By Amy Sapp
Coffee or tea?
Tea. I don’t drink coffee. If you have seen my performance or anything I have done, I am hyper on my own. I really don’t need any outside thing to help.
How do you take your tea?
I drink all kinds of tea from black tea to green tea. My favorite is sweet tea, but I probably should not have that because it is full or sugar.
You are headlining another solo show on November 14 at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Being a huge Disney fan, what kind of magical moments can your fans expect from this new show?
I would say that there are a couple of fun stories about Disney and my wife and I because we are big Disney fans. “Friend Like Me” is there, but it is a whole different version of “Friend Like Me.” When people see me outside of the show, I want them to get a different feel. So, give them what they want but also give them something different to see as well. I also have a kind of emotional moment with Disney at the end of the show.
What is it like having your wife in the audience for your solo show?
I love it. It is funny because when I first did the show last year, she didn’t want to be there every night. But then she said, “I had no idea I was going to be such an integral part of your show.” I was like, “Of course, you are such an integral part of my life!” She always lets me know that she is not the one screaming. She is not the one laughing. I’m like, “Thanks for laughing!” She says, “That wasn’t me. That was other people.” It’s a good anchor to have her there.
Considering Disney plays a huge role in your life, right now, do you have a favorite Disney film in this moment of life?
I have a Mount Rushmore of favorite Disney movies. But one that I am obsessed with right now is probably Alice in Wonderland. I am a huge Alice in Wonderland fan because I am such a big fan of Ed Wynn, who plays the Mad Hatter, and that scene between Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna, who plays the March Hare, is one of my favorite scenes ever. I also love Sterling Holloway, who is the voice of Winnie the Pooh, the voice of Kaa, and also the voice of the Cheshire Cat. I know Alice in Wonderland by heart, to the point where when we go to Disneyland – and my wife knows this is going to happen – when we go by the teacup ride and “A Very Merry Unbirthday” comes on, I just sing all of the lyrics. And you can see people in line, looking at me, waiting to find out who this crazy person is – and they don’t expect it to me.
What is your favorite Alice in Wonderland quote from the classic film?
There are two of them. The Mad Hatter looks at Alice and says, “You have a story to tell.” The March Hare looks and says, “Start at the beginning.” And the Mad Hatter says, “And when you come to the end, stop.”
But the one that my wife and I repeat to each other – and we have done this for fourteen years – the word, “mustard” cannot be said in our house without someone saying, “Mustard! Yes. Mustard? Let’s don’t be silly. Lemon, that’s different.” That’s because when they stole the White Rabbit’s watch, they tried to fix it, and they put all kinds of things in it: sugar, jams, two spoons – he goes, “Sugar? Yes!” and takes two spoons and puts them in the pot. And then at the end, the March Hare says, “Mustard! Yes. M-mustard? Let’s don’t be silly. Lemon, that’s different.” And they put it in the watch, and it explodes. So, if there is any mention of mustard around my wife or I, we look at each other – and we know we shouldn’t – but we do it every time.
Since you are currently in a Disney show, do you find yourself humming along to the music from your show while at home?
You know, it’s funny. Once I am in a show, I do not listen to the music anymore. I have not watched the actual Aladdin cartoon in three years. I promised myself I would not watch it until I was out of the show. I used to watch it religiously.
Why is that?
The Aladdin I am in right now is this Aladdin. I don’t want to taint it. But I did promise myself that the day I leave Aladdin, the next day, I am going to watch the cartoon just to experience it, wash the palate, and enjoy Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Robin Williams, Brad Kane, Lea Salonga, Jonathan Freeman – all of those guys.
You mentioned Alan Menken – you have performed with him before in the past, but is there a duet you wish to sing with him one day onstage?
It’s not a guy-to-guy duet, but I would love to sing, “Feed Me” [from Little Shop of Horrors] and have [Alan] play Seymour on the piano. I would love to sing, “Feed Me (Git It),” and I play Audrey II, and he plays Seymour. That would be a dream come true. I would lose it.
Speaking of a man who has written everything, let’s talk about your musical director at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Bill Sherman.
Bill Sherman and I met at Freestyle Love Supreme. He went to school with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail. All of those guys went to school together. So, when Chris Jackson brought me into the group, Bill was already there. I met all of those guys when we were coming up, trying to do this stuff. They were literally just getting In the Heights of the ground, and we were getting Memphis off the ground. I was in Spelling Bee at the time in Boston; I wasn’t even on Broadway yet when I joined the group.
