INTERVIEW: ELISABETH WITHERS On Her Return To 54 Below And How Teaching Has Changed Her Life
Elisabeth Withers 54 Below Cover Photo
Singer, songwriter, and actress Elisabeth Withers best known for originating the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple on Broadway will return to 54 Below on November 20 and 21 for her one-woman show Elisabeth Withers' This Broad's Way, The Look Into The Soul of a Woman. After a successful sold-out summer show, Withers returns for two nights only to dazzle her audience with a brand new show. The show will highlight the many moods and music of some of the most successful women.
Withers spoke exclusively with RyeTheNewsGuy.com ahead of her show about what to expect, her love for teaching and fostering students, favorite memories while in The Color Purple and much more! Special guests for the evening include musical theater students from Valencia College, Howard University and Berklee College of Music.
She is quite a busy woman and has some exciting performances coming up which include City Winery in Atlanta, Winter Garden Theater in Orlando and Cancun Mexico for the LGBT Music Awards.
Withers is also on the distinguished roster of professors in The Arts & Entertainment Department at UCF/Valencia College in Orlando, Florida teaching music and stage readiness.
For tickets to Elisabeth Withers' This Broad's Way, The Look Into The Soul of a Woman at 54 below visit www.54below.com or call (646) 476-3551. The show is presented through Orlando Eye On Talent.
Elisabeth Withers at 54 Below
What can we expect to see at your show at 54 Below? I'm really looking forward to seeing it. Oh my goodness. You can expect to hear the new music for Elisabeth Wither’s new CD. You can expect to hear a wide variety of some of my favorite staple Broadway songs from In the Heights, Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple, Funny Girl and some little fun surprises. Oh, that sounds exciting! Are you going to have any special guests with you that evening? Yes, we have a couple of people actually. I have a company called Orlando Eye On Talent where I partner with colleges and universities and give them the experience that I've had. So one of the colleges that we're going feature is Berklee College of Music. The New School of Music and Fordham University. Well since you mentioned Orlando earlier, how did it come about that you recorded the theme song for the Orlando Fusion Fest? Well, I started looking at the climate of music, where it's headed and, the trends of music and what it is. And I love to sing, I love to write, I love acting- but I also love business. I've been doing a lot of performances and different contracts with the City of Orlando, the Mayor, and the Commissioners,and from doing all that everything was like little tentacles and started to stick. I started meeting all these different people and the County came to us and said, “Liz, we are doing Fusion Fest and we'd like you to come and sing.” After attending a few meetings I said “I think I want to write the song.” I think that's more of a staple, that's real legacy stuff. So I met with the team and Terry Olson and, the whole board and they said, well let me hear something. So, Kenny Seymour (Motown, Ain't Too Proud) and I wrote the song and they came back to us and loved it. In the meantime they had asked if I could also do the music coordinating for the festival as well and pull all the nationwide artist. I thought, well I know gospel, Broadway, R&B, and Pop but World music you're talking different types. Scat, Calypso. It was super fun to hear all these people from around the world. So we did an audition and we chose the music for different people from around the world and it was beautiful.
Fusion Fest in Orlando, FL
That's so exciting and incredible you were able to do that. So switching gears a bit, you’re also a professor of Musical Theatre in Orlando, what made you decide to get into teaching? How are you inspiring the next generation of performers through your and experience? That's a great question. You know, at the time when The Color Purple was getting ready to close, Scott Sanders, the producer, and the creatives came to me and basically asked if I wanted to go on the road with the show. They were planning to do what they did with the show on Broadway and take it on tour. At the time my daughter was about five or six and I thought 'wait a minute, I haven't even had time to eat an ice cream or walk through Central Park.' I wanted to be able to travel a bit too. I was doing six shows in the theatre and on the only days I had off I was promoting my album. I thought what a blessing it was to have this producer giving me the option of following the show or I can go ahead and just do what I want. So it was my choice and I decided to raise my daughter, so that was nice. Throughout all this I was starting to put different singers on different jobs and I was being asked by Berklee and different colleges and universities to come and teach. But i thought " I don't want to really teach" but I've got so many resources and people and friends and friends of friends I want to give this to some of these kids. Some of these kids have no idea of how only one in god knows how many make it to Broadway. But how do you get there? Who do you talk to? I was fortunate enough to have LaChanze and people I could talk to and I thought I want to be that person for somebody else. That's when Valencia College came and said they wanted me to join their theatre department. I thought 'Oh my gosh that would be so wonderful!' So when I did that I asked them if I could set my own hours and partner with my company Orlando Eye on Talent. I wanted to partner with them and bring some of their students to events and performances. The President of the college came to me in June and said you have our full blessing to rehearse these kids as much as you need and take whatever resources you need from the college, it was such a blessing! That is so special and so incredible. It really was. And at my last show at Feinstein's 54 Below we had 3 horn parts that were played by students and the director of the horns was a professor at the college. The choreographer was a student from UCF and the two men, Justin Shakeri and Jimmi Russo, did my whole costume- my stones, my beaded dress – they did it all by hand. The special thing was I didn't tell the audience until the very end that all the students that were part of my show were all students from Valencia.
Elisabeth Withers and colleague
What was your fondest memory of working in the Original Cast of The Color Purple on Broadway? My fondest memory is working with a company that is family. Scott Sanders spoiled me so much and working with Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray. Oh my gosh there are just so many... let me see…also working with all the different Celie's from LaChanze and then Fantasia and Jeanette Bayerdelle and Chaka Khan - the journey was just so amazing. And then to still have great relationships with these people today is beautiful, it’s all full circle. I’ve heard from people in the cast how special that show was and how they were like a family and united a lot of people. That's what my mission is now with the show I am working on. Everyone kept asking me why I decided on Feinstein's 54 Below? Because I haven't been back to New York in 10 years, but I thought it was such a beautiful transition. The management that is there, the energy of the room was a great transition and a transition into what I love to do. I call it "The Broad-way" because I'm the Broad and we are going to do it my way. That's my goal with "The Soul of a Woman" it’s my version of what my experience on Broadway has been.
Elisabeth Withers and friends
Do you think you will return to Broadway or the New York theater scene or are you happy with what you’re doing with teaching and everything? Yes, you will definitely be seeing me. As a matter of fact I have to mention William Morris and Clear Talent Group because they have been so wonderful. They would call me up for all these exciting shows like Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and for Sister Act they were calling and asking me to audition. But my mind was so focused on my daughter, my company, and writing music, but they have been SO good to me and they love me and I LOVE them. Theyhave been so supportive with all my decisions. But yes, I will definitely be planning a comeback! Oh good, I am so glad to hear! With all the exciting things you’re doing with your show and teaching, what is next for you? I'm working on my next album and we are five songs in! I will have a sample of that album at my show at 54 Below. In May I will be in Cancun for a whole week doing the LGBT Music Awards Festival. I'll also be doing the City Winery in Atlanta as well, but my focus right now is mostly on the album. The album is mostly Broadway classics!
Exciting! Well thank you Elisabeth for all you are doing and graciously using your talents to inspire and help the next wave of performers. Is there anything you would like to end on? Yes! Just that I hope everyone can come to my show on Wednesday, November 20th and Thursday 21st at Feinstein’s 54 Below. You can get tickets by visiting the website or by calling. I am looking forward to seeing everyone and follow me Elisabeth Withers and #OEOT2020.