Interview: Britton Smith on Backing Up Lil Nas X, Singing at 54 Below, and Changing Broadway
After several months in Los Angeles, Britton Smith happened to be in New York when he got a very well-timed text message: Would he be interested in being one of Lil Nas X's backup performers on Saturday Night Live? How do you say no to that?
It's been an eventful time for Smith, seen on Broadway in the past in Be More Chill and Shuffle Along. His funk liberation band, Britton and the Sting, will embark on a "Summer of Love" concert series that includes performances at the Intersectional Voices Juneteenth Jubilee at the Africa Center Plaza on June 19 at 3pm, and at 54 Below on June 22 and 23 at 9:45pm.
At the same time, Smith is working to change Broadway for the better, leading the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, of which he's president, to create a series of initiatives like Reimagining Equitable Productions. Here, we talk about that mission, as well as his plan to spread radical love wherever he can.
First thing's first: You were on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago backing up Lil Nas X. How did that come about?
I was in New York shooting a video with my band, with plans to fly back to LA that Saturday. On Thursday, I got a text from Shoshana Bean saying, "My musical director may reach out to you." He texted me and said, "Hey, I'm Shoshana Bean's musical director. Lil Nas X's musical director is looking for a background singer and wants to know if you're available." So, Thursday I got it, Friday I was rehearsing, and by Saturday, I was on TV shaking my ass and throwing money at Lil Nas X.
It was unreal. It showed me that Theater Boy training will keep you ready. They gave me a song I didn't know; I thought it was "call me when you want, call me when you need," but it was so many words to learn. I had to be performance-ready in a day. The wildest part of it…They showed us a video of what the dances were and said, "Watch as much as you can before you come to rehearsal on Friday." I got to rehearsal on Friday and I realized everyone had been replaced. They had been rehearsing for three weeks, and doing the PCR tests every day, but one of the dancers caught Covid, so everyone who didn't have the vaccine had to be replaced. I should be the spokesperson for vaccinations. Because I was vaccinated, I was able to…I think it's going to be super common. I think that's going to happen all the time now.
Tell me about Britton and the Sting and your shows at 54 Below.
Britton and the Sting is a funk liberation band, and it feels like Church on Molly. It's a container of liberation and everybody has to participate in dancing, grooving, and listening in their most authentic way. In this Summer of Love show…A lot of people need to be reminded that they're survivors. We need a moment of celebration to realize we're all actually here. We need a moment of grieving. We need a moment of "don't forget how powerful you are" and "don't forget what you learned from George Floyd's murder." You'll leave feeling sweaty, and feeling closer to yourself and the other people around you.
I feel like a Gay Megapastor, and it allows me to have my own freedom and practice my own freedom in real time. Because freedom is not given to you once and then you have it. It's a constant thing that you have to fight and earn to be able to wave. I love to do theater and storytelling outside of theaters. New York knows us, which is awesome, but I'm excited to bring the radicalness that we have in shows in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side to a theater space and push the ideas of what 54 Below is really for.
I want to switch gears and talk about your work as president of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and the new Reimagining Equitable Productions initiative.
I'm so excited by it. There's a way that we're all used to working, and a way that I was trained at my university to be able to work professionally, and some of those ways are harmful. It was never taught to me that I could tell a director, "I feel devalued now" or "Excuse me, that makes me feel uncomfortable," even when it comes to bringing in people's full identities beyond race. So how do you create a room that does that, and whose responsibility is it? It's not Equity's responsibility, like I thought, and it's not the Broadway League's responsibility, like I thought. It's the actual employer's job to create a working value system and say, "In this house, we don't put up with this."
It's really like a small club that operates with a few people making huge decisions, but then reaps benefits like a major business. I think it's been intentional to keep it like a small club, where we're just having fun, so we don't have to be held accountable. But now, we're seeing that people want to be held accountable and there aren't any measures of accountability. So as they're thinking about how they want to bring people back into their space, we're like, "Don't just make rules for people. Create a space where you can create together and hold those values collectively accountable." We're working on a pilot program with Disney, Company, and Tina, and there are other shows that we're dating to see if we can do it.
Do you see the changes that need to be made being made?
My answer is yes. I do see changes. I feel like I had a lot of ah-ha moments about change when I went to LA for six months. You have to fight for the change you want and the change for the future, but you have to be realistic about "What change will I see?" and "What change will the future see?" There are some things I'm fighting for that I know I won't see, but there are some things I know I will be able to see.
The hard part about that is that it's my own belief. There are other people are like "No, it has to be now." But that can't happen now. Maybe it can happen in six months. There's a gauge that I'm in relationship with now that makes me feel more hopeful, because the things that can happen now I believe are happening. And I say that with a question mark.
Broadway Advocacy Coalition is really interested right now in putting glue in people's hands, with ours. "Glue, glue, we're stuck together now." You said you wanted to make change, here are some things you can do this month, next year, three years from now, but whatever it is, we want to be in partnership with you. Even the people that we feel are problematic, we want to be like "Here's more glue. Stick closer to us. We want to be able to hold you accountable five years from now to look back and say, "Actually, in five years, you haven't done shit, and we know that." Being close to as many as people as possible who are down to change is what we think is effective.