in New York. It’s intermission at Chicago: The Musical. Only 45 minutes earlier, Valerie Simpson stopped the show singing Matron “Mama” Morton’s solo number “When You’re Good to Mama”. Two audience members in row F are discussing Act I. “The woman who plays Mama is absolutely funny as hell,” says one of them, an elderly lady. “It seems like a lot people know her.” It’s the understatement of the night.

If the woman in row F didn’t recognize Simpson by face, she’d certainly know any of the countless anthems Simpson wrote with Nick Ashford, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “You’re All I Need to Get By”, and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”. In fact, the songs of Valerie Simpson came to Broadway even before Simpson herself. Motown: The Musical featured four classic Ashford & Simpson tunes while the duo’s “I’m Every Woman” appeared in both the US tour and original West End production of The Bodyguard.

As a young girl in the Bronx, Valerie Simpson never imagined she’d one day perform on Broadway. When Chicago first premiered with headliners Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in 1975, Ashford & Simpson had already become music royalty as chart-topping songwriters and producers at Motown and had recently released their second set for Warner Bros. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, their own recordings were distinguished by immaculately sung and orchestrated productions, whether “Gimme Something Real”, “Send It”, or “Ain’t It a Shame”. They performed at some of the most renowned venues in the world, yet the duo scarcely saw themselves on a Broadway stage, even though the dramatic arc of albums like Street Opera (1982) seemed ripe for theatrical adaptation.

After more than 50 years in the business, Simpson is surprising audiences, and herself, with a scene-stealing role. Several performers have held the keys to Chicago‘s storied cell block ever since it returned to Broadway in 1996, most notably Roz Ryan, who set a record for the most performances of any leading actress in the show’s history. In 2014, Bebe Neuwirth made a star turn as Mama Morton 18 years after re-introducing the role of Velma Kelly in the revival. However, Simpson’s likely the only Mama Morton who can also count a Songwriters Hall of Fame induction among her credits.

Starring opposite Amra-Faye Wright (Velma) and Bianca Marroquín (Roxie Hart), Simpson sparks like a stack of dynamite in heels and a tailored suit. “When You’re Good to Mama” has long been one of the showstoppers in Kander & Ebb‘s score, but Simpson brings extra dazzle to the number, infusing lyrics like “If you want my gravy, pepper my Ragu” with a droll kind of soul. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Wright during “Class”, she projects a regal air without losing Mama Morton’s earthiness.

Currently enjoying the second half of her six-week run in Chicago through 22 April, Simpson spoke with PopMatters about debuting the same night as Chaz Lamar Shepherd (Billy Flynn), how a party at Clive Davis’ home led to Chicago, and why being Maya Angelou’s “security” prepared her for Mama Morton.

Take us back to opening night. What did you feel when you heard Mama Morton’s cue, “the Mistress of Murderers’ Row”?

Right before I took the stage, I was standing on the side. I’ve never felt frightened before, but I got what was almost like a panic attack. I felt, “Oh my goodness! What am I doing? Why am I here? Where’s my car? Can I leave? Is there a way to get out of here?” [laughs] You just don’t know the feelings that are going to overwhelm you, but there was so much love out there. There were so many people that cared about me, so it’s all good.

How did you make that transition from utter fear to singing the first note?

Well, there’s no way to do it but to do it. You step out and try to be calm, and be who you’re supposed to be. I just had to try to claim it at that instant. It’s different because on all the stages I’ve been on, big and small, I’ve kind of known exactly what I was walking into. This was the first time I didn’t know exactly what I was walking into.

Singing the song is the least of it! I hadn’t even been onstage with the orchestra with lighting before, and with that whole cast. They’re used to doing it. This is their lane. The whole thing of where you belong and what it is you’re supposed to say … I was trying to remember all of those things. It’s pretty overwhelming stuff. You don’t want to let anybody down.

Growing up in New York, how did Broadway musicals first make an impression on you?

Well, they were so expensive, even then, that I didn’t really go to a lot of Broadway musicals. Of course, I can remember in later years going to see Dreamgirls when it first opened and even Hello, Dolly! It was just the marvel of what could happen onstage, the magic of it all and how it could just transport you to their world, that struck me. I loved that it was all live. There was no pretense. You couldn’t fudge it. If you hit the note, you hit the note. If you didn’t, you didn’t. I loved all of that, but it wasn’t anything I ever envisioned.

