It's a particularly scary version of the actor/singer's nightmare: A performer famous for his powerful, wide-ranging, pop tenor develops what sounds like severe laryngitis just before his scheduled appearance in a big-bucks benefit concert version of a beloved musical. Worse, this is a one-night-only show, so the poor guy won't have a second shot at the role after his voice is restored to its full luster. Worse still, the event is to be recorded in its entirety for a hotly anticipated CD release.
This was the unenviable position in which Billy Porter found himself on September 24, 2001. The occasion was the all-star presentation of the 1981 Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen musical Dreamgirls at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts to benefit The Actors' Fund. In addition to Porter as James "Thunder" Early, the amazing cast included Lillias White as Effie Melody White, Audra McDonald as Deena Jones, Heather Headley as Lorell Robinson, Norm Lewis as Curtis Taylor, Jr., James Stovall as Marty, and Darius de Haas as C.C. White, with such folks as Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Paul Castree, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Orfeh, Malcolm Gets, Brad Oscar, and Patrick Wilson on hand in cameo roles. Despite his vocal problems, Porter went on with the show, but it was obvious to his fans that he was hurting.
"The evening of the performance was actually fun," says Porter now. "It was the stress leading up to it that wasn't fun, because I didn't know what was wrong. It turned out to be acid reflux disease, which sort of burns your esophagus and your vocal cords. I didn't know what was going to come out because I was trying to save my voice. In a way, it was freeing to do the performance; I could just blow it out because I knew I wouldn't have to do it again! When I listened to the tape, it sounded a lot better than it felt that night, but I wanted it to be perfect because this show means so much to me. It's why I'm in the business, really: I saw Jennifer Holliday [the original Effie] do a number from the show on the Tony Awards and that changed the trajectory of my life."
So Porter was relieved to be allowed to re-record much of his performance in studio sessions held several weeks after the event. He points out that his vocals weren't the only portions of the concert that had to be redone: "We had a lot of sound problems on the night of the show, as far as mikes and stuff like that," he says. "Those things had to be picked up as well." The completed album, available in stores starting today (February 26), is a typically fabulous release from the A-list Nonesuch label. The enormous excitement level of the live performance is palpable on these two discs, and the sound quality is superb.
Tommy Krasker, producer of the album, is pleased with the final product. "The challenges of recording Dreamgirls were essentially the same as when I did the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago," he says. "You hope that the technical elements fall into place on the night of the show so you can focus 100% on the performances. With Sweeney, we were very fortunate in that we had a couple of run-throughs from which to pick material, plus three performances and a patch session. With Dreamgirls, I was happily given the opportunity to record two rehearsals and then have a patch session as well."
Krasker reports that it was far from a simple matter to re-retake Billy Porter's material. "For certain sections," he says, "the orchestra and some of the other performers had to be brought back into the studio; Billy has such a huge voice, even when he's sick, that his sound was bleeding into the other mikes. I knew he wanted to do retakes, so I spoke with him and [musical director] Seth Rudetsky and the people at Nonesuch, and we decided that it was wise to have him come back in."
Krasker says that the re-recorded sections heard on the album are limited to the first act of the show. "We did retakes of Billy in the second act also, but it was my decision to use the live material for those scenes because it seemed so appropriate to the character," he explains. "Billy was so awesomely powerful on stage when Jimmy Early has his meltdown, and that kind of thing is very hard to duplicate in a studio environment six weeks later. I will say that, in using material from the performance, the rehearsals, the patch session, and the retake sessions, it was an extreme challenge to make it all sound seamless. Nonesuch turned the album around quickly because they knew that so many people were waiting for it. I'm glad that it turned out well; it would have been terribly unfair to Billy to preserve a performance that was hindered by illness."