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Ain't No Mountain High Enough for Valerie Simpson — Even Chicago on Broadway

Simpson, the Grammy-nominated songwriter behind many Motown hits, makes her Broadway debut.

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With her husband, the late Nickolas Ashford, singer-songwriter Valerie Simpson is responsible for a series of hits that defined a generation. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," and "I'm Every Woman" were written by Ashford and Simpson, and their lyrics have permeated modern culture.

At this point in her legendary career, Simpson has nothing to prove. And yet, she's currently scaling a new mountain: Broadway. Through April 21, she can be seen having the time of her life as Mama Morton in Chicago. Simpson didn't know what to expect in her Broadway debut, but she's pinching herself every night.

Valerie Simpson as Matron "Mama" Morton in the Broadway musical Chicago.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Were you looking to do a Broadway show when you got cast?
Absolutely not! It was certainly not on my radar. I happened to be at a party at Clive Davis's home, with a drink in my hand, and he comes over to me and says, "Val, I was expecting Alicia Keys to come and sing, but she's not going to be able to make it. Can you get up and do something?" So I went to the piano and mused a little bit, and played our song "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" into "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

After I'm finished, this guy comes over to me and says, "That was amazing, I could really see you in my play." So I say, "What is your play?" And he goes Chicago. It was Barry Weissler, the producer. I had no idea. I don't know that world.

How did you react to that?
I thought it was far-fetched, really. I mentioned it to a couple of people and they said why don't you at least try for it? It took me a month and a half to call him back. I went for an audition and I got the part. But it wasn't in my trajectory at all. We have four songs in Motown the Musical and one in The Bodyguard. The songs I could see on Broadway. Me? No. I have to pinch myself every night because I have no idea how I got here. It happened so fast.

Are you having a good time?
I love it. I'm really enjoying it. It's harder work than I thought, that's for doggone sure. I'm so used to being in control of things, of being able to go at my own pace. This is like life sped up. They talk faster. Everything moves quickly. You've got to remember where you are onstage or you'll get run over. Being Mama Morton is fun. I've never had the opportunity to be the keeper of the keys.

Valerie Simpson and Nikolas Ashford in 2010.
(© Tristan Fuge)

You mentioned your songs in Motown the Musical. What was the real Motown like?
Working with Motown was like a songwriter's dream. To have that many great artists available to you allowed you to have the best vehicle to carry a good song beyond a three-month hit period. Berry Gordy was really good about re-recording songs after they were hits to give them that longevity. I think that's part of the reason why so many have lasted such a long time. "Ain't No Mountain" is now 50 years old, which is pretty amazing. I didn't anticipate that when we were writing it.

And we still hear that song everywhere.
That song is more than what it appears to be. It's an empowering song about overcoming. When people hear it, they relate to it according to their own lives, and that gives it even more strength. But its success is about more than just the song. It's the great artist who sings it. People say, "Why didn't you sing it yourself?" We didn't have the voices or the notoriety to make that song become what it has become. All of the components were there.

What's on your iPod right now?
My taste is very diverse. I listen to everything from the current pop hits to opera to gospel to jazz. The best of all genres will give you something. I just try to go for whoever's No. 1 in any genre, and if you listen to that, you'll get a treat.

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