Singer Elisabeth Withers Goes Solo

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Farai Chideya talks with Elisabeth Withers, the Tony-nominated actor whose debut album is titled It Can Happen to Anyone. Withers played Shug Avery in the Broadway version of The Color Purple.

TONY COX, host:

Elisabeth Withers starred on Broadway as sexy Shug Avery in "The Color Purple." The Tony-nominated actor has stepped from the big stage into the studio. Her debut album, "It Can Happen to Anyone," blends R&B and gospel with pop and old school cabaret.

Withers spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya about her recording experience and her Broadway work.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Tell me about what Shug Avery means to you. I mean, when you talk about "The Color Purple," which has been seen in many different forms -well, read and seen. Read in the original book form, seen in the movie, now seen on stage with you. And it's that character, in particular, means so much to so many people. What does she mean to you?

Ms. ELISABETH WITHERS (Actress, Singer): Well, it's history. When I got the call for me to do this, I felt like I was being asked to be a part of history. And to play that role is so sentimental and close to me because the lives are so parallel. I mean, when I think about the music where she from - she came from the church, you know. And I think about the music that she sang. She sang from her heart.

(Soundbite of stage play, "The Color Purple")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WITHERS (As Shug Avery): (Singing) But when I see what's in your heart, all the rest is blurred. The grace you bring into this world - too beautiful for words.

CHIDEYA: Take us to your album. Just for me listening to it, it blends all of these different genres. You've got the sounds of the church. You've got the sounds of a more traditional, maybe Broadway, style of music. And you've got R&B, and you've got all these different formats kind of swirled together. Tell us about the process of saying, okay, I'm going to do an album, and how you actually go about it?

Ms. WITHERS: Well - and you know what's so special about this project is that it was not - okay, it's going to be like this and we're going to do it just like this. And we're going to - it was just songs. When I got together with the producer Toby Gad, I went in and I would tell him, you know, okay. This is what I want to write about today. This is what I'm feeling today. I'm feeling, you know - I noticed when I'm walking down the street, I see these guys walking with their girls.

And, you know, no matter how pretty or sexy or nice or what looks - appears to be intelligent the woman is, the guy is always turning and looking at somebody else. Why is that? Hey, I want to write about that.

And there came "Be With You."

(Soundbite of song, "Be with You")

Ms. WITHERS: (Singing) I wanna be with you. Gonna let them know from the (unintelligible) above, if it's one by one, and watch you come undone. I wanna…

CHIDEYA: Do you feel like you have a calling to do what you do?

Ms. WITHERS: Oh, my God. Yes, I do, Farai. Because - I mean, going back to my family. I remember sitting around the table and asking again if I could sing for our family dinners. And then, you know, when the homework was done, and, you know, the family discussions of what happened today was done, we would hear all kinds of music.

I mean, we listen to everything from Frank Sinatra to Natalie Cole to Millie Jackson, the Clark Sisters, Hawkins Family. I mean, just any - Dolly Parton. I mean, anybody that you can imagine - Shalimar. We listen to everything. And they would let me sing whatever my heart content. And when I say I would literally be in my room pretending like the bubbles of the paint on the wall were millions of people, I did that.

And so I believe it gave me a good footing for where I am right now, because now I have no fear on stage when I am singing to people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Well, what about the song choices on "It Can Happen to Anyone?" Why don't you talk us through two or three songs on the album and why they are important to you or why you love them?

Ms. WITHERS: Wow. That's a great, great question. I love "Be With You." And then one of my other favorites - one is "Heartstrings." It's a song that I wrote with Barry Eastman and Gordon Chambers. And it summarizes my whole experience of, you know, when I first had my little girl, Chelsea, and I met my best friend, Damon(ph), that song sort of like epitomizes how I feel about that relationship. I mean, it was like, at that moment is when I really, really learned and found out about love.

(Soundbite of song, "Heartstrings")

Ms. WITHERS: (Singing) You make me wanna (unintelligible). Shine like I'm the brightest star, yeah. The way you're strumming on my heartstring, it makes me wanna…

CHIDEYA: Of course - as my last question I have to ask you - so what next? You're where you want to be, but I'm sure you have plans coming up.

Ms. WITHERS: Everything, where I am right now is way more than I've ever asked for, prayed for or hoped for, so I just say wherever, you know, we end up being in that direction, I would love to do that.

CHIDEYA: Elisabeth Withers, thank you so much.

Ms. WITHERS: Thank you, Farai.

(Soundbite of song, "It Can Happen")

Ms. WITHERS: (Singing) There ain't no mystery with this game.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya talking with Elisabeth Withers about her debut album, "It Can Happen To Anyone."

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