Backstage following Valerie Simpson's debut in "Chicago," March 12, 2018. From left: Phylicia Rashad, George Faison, Simpson, Freddie Jackson, Paul Shaffer and Dave Koz.
Any number of Broadway stars have graced the Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar stage, but Monday night owner Valerie Simpson did an about-face: She made her Broadway debut as jailhouse Matron “Mama” Morton in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago Monday night at the Ambassador Theatre.
When it was over, Bianca Marroquin, superb in the lead role of Roxie Hart, reverently welcomed Simpson to the “Chicago family” during the triumphant curtain call.
“Motown legend,” she said, then repeated for emphasis, “I said, ’MOTOWN LEGEND’...VALERIE SIMPSON!”—then bowed at her feet.
Not that Simpson wasn’t nervous, as she admitted at the Sugar Bar in the small Garden Room in the back of the restaurant/nightclub after she arrived, exhausted, at the after-party. After all, as she had said in an interview last week, singing or reciting other writers’ words was different than voicing the ones she’d co-written with her late husband and singing-songwriting-performing partner Nick Ashford.
Learning the dialog and staging was also challenging, Simpson had said, though you wouldn’t have known it when she took the stage to an eruption of cheers from her own “Sugar Bar family,” out in full force in the front rows and so loud that she virtually broke character in waving them off. Then again, she seemed made for the role—and probably any number of future ones.
After all, before there was Ashford & Simpson, there was Valerie Simpson, solo recording artist, who released a pair of coveted albums for Motown (Exposed, 1971, and Valerie Simpson, 1972) before she and Ashford left Motown as songwriters and producers to focus on what became their successful recording-performing career. In 2012—a year after Ashford’s death--she put out Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again, a solo album that she’d recorded with Ashford several years earlier but had temporarily shelved.
Shortly thereafter, Simpson, backed by veteran Ashford & Simpson players, also successfully tested solo concert performing, at prestigious venues like the Beacon Theatre and Lincoln Center. Then at the end of 2016, she joined Dave Koz on his annual Christmas tour, a grueling grind of 24 shows in 29 days—and in a bus, something she’d never done, not even during Ashford & Simpson’s heyday. Koz joined numerous other luminaries in the dressing room and the Sugar Bar after the Chicago debut (others included Paul Shaffer, with whom Simpson recently toured; Phylicia Rashad, Freddie Jackson, Terri Lyne Carrington, Felicia Collins, Joshie Jo Armstead and Tony-winning choreographer George Faison).
After glad-handing her way through the friends packing the front of the Sugar Bar, then, she was understandably relieved to sit down at a comparatively secluded Garden Room table, if only for a moment.
Sure enough, a Sugar Bar staffer apologetically interrupted her calm with a question about scheduling, since this being the Sugar Bar, there would be live music no matter the time, let alone occasion. And with that Simpson found her second, third or fourth wind, roused herself up and headed back to the main room and band stand. There, besides introducing the band, she thanked everyone present for being there for her, and then cut a huge Chicago opening commemorative cake with Chazz Lamar Shepherd, the actor/singer-songwriter and regular host of Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic events, whose name was next to hers on the cake since he, too, had debuted that night in Chicago in the key role of lawyer Billy Flynn.
It was 11:45 when the music started, and as always at the Sugar Bar, it would go on until all the cake was eaten, all the drinks drained. And it’s safe to say that Valerie Simpson will host many more such celebrations, now that her second solo career is certainly in full swing.