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What’s Up, Tonya Pinkins? The Tony Winner on Going Unplugged at Joe’s Pub and Her Wardrobe of Wigs

What’s Up, Tonya Pinkins? The Tony Winner on Going Unplugged at Joe’s Pub and Her Wardrobe of Wigs
Tonya Pinkins
'Have you seen any black women my age in a musical lately?'

Tony winner Tonya Pinkins has the distinction of a Broadway resume consisting entirely of new works, from Merrily We Roll Along and Jelly's Last Jam to The Wild PartyCaroline, or Change and Radio Gulf. More recently, Pinkins has discovered a passion for cabaret, and she will debut her latest show Tonya Pinkins Unplugged on June 3 at Joe's Pub. Below, the vivacious actress chats with about the new concert, roles that got away and the project she most wants to do next.

What inspired the idea of doing an unplugged concert of career highlights?
I’ve been really loving cabaret and the diversity of that genre—there’s just no limit to what you can do. So I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do an evening from shows I’ve been in (because people love to see things they remember you in) and shows I wanted to do, and either didn't get cast or would never be considered [for the leading role]? It’s a lot of showstopping numbers.

Tell us about one of your "roles that got away."
I don’t know if you would call it a role that got away, but Howard Ashman and I were friends, and he said that the reason he never hired me for Little Shop of Horrors was because there was only one role I was right for…so, I’m going to do Audrey.

What songs have you chosen that people might find unexpected?
I’m going to do “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” from The King and I. It’s one of my favorite shows, and I actually played Anna when I was in school. When did they did the production with Donna Murphy, they offered me Lady Thiang, and I was like, “Lady Thiang? No.“ [Laughs.]

What do you love about performing in concert as opposed to within the context of a musical? 
I have to say that for my most of my career, I have absolutely preferred performing in shows where I was a character; I was afraid of the intimacy cabaret had. But over this last year, I realized people are coming to get to know you, or a side of you. It isn’t like they are showing up for the great songs, they are coming because you’ve revealed something that interests them. It’s allowed me to show sides of myself that only friends would know.

Have you had any memorable fan interactions after one of your cabaret shows?
When I did the last show in March, this group of women came up to me and said, “You’re like Eartha Kitt who can’t keep a man.” [Laughs.] In my other show, I talk a lot about my tragic love life.

What’s next? Are you itching to return to musicals?
I’d love to, but have you seen any black women my age in a musical lately? That’s why I’d like to see more non-traditional casting. When Arthur [Laurents] did the remake of Gypsy, I was like, “Let me understudy [Patti LuPone]. Let me replace her!” And he was like, “No, Tonya, I’ll write something for you.” And I’m thinking, “You’re 95 now, Arthur, what are you going to write for me?” I meet young writers all the time, so hopefully someone writes something interesting. I love Sleeping Beauty Wakes; I hope someone picks that up here in New York. It’s a beautiful musical and a great part.

Is it exciting to see your son Maxx Brawer beginning his career as an actor? Do you offer him any advice?
My kids don’t listen to anything I say [laughs]. Maxx just moved in with me, and when he asks me [about a career choice], I say, “What does it matter what I would do? Do what you think is going to work for you and figure it out.” He’s incredibly handsome, so I say, “Go to Hollywood and become a movie star and then you can come back and star on Broadway.”

We adore your red carpet fashions and your wardrobe of wigs. What goes into your look?
I have probably about 40 wigs, and I’m always buying more. I have this whole set of IKEA shelves [filled] with wig heads. I wake up, and I look and think: Who do I want to be today?

Catch Tonya Pinkins Unplugged at Joe’s Pub on June 3.

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