Vanessa Williams is celebrating two important milestones this year: her 50th birthday and her 30th year in show business, a career that has earned her multiple Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award nominations. After starring in musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman, Into the Woods and Sondheim on Sondheim, Williams gets to show off her dramatic and comedic acting chops as disgruntled housewife Jessie Mae in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Below, Williams chats about getting along with an onstage family that includes Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Adepero Oduye, celebrating Stephen Sondheim’s birthday and hanging out with her Ugly Betty neighbor Michael Urie.
How did The Trip to Bountiful come about for you?
I found out 666 Park Avenue was being cancelled, and my manager called me a week later and said, “You’ve got an offer to do a play with Cicely Tyson on Broadway.” I said, “Wow, perfect timing!”
Horton Foote writes such fascinating female characters—tell me about your take on Jessie Mae.
Well, the character, she’s a handful. But once you put the play on its feet and get it in front of an audience, I was really surprised by how much humor there was. Not only with Jessie Mae’s character, but the entire show. When we finished our first night of previews, we came off and said we knew we were in good company, because it was laughter, laughter, laughter, laughter. So that was probably the most surprising thing. Because [Foote] is known for very sentimental, heartwarming pieces.
What's it been like to go head to head with Cicely Tyson on stage?
I marvel at her stamina, especially when she’s going to luncheon after press conference. She’s one of those people that you look at her energy and her commitment and her joy of theater and the work, and that’s what I… I mean, I just want to be alive at her age! [Laughs.] And I want to be doing what I love at her age, as well.
How about your stage husband, Cuba Gooding Jr.?
I think he’s done an amazing transition. Theater is a whole different beast, doing an eight-shows-a-week schedule, and the rehearsal process, and the mechanics of what happens on a Broadway stage. I think he’s doing a great job.
You’ve recently gotten a new cast member, Adepero Oduye—what’s it like adding her into the fold?
So far so good! She was nervous at her put-in rehearsal. I remember my put-in rehearsal for Kiss of the Spider Woman following Chita Rivera, and I had the same type of anxiety: just trying to remember everything, the blocking, and for me, it was choreography and lyrics and changes. Luckily you have the people at the theater to help you. She’s done a great job. We’ve all welcomed her with open arms.
You did a wonderful job guest hosting Live With Kelly and Michael recently. Would you ever consider hosting your own talk show?
To me, it’s fun. I’m the guest, so I don’t feel like I’ve got a huge amount of responsibility. And it’s not all about me, which I love, too [laughs]. But hosting? I don’t know. I would have to be able to do something that allowed me to be creative and have my outlet for music and acting and dancing. I couldn’t give up everything that I do just to host.
Your career has been so varied. Is there anything you feel like you haven’t had the chance to do?
I still want to originate a role in a new musical. I got close to it with The Wild Party, but I would love to do something in the future. That’s definitely a goal.
Any composers in particular that you’d like to work with?
I’m a big fan of Michael John LaChiusa. I think his stuff is dreamy and gorgeous and complex. He’s fantastic. The old standards are always wonderful—you can’t get better than Gershwin or Arlen. And Sondheim, I’ve been so lucky to do two shows of his music.
What is Sondheim really like?
He’s a great guy. He tells fantastic stories and gives precise notes, but he’s also there to support you. It’s one thing to study him when you’re a musical theater major, and then to get the chance to work with him and listen to his stories? Those are the times when you pinch yourself and say, “Oh my God, I remember studying this guy’s music and now he’s part of my Rolodex.” The highlight was singing “Happy Birthday” to him on his 80th birthday, when they renamed the theater [The Trip to Bountiful is playing in] the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. To see the shock and joy in his face when that happened was wonderful. I was standing right next to him, and that’s one to tick off on your bucket list and say, “Wow.” It goes beyond getting the chance to be in a Sondheim show, but to be a part of his life.
Are there any other Sondheim roles you’d like to tackle? Maybe Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd?
Sweeney is fantastic. Any of his things would be fantastic. I can’t be too choosy!
We loved seeing you and Michael Urie together again at the Buyer & Cellar opening—do you and the Ugly Betty cast still keep in touch?
I’ve seen him twice in Buyer & Cellar! We live in the same building, so I just saw him this morning. He recently lost one of his dogs, and I saw his new dog that he got at the Animal Haven. She’s a rescue, and her name is President McKinley! But yes, the cast of Ugly Betty are still very tight. I just had drinks with Ana [Ortiz] and Mark Indelicato three weeks ago. America [Ferrera] I saw during previews. And Judith [Light] I’ve seen at every Broadway event that I’ve attended. It’s one of those really tight-knit families. We would love to all work together again.
Do any of your kids want to follow in your footsteps?
My middle daughter [Jillian] has just signed to Polydor Records in London, so she’s singing and performing. The name of her band is Lion Babe, and she’s just embarking on it, writing songs. [Sasha] is in theater camp every summer, and film camp, and she’ll be going back again next week. She loves doing the behind-the-camera things, and editing. And my other two kids [Melanie and Devin] are in fashion.
What's the secret to raising four great children and maintaining a busy career?
I raised them in the suburbs—not in a big city or Los Angeles—I raised them in as normal of a hometown environment as I could. There’s a lot of things that I gave up, in terms of travel and roles, to be there for them. Now that three of them are gone and I have just one [Sasha, 13] at home…I always discuss with them, “I’ve got this opportunity, what do you think?” I’m lucky that they get it and they understand.
See Vanessa Williams in The Trip to Bountiful at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.