Even when Nick and I talked about a show with our material, it was always with other people. It was never us onstage. For this to happen, that I would actually be in a show, was just totally, totally out of left field. It was not in my trajectory at all.

Is there anything in your career as a performer that has come close to a Broadway-type experience or is this completely uncharted terrain?

Probably uncharted terrain. It goes to show, you just never ever know. I think the thing that stands out to me the most, Christian, is that I am amazed that I had to be talked in to somebody’s bigger vision of me. This happened because I was at Clive Davis’ home at a party. Alicia Keys didn’t show up and he asked me to sing two songs.

Barry Weissler, the producer from Chicago, just happened to be there. He came up to me and said, “I can see you in my play on Broadway.” I said, “What is your play?” He said, “Chicago. I see you as Mama Morton.” I could not see it. When I mentioned it to a couple of people, people that love me, they said, “Oh, we can see that!” That’s what showed me that I did not think enough of myself to think outside the box. I was just too caught up with a personal view that was limited.

After your initial conversation with Barry, how were you cast in the role?

He asked me to go look at the play. Before I even went to look at it, it took me a month-and-a-half to get back to him because I really just thought he was wrong. I’d seen my own friend Roz Ryan who was a wonderful Mama Morton. Then I thought about Queen Latifah in the movie. I was thinking of a woman of a certain stature. She had to have that posture. I didn’t think I had it, but he was seeing that in me.

When I went up for the audition, I just went in there with all my stuff. When I say “my stuff”, I mean Nick Ashford, Maya Angelou, everybody that went before me that loved me. I thought, I’m just going to go up there and show out! That’s how I got the part.

What’s the timeline between getting the part and opening night?

It was very quick. They put me in rehearsal nine days before I actually hit the stage. It’s different with a new show that’s opening because you get the preview period. I was in previews on my opening night! [laughs] I didn’t get a chance to fool around like other people and get used to it. I just had to jump in the pool and swim.

How do you approach a role that’s already so well-known, especially since the film version was an Oscar-winning success?

I didn’t really study it. I said, “Let me just see what this is for me.” I can’t be Queen Latifah. I can’t be Roz Ryan, who I adore. You know what came to me? Maya Angelou and I were shopping together at Saks Fifth Avenue. She was in her shop — the tall girl’s shop. She was looking for a dress. This security guard came over and said, “Maya Angelou, what are you doing at Saks by yourself? Don’t you have security? Where is your security?” I stepped up and I said, “I am her security. She’s got security because I’m here.” I had to take that attitude and realize, when necessary, I can be what I need to be. I am all of that. That’s the attitude that I tried to carry with this part.

Of course, as Mama Morton, you get to sing the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb. What is the signature of a Kander & Ebb song?

Oh my goodness. It’s clever, colorful writing. It’s my honor and my thrill to know the power of a lyric that’s good for all time. When I sing “Class”, I could be singing it about the circumstances of today or back when they wrote the song. It’s almost like they were cognizant of what was to come and they were cognizant of the moment they were living in. They wrote it that way.

How would you describe the dynamic between Mama and Velma in that scene when they perform “Class”?

I think you sense that Mama always had a special place in her heart for Velma, even though she was always trying to make some money on her! [laughs] That was just part of Mama’s MO, but they are aware of how things have changed and all of the things that have brought about these changes. It’s almost like Velma growing up and realizing that she’s moved up a notch too. Life didn’t turn out like she meant it to, but she’s grown with it and she’s used to it now. You see a meeting of the minds. They’re more on one level now than they were in the beginning of the play, I believe.

Yes, the fact that Mama and Velma share that moment together in Act II is not something you’d expect to happen, based on the beginning of the musical. In a way, they’re sharing this moment of sisterhood.

I think at that moment, they come into a knowing. It seems to me that Mama Morton is a lover of women and men, so I wanted for you to sense a little bit of that.

What does “When You’re Good to Mama” offer you as a performer? What do you get to do in that song?

Show off! [laughs] To be sassier than I ever would attempt to be in a lyric of my own. I like that I get that opportunity to look out at that audience and, for that moment, just be as sassy as I want to be and command that moment. Under the umbrella of Mama Morton, I can be a whole lot of things that Valerie Simpson would not be! [laughs]

As Mama Morton, it’s almost like you really get to manifest the spirit of “I’m Every Woman” …

… but with a little more raunch involved!

Based on performing these past few weeks with Bianca Marroquín and Amra-Faye Wright, what would you say are their strengths as performers?

