Vanessa Williams loves a challenge

By Ashley Naftule

In a more just world, the Google Image search would bring up Vanessa Williams at the top of its results for “Triple Threat.”

The veteran performer embodies that Swiss Army knife approach to performing arts: She’s a masterful singer, actor, and dancer. From her scene-stealing turn on shows like Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewife to her command of Broadway stages as a diva par excellence, she knows how to make the most of a spotlight.

She's also a perfect example of a Comeback Kid. Williams initially gained fame for making history as the first African-American woman to win the Miss America title when she was crowned in 1983.

Her reign would be short-lived: After Penthouse magazine published unauthorized nude photos of Williams, she was pressured to relinquish her crown (she would later triumphantly return to the pageant in 2015 as a head judge). A controversy like that would cripple most careers, but Williams persevered through equal parts poise and determination, channeling her theater training and musical skills into a long and successful career as a singer and performer.

Photo by Mike Ruiz/Contour by Getty Images.

She’s belted for Sondheim and been on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Perhaps no other beauty pageant contestant in history has had a career as distinguished, varied, and downright unpredictable as Vanessa Williams.

The Into The Woods star is passing through the Valley in November to perform a set at this year’s Arizona Musicfest. We were able to hop on the phone with her to talk about her symphony work, her vocal regiment, and what’s left for her to do on her artistic bucket list.

Echo: What can fans attending this year's Musicfest look forward to? What do you have planned for your performance?

Williams: I’ll do my big pop hits, like “Save The Best For Last,” "The Sweetest Days," "Colors Of The Wind"... I also do a Broadway section of things that I’ve done on Broadway. There are up-tempo songs and plenty of talking — I talk about working with Sondheim twice. So I’ll do something from Into The Woods and Sondheim On Sondheim. And I’ll also do a number from Show Boat and After Midnight

My band has been together for 22 years now. Our first tour was with Luther Vandross back in 1997. It's great — working with them is like being with family. And the biggest takeaway that I usually get after my shows, whether it’s a symphony gig or in a concert hall or even outdoors, is that people will say: “God, you sound just like your record!” And it’s like, well, yeah, that’s because I’m singing on my records. I always find it comical when people are surprised that I sound like I’m supposed to sound.

Considering the broad range of material you’ve done over the years, how do you pick out your setlists? What criteria do you use to narrow things down? 

The first thing is time — depending on whether I’m doing a 50-minute set or a 90-minute set, I adjust. Then it’s also whether it’s a symphony date or a concert date. With my regular band, we do a lot more R&B. So it really depends on who we’re playing for and what kind of instrumentation we’re working with. With symphony dates, I do different arrangements just because I have the luxury of arranging for a full orchestra. I recently did an arrangement in Atlanta that was written for myself and Yo-Yo Ma back in 1999 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. It was from the musical House of Flowers — Harold Arlen wrote the score. And I do a song from that show called "I Never Has Seen Snow" that has a gorgeous arrangement. The first cellist we had playing on that was superb — just brilliant. A 29-year old kid from the Utah symphony. He really impressed us.

Do you have a particular regiment you use to keep your voice in top form?

It’s a holistic approach. You don’t abuse it by smoking, obviously. You exercise, you don’t scream, and you learn how to sing properly — it’s technique. And I’ve been lucky to be able to do that because I majored in musical theater. I’ve had voice training and dance training and acting training. So I’m able to utilize all my skill sets all the time.

Those are the things that have offered me a career that has spanned over so many years, and they’ve given me the flexibility to jump into a movie, jump into television, or into a musical or straight play and know how to maintain my instrument — which is my entire body.

As an actor, you’ve appeared in so many different projects across a wide spectrum of genres—from Schwarzenegger films to Christmas Carols and beyond. What motivates you to take on all these roles?

Well, you know, my approach has always been “I love a challenge.” So yeah, I’d love to say I’ve planned everything and everything was exactly the way I wanted it to be. But you get offers, you get excited about things, and sometimes you take things because the money is so good you can’t deny it. For the most part, I’ve been very fluid in terms of what’s been offered and in having the bravery or audacity to always stretch myself and take a challenge.

By Gilles Toucas.

What’s on your artistic bucket list? What’s something you haven’t done yet that you’d love to take on?

I’ve always wanted to do something in London in the West End, and I will be soon. I can’t tell you exactly what it is because it hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s been on my bucket list and it’s happening. I’d like to do more producing and directing. Getting a chance to create never gets old. It never gets less exciting.

What did it feel like getting to come back to the Miss America pageant as a judge after all those years away?

I think the biggest satisfaction was for my mother. She lived through everything that's happened in my life. And I think it was really satisfying for her. So, you know, give it up to mom. The things that you do to.. I don’t wanna say impress your parents, but to make them feel good. And she definitely felt there was some vindication going on.

Vanessa Williams will be performing at the Highlands Church for the Arizona Musicfest on Friday, November 8, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $39-$86 and can be purchased in advance online.

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