Over the years, R&B legend Patti LaBelle has never been known to mince words when it comes to touchy topics—give or take a few questions about a fellow R&B luminary and a reality show about so-called R&B divas (read on to find out more). But when it comes to the abrupt closing announcement of the acclaimed Broadway musical After Midnight—in which she’s currently guest-starring—the news left the “Lady Marmalade” singer nearly speechless.
“I was shocked,” she says. “I actually walked in on the meeting on the halftime while going to my dressing room and everybody was acting like it was a funeral going on. And then my lady who dresses me said, ‘Well, the play has just been canceled.’ And I said, ‘Well, when does it end?’ She said, ‘The 29th. When you end, it’s over.’ I said, ‘Oh my God.’ I felt awful.”
On June 10, the Grammy-winning songstress joined a very short and selective list of pop music superstars who joined the Jazz Age musical as “celebrity guest stars.” When the Scott Sanders-helmed production first got underway to rave reviews last year, American Idol star Fantasia Barrino became a box office draw.
Juxtaposing her sultry stage prowess and vibrant vocal abilities alongside the masterful talents of The Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars (led by Daryl Waters) and some of the best Black talent the Great White Way has to offer (including Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox, and Dule Hill), the Duke Ellington-styled production won over audiences and tough theater critics alike. Toni Braxton and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, k.d. lang and Vanessa Williams soon followed, as news