I can’t even begin to evaluate their strengths. They are so professionally wonderful, artistically giving, and creatively embracing of a newcomer like me. Any little error in words I would have, they would have my back. I can’t say enough about their graciousness. We all sink or swim together. They’re always lifting me up and I so appreciate that. They made me better and they made me want to be better.

Chaz Lamar Shepherd made his debut as Billy Flynn the same night as you, but you also share a history beyond the Broadway stage. When did you first get to know him?

I got to see him in The Color Purple when he was Harpo. He’s such a wonderful songwriter, singer, and pianist that he would come to the Sugar Bar very regularly. Then he started hosting open mic on Thursday nights where he would just be very extemporaneous and make people laugh. I got to see another side of him.

After I found out for sure that I was going to be in the Chicago production on Broadway, I came to the Sugar Bar. He was hosting that night. I waited until the end of the night when it was just a few people. The Sugar Bar is like a home, a hub. I got up onstage and I said, “You’re not going to believe what’s happened to me. I’m going to be on Broadway as Mama Morton in Chicago.” The place just went crazy!

Then Chaz came up onstage and said, “Valerie this is amazing. I just see myself up there with you. I see myself on Broadway with you.” I looked up at him and I thought, How is he going to make this happen? This was not in his thinking before that night! His manager was there that night. His manager reached out for an audition. He got the audition. He won the audition and we entered the stage on the 12th of March at the same time, just like he predicted.

That is magic personified.

It is.

To see the two of you owning yourselves in these roles, and then to see the response from the audience during your opening performance, was truly one of those nights that New York is made of.

Chaz had a nice juicy part in The Color Purple, but Billy Flynn is twice as big as that. To see him command it, and become the character with the dancing and all of that, I was wowed. It made me so proud.

So much of what we get at a Valerie Simpson concert, and what you and Nick brought to your shows for so many years, is an engagement with the audience. As Mama Morton, is it tempting to break the fourth wall?

[laughs] I think I’ve done that a couple of times. I want to be an ensemble player. It’s not “The Valerie Simpson Show”. Many in that audience don’t know me at all, so I don’t want it to go too far, but I’m also aware that Barry Weissler saw something in me, so I don’t want to disappoint him. There’s that fine line that I want to walk where I can give him some of who I am and leave something else there of my Mama Morton for the next Mama Morton. That’s my journey.

How do you maintain vocal health in order to perform night after night?

Basically, it’s just being good to your body and not overeating. All you really want to do is do the job. That’s why I gave myself six weeks. They asked for a little longer but I realized I can really do what I know I can do. I feel like I can stay healthy and be on top of my game for six weeks.

I’m a newcomer. I’ve been in this business for 50 years and now I’m the baby. I had to change my whole way of thinking, get rid of any ego, and just be a receptacle and receive what I’m being taught. There’s two David’s that worked with me. They were just so important to me. It’s like going to school again. You learn and you study. It’s really been a delightful experience.

The revival of Chicago has been on Broadway for more than 20 years. What do you attribute to its longevity?

That score is good for the next 100 years. I have nothing but hats off to Kander & Ebb. And the subject matter: we all like the idea of these women up to no good, trying to get away with murder. [laughs]

A few nights after seeing you open in Chicago, I saw Chita Rivera perform at 54 Below. Of course, she included “All That Jazz” and “Nowadays” in her set. I thought how amazing it was to see the woman who originated the role of Velma in Chicago with the show still running just a few blocks away. Not every show gets that chance to be fixed in the pubic’s consciousness for decades.

Truly. So you can imagine how I felt when I drove up to the theater maybe four or five days after we opened and I saw my picture outside in a box by itself. A tear popped out of my eye. Me, a little girl from the Bronx, and here I am in my own box on Broadway with my name at the bottom — “Valerie Simpson’s Debut as Mama Morton”. It was so overwhelming. I didn’t expect it. I had no inkling it was coming. I knew we’d done a photo session but I thought it would be a composite with others. To have your own box right outside … well, I tell you. It was very, very special.

Let’s go back to your cue. How do you feel entering the stage now versus opening night?

Now when I stand on the side of the stage, I’m not trying to get away! [laughs] I want to go on. I know the cast. I have their love. They got my back. I’m much more confident. It was frightening fun before, but now I’m having serious fun!

Photo: Jeremy Daniel (courtesy of Irene Gandy )