Whenever we would do little projects, we would always ask the other person. So, when this opportunity [at Feinstein’s/54 Below] came up, the first person I went to was Bill [Sherman].
During your solo show, you sing a song from Sesame Street that Bill Sherman wrote. Is that magical for you to sing a song like that onstage?
It is! We did [the Sesame Street song] for the [show’s] pilot. Actually, he and Chris Jackson wrote it together. They wrote it for the pilot as a duet with another girl, but when they did the actual show, they said, “We decided we actually wanted to make it a solo.” I was like, “Good, she’ll kill me. But it will be alright.” She’s fine – she’s doing movies now!
I think the song adds a flavor of whimsy to your show. Would you self-describe yourself as a whimsical person?
I think so. My show is the iPod in my head and the iPod in my real life. I don’t just listen to one style of music. I listen to a bunch of genres, and I get into everything – certain things my wife can get into, other things she can’t. Like, I love Bobby McFerrin. And she cannot. She’s like, “Stop with the bing, bam, and the boom. Just stop.” There were so many things that I wanted to put into my show, but I just didn’t have enough time. I wanted to get as much stuff in there that described me and where I came from, from childhood until now. These are the songs that fit with it.
You talk about your unknown love of country music in your show. If you could add one, mainstream country song to your set list, what would it be?
The last show I did, I had “Friends in Low Places” at the end. With this one, I changed it up to do more of an Elvis tune. But what I wanted to but I didn’t think people would know it as well – I love the song, “I’m Not as Good as I Once Was” by Toby Keith. I love that song so much. Country fans know it, but I also wanted to do a song that everybody knew. When you do a show, you don’t want to do too many obscure songs because you lose people. But I can listen to that song all day long. It cracks me up because I am older now – early 40s – and it’s kind of fun. I feel that way sometimes: “I am not as good as I once was but I was good once as I ever was.” And that tune kills me every time I hear it.
Tell me about your love of country music.
I have seen Toby Keith twice. One of my favorite moments of the whole thing was when I was at the Mountain View Center. I walk up and somebody says, “So, um, where do we park the cars?” Because the only brothers there were parking cars. And I said, “Actually ma’am, I am not parking cars. I am here to see the show.” She said, “Oh my gosh! I am so sorry!”
The only other brother in the entire pavilion that sat thousands of people was a guy named James – WHOM I KNEW. There were only two black guys in the entire place that came to see the show, and we knew each other. I was like, “This is kind of sad.”
What created this love of country music as someone who grew up in California?
First of all, I love the fact that you can be a baritone in country music, and it is okay. Pop music, they have this whole thing where you have to be a tenor. You have to be screaming. Don’t get me wrong, I love singing in falsetto, but you can sound like an actual dude in country music and nobody is upset about it. You can look like an actual dude, and nobody is upset about it.
You don’t have to wear skinny jeans?
THANK YOU. You can look like a guy just being out with a job – who also likes to sing.
I got into country music because I love the storytelling. I am a big Ray Charles fan, and Ray Charles used to say that he loved the storytelling of country music. So, I started listening to it. Now, my dad is a hick. He loves country music; he tries to hide it. He’s got the belt buckle. He’s got the hat. He’s got the boot. He’s from Texas. When he got to California, he tried to hide all of that, but the older he has gotten, it has slipped back in. Trust me. Every time I see him, I am like, “He’s wearing the boots, Lord Jesus.” But I started listening to it really when I was sixteen, hiding it from people. And I got into it because I love Johnny Cash. I got into the Outlaws guys, Hank Williams, Jr, Charlie Daniels. What’s funny is I got into the song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels because of The Muppets Show.
Stop it. How?
The Muppets in the original Muppet Show do a version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and my friend said, “You know they say a cuss word in that song.” I said, “No, they don’t! The Muppets do that!” I listened to the original and was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s a cuss word in there!”
I would have never guessed you had a passion for this genre of music.
What’s funny is that I told a friend of mine that country music, blues, and gospel are very close. Some country music, if you take the slide guitar out and put an organ in, it becomes gospel. And if you take gospel music and take the organ out then put the slide guitar in, you’ve got a country tune. The genres are so close, it’s hard not to! There’s such a conglomerate and melting pot of where country, bluegrass, blues, R&B, and gospel come from – it’s really a thick, integral genre, and I cannot help but love it.
That’s who I am when no one is watching. People think that when I am walking down the street, I am jamming to Jay Z, but I am jamming to Chris Stapleton! I can’t help it!