Stage Veteran Vivian Reed Makes It Her Own in New Nightclub Act
Vivian Reed, the multiple award-winning singer and actress and recipient of two Tony nominations, has recently been making a splash in New York's cabaret scene, first with a celebrated turn at 54 Below, and now with monthly sold-out shows at The Metropolitan Room.
EDGE spoke with the star about her career and the many stories behind the talents she brings to the stage.
EDGE: I read that you started singing at eight years old.
Vivian Reed: Yes, that's when I started taking voice lessons. My parents said that I started making melodious tones at age three. Of course, I don't remember that. So, they took me to the Pittsburgh Musical Institute when I was six to see if they could get my lessons started and the teacher said I was too young and to bring me back in two years.
EDGE: And later you went to Juilliard.
Vivian Reed: Yes, I left high school a year early and got a scholarship there and was a Voice major.
EDGE: But I understand you had some trouble there.
Vivian Reed: Oh yes, I had a lot of trouble there. My teacher was upset because I auditioned for summer stock at Green Mansion. Juilliard was, and they probably still are, purists when it comes to classical music. They don't want you to branch out and do other things. When my teacher found out I had been hired-I think I was about eighteen or nineteen-he actually called the director of the summer stock program and asked them not to hire me. The director called me and said, 'Your teacher called and asked us not to hire you, but he cannot tell us what to do. Do you or do you not want the job?' I said I did. When my teacher found out, they sent me a letter asking me to leave the school but that I was welcome to come back in a year.
However, I didn't go back in a year. I was lying to my parents about what had happened, and I carried that inside of me a long time. I finally told them the truth. Just talking to Audra McDonald and others that went to Juilliard, I felt empowered that I wasn't the only one who went through a lot of stuff at Juilliard. I'm okay with Juilliard, but I think people have to understand that even though you go to school for a certain thing, it doesn't mean you are going to end up doing that kind of music. To me, what is more important-because I also teach at Marymount Manhattan College-is that I am so blessed and happy because of the time I spent at Juilliard. I learned a lot. I would recommend the school to anyone. If you are armed with the basic foundation, which for me was a voice technique because I had studied all those years, it will serve you the rest of your life. I would never give that up for anything. When you come into this business, learn as much as you can, study as hard as you can, because when you are faced with having to do eight shows a week, all of that training and technique will come into play and work for you.
EDGE: You sing everything-pop, jazz, opera, blues, gospel.
Vivian Reed: [Laughs] People wonder how the hell I can do that!
EDGE: Has that ever posed a problem for agents or casting people who may not know how to market you?
Vivian Reed: No, not really. I think a long time ago when Bobby Schiffman and Honi Coles were managing me, I was working at a club and someone from the industry asked Bobby, 'How do you categorize her?' And Bobby said, 'You don't.' It's hard to categorize me. It's the same with my acting. That's what it is, so that is what I become. As for the singing, not everybody can do what I do, switching to different styles. Initially, when I switched from classical to what I'm singing today, I did not want to sound like a classical singer trying to sing pop music. When I hear singers do that, it can drive me bananas, but I understand it. I went for the jugular vein. Having said that, the transition was not an easy one. I had nodes on my vocal cords; I was hoarse a lot. I was in misery with my vocal cords for almost ten years. Then it suddenly switched: what was hard for me became easy and the classical became hard. So down through the years it had almost come full circle. I can do them both, but can I stand up on stage and to an entire evening of classical music? No. I would have to go back and get some re-training and stop belting and all of that. Do I care to do that? Absolutely not. I love very much what I am doing right now.
EDGE: Even your show is called 'Standards and More,' so you refuse to be boxed in by a theme.
Vivian Reed: That is the word, more. I love very eclectic shows. At one of my previous shows, there was some funkier stuff, and this woman came up to me after the show and said she loved the old standards. And, you know, after classical, that's where you go next. Honi Coles made me learn them. So they were in my repertoire. The thing that I do, and I tell this to my students, is what Bobby told me: If you are going to cover songs that other people have done a thousand times, you have to find a way to put your stamp on it. So everything I do has my way of doing it. You want to keep the integrity of the piece, but you must find your voice within that piece. I told my band years ago, 'You may recognize the title, but that is all you are going to recognize because I change everything.' For 'Fever,' I changed the bass line from Peggy Lee's version. I still sing the melody, but the arrangement is all mine. That's what I do. I make it my own.
EDGE: Another thing you do is use hand gestures to dramatize moments in the song. The gestures are very meaningful, but they also give you a bit of that diva flair. Does that spring from your dance training?
