If you think that a legendary career as a performer—not to mention singer and songwriter—would be enough not to ruffle Valerie Simpson’s feathers on the eve of her Broadway debut, well, you’d be wrong.
“It’s totally ruffling!” says Simpson, who commences her six-week run as jailhouse Matron “Mama” Morton in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago Monday night at the Ambassador Theatre.
“They don’t want your ad libs, they want their words,” adds Simpson, contrasting her own music performances with her late husband and music partner Nick Ashford with the demands of the theater writers and producers.
Simpson, who will handle the part for the next six weeks, is taking over for Grammy winner and Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss. She knows the role of Matron “Mama” Morton role well from Queen Latifah’s Oscar-nominated performance in the Oscar-winning 2002 film version of the musical.
“My friend Roz Ryan also played it on Broadway [Mary McCarty originated the role in the initial 1975 Broadway production] and I saw her in it,” continues Simpson.
“But how I got it is interesting: I was at a party Clive Davis’s house, and Alicia Keys was supposed to be there and sing a couple numbers—but she wasn’t. So Clive came over to me and said, ‘Can you do something, Val?’ I was holding my drink but said, ‘Okay,’ and did [classic Ashford-Simpson compositions] ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’—and talked about how Clive was authentic and original--and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ and after I got off this man came over to me and said, ‘I could really see you as Mama Morton in my play!’ I said, ‘What play?’ and he said, ‘Chicago—on Broadway!‘”
The man was Barry Weissler, co-producer of the Chicago revival, which won six Tony Awards in 1997. Written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse and with music by John Kander and lyrics by Ebb, the show is now the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.
But Simpson felt it was “farfetched” for Weissler to have envisioned her as Mama Morton after hearing just two songs at a party.
“It took me a good while to get back to him, because I never anticipated acting or being on Broadway,” she says. “But then I mentioned it to a couple people who said, ‘Why not? At least give it a go,’ and I said, ‘What am I afraid of?’ So I looked at the show again and said, ‘Okay, I’ll go up for it’—and got it! But it was Barry’s vision.”
Simpson gets to sing only two songs in her Chicago role, but there’s plenty of dialog.
“That was the hard part,” she says, “that and learning the staging and blocking, knowing when to get on and off and who to talk to. Running through the dialog at home with Asia [her daughter and backup singer Asia Ashford] is one thing, but doing it on stage is another! It’s been crazy and certainly much more nerve-wracking than I anticipated.”
But her preparation has also been fun, “because it’s something new—and the speed and rhythm at which you talk on stage is different: You speak slower in real life, but they move things right along in the theater, and it’s fascinating.”
And Simpson reveals one other fascinating if not magical detail relating both to her forthcoming Chicago engagement and the famous Thursday night open mic events at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar—her popular Upper West Side restaurant/nightclub.
“The night after they told me I got the part was a Thursday, and I waited until there were 30 or 40 Sugar Bar Open Mic regulars left when I made the announcement,” says Simpson.
“Everybody whooped and hollered, and Chazz Lamar Shepherd, who was hosting and was in the original Broadway production of The Color Purple, said, ‘I could see myself doing that with you!’ So his manager sent him up for the part of the lawyer Billy Flynn—and he got it! And now we’re opening on the same night!”