Vivian Reed: Yes. Oh my God, I am so glad you asked that! Sometimes my students drive me crazy. When they come to lessons, their wrists are limp. And I ask them, 'Do you take dance?' And I know that most of them have to take dance at Marymount. I say, 'Let your dance influence your performance as a singer. If you went into dance class and your wrists were limp, your dance teachers would not allow that. So then why are you doing it now?' I never think about my arms or hands when I'm singing. I get into a zone, I go somewhere. I let the music and the feeling of the song dictate what my body should do. But if you said to me, 'Vivian, when you sing that phrase in 'My Funny Valentine', your arms did this. How did you come to that?' I can honestly tell you, I have no idea. It just happens.
EDGE: It's magical. I noticed that right away. Fashion is also a part of your stage presence.
Vivian Reed: My mother was a 'fashionista.' My father would allow her to dress him. She taught me how to sew when I was about ten years old. I have a scarf line called VJR Scarves. I make everything myself and it's doing fairly well. When it comes to the stage, I don't make anything, but I do design everything. Here's how it got started. There was a guy named Larry who used to sew for me. We met before I moved over to Paris. And he would make things for me, but if I did a pirouette, the heel might get caught or something like that. So he said, 'Listen, you design your own stuff. You know what you need for moving on the stage.' In Paris, Pierre Cardin had me come to his club after he saw me in 'Bubbling Brown Sugar.' He took me under his wing when I started living over there. One night he was opening up a new Maxine's or something so I asked him if I could wear one of his designs. He said, 'Really?' Honey, when I finished that show-and I don't know how much that thing cost but it had to be in the thousands-I don't want to say I ruined it, but that thing had to be taken away. He said to me, just like Larry, 'Design your own stuff. You need stuff for how you are on stage.' Everything you see me wear on stage is out of my head and a woman named Cassandra Bromfield executes them for me. Whoever sews for me has to be on top of their game, because I can sew my ass off. But she does things I can't do!
EDGE: You lived in Paris for seven years. That has been a rite of passage for many African-American artists over the years. What is it that draws so many black artists to Paris?
Vivian Reed: I don't know. For me, it was because they wanted me to go over there to open 'Bubbling Brown Sugar.' I didn't go over there because things weren't happening for me here in a big way. I think there is an appreciation for artists here in this country, but over there it might even be deeper. I went over there young, but there is not the emphasis put on age that there is in this country. Is there more appreciation for us over there? There are different trains of thought on that. Some think we stand a better chance of making it over there than here, and I think that may be the case with some people. They couldn't quite get off the block here, but over there they took Europe by storm. I think it depends.
EDGE: You mentioned in your show that you took some time off to care for your mother and feared coming back into the business. Was the fear about the business itself or insecurity about your talent?
Vivian Reed: No, never about my talent. I am clear about what God has given me. I had been gone so long, and with no regrets, because my parents had always been there for me. She never asked me to take off, but I wanted to be there for her. My brother was also in the house looking after her also. I just didn't know if people were going to show up or if they cared. I had been gone for so long and I was scared. Would they remember me? Could I attract new fans?
I had a discussion with someone who is in the business as a company manager. He said to me, 'Vivian, what songs are you going to be doing to attract new fans, young fans?' I said, 'I don't understand your question.' He was thinking that to get young fans we had to cater to what they like in order to get them to follow us. I told him, 'It always has been and always will be about the caliber of your performance.' It is always about performance, performance, performance. If you are bringing yourself to that stage and giving something to that audience, their takeaway will be 'Oh my God, what an artist.' It doesn't matter if they know the song. I had my show at 54 Below, my first major thing after I came back. Honey, I started singing offstage, the opening song, which was 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered.' When I sang the first few notes, the people just screamed. When I walked out there and saw that place packed to capacity, tears almost came to my eyes. I had to back away from that because I can't sing when I cry. And there were a lot of young people there that night. I gained a lot of new fans that night. This company manager was sitting right on the edge of the stage when I was coming off after a standing ovation. And he said, 'You have proven your point.'
EDGE: You remain well-known for 'Bubbling Brown Sugar,' for which you received a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination. Is there any memory that stands out from that experience?
Vivian Reed: Number one, it changed me and catapulted me in a direction, put me in the limelight, so to speak. But what I remember is this whole jealousy thing that occurred with the other cast members when the critics started writing about me. We were friends during the rehearsal process, and then when the reviews came out, they weren't speaking to me. That is probably something I will never forget. For me, it had me fighting back in a way that was unpleasant because I hadn't matured. I certainly don't want to harbor those feelings now and I've forgiven a lot of the people. But when the hateful stuff came, I cried a lot. I didn't know how to deal with it. I think I'm pretty easygoing, I do my job, I'm the quintessential professional. And I'm very giving when it comes to other performers. For example, I'll tell someone about an audition even if I'm up for the same role because I feel that if I don't get it, maybe they will. But this kind of thing happened a lot in the early part of my career, so it made me become . . . a little bit of a bitch. [Laughs.] It's really not in me. But that was then. I was young. I became very guarded. Later when I was in Europe, I was hearing stories about things that I had done and I didn't know what they were talking about. There was a time when I thought I would get out of the business. A producer said to me, 'If you do that, they win.' So I hung in there and fought and stayed. I'm in a great place now. I don't run into the jealousy thing anymore, but I can tell immediately when it's there. My thing is, God gave me this gift as He has given many people gifts, and you cannot waste your time coveting what others have or you will lose yours. If someone has a problem with my talent, they can't be in my space. I went through hell with that and I'll never go through that again.
EDGE: That's an amazing story, because when you ask someone about a career highlight, you automatically assume it's all happy memories.
Vivian Reed: That is a show in itself. Remember 'A Chorus Line?' Michael Bennett. He sat around with people and talked about the business. There are stories there. Sometimes-and I say this in a loving way-sometimes your gift can be a curse. The reason why I say it is because you have to ask yourself, 'What do I want? Should I go on stage and be less than what I'm capable of so that you can feel good?' Get over it, until the day I die I will keep working on my craft. I want to be as great as I can possibly be. And if you're not comfortable with what God has given you, that's on you.
EDGE: Is there a role you would still like to have the opportunity to play?
Vivian Reed: Not right offhand. It would have to be something great in my age range. One time Graciela Daniele asked me that when we were on a break during 'Marie Christine,' and I told her I'd like to play a bag lady, a homeless woman. She looked at me like I had two heads. She said, 'Vivian, nobody in their right mind would hire you to be a bag lady.' You know what I did? Years later, I hired Marla Gibbs' daughter, a great writer, and she wrote and directed me in a short film about a homeless woman who murdered someone. I love character work. I live for character work.
EDGE: Recently there has been some chatter because of 'Hamilton,' 'The Color Purple,' 'Shuffle Along,' and 'Allegiance,' that there is finally more diversity on Broadway. Do you think this will continue?
Vivian Reed: I don't know because there was time when 'Bubbling Brown Sugar' was running, there was a black version of' Guys and Dolls,' and there were seven black shows on Broadway, and we were like 'Wowee!' And all of a sudden it didn't last. So who is to stay? What I would like to see non-traditional casting where race doesn't even come into it.
EDGE: That is part of the genius of 'Hamilton'. You're watching and totally buying it. It doesn't matter that they are playing the Founding Fathers.
Vivian Reed: When I saw 'Into the Heights,' I knew this guy was so with it. This man thinks outside of the box. And isn't that what it calls for, thinking outside of the box? They were doing rap in that musical, and I said 'Okay!' Recently someone came over to my place to work on something and when he came in, I was listening to rap. [Laughs] He said, 'You are the strangest bird. You studied classical and you sing pop and I walk into your house and you're listening to rap!' Listen, Kevin, you better be glad I'm not doing no rap up on that stage! But see, Lin-Manuel Miranda creates. I'm kind of sick of revivals. What do we do with all these creative people who are out there who have a voice but we're not hearing it because people are afraid to invest. When are we going to get back to that again?
EDGE: I encourage you to bring a piece of that rap into a future show, just to blow people's minds.
Vivian Reed: [Screams] You know what? Don't give me any thoughts. That woman said she wanted to hear standards and hear we are. So I just might do that. I am definitely an out of the box performer, so I might give that some thought.
EDGE: Stephen Holden's review of your show in the New York Times said that you never received your full due but that your time may have arrived. Do you agree?
Vivian Reed: You are the first person who actually addressed that sentence. When I read it, I said, 'Okay.' But everybody else said, 'Great, he is saying your time has arrived!' But what does that mean? Am I where I want to be? I'd like to do some television, now that theater people are getting some work there. I understand what Stephen is saying, but I can't think about what I haven't done here or there. I have to consider what I have done, what I have accomplished not only here but around the world. I have done things that most people can only dream of. 'Stardom' is a relative term. 'Making it' is how you define that for yourself. For someone who has done what I've done and stayed in show business for this long, I've done great. For me, I am always wanting more. In that respect, I haven't made it because I have not touched enough people. If I could live on the stage 365 days except to come off to eat and drink water for sustenance, I would do it. That's what I live for.
Vivian Reed will be at the Metropolitan Room in New York on Monday, May 23rd, 7:00 p.m. Go to www.metropolitanroom.com for information and tickets. She will be there again on June 17th and July 21st.
Watch Vivian Reed perform at the 1976 Tony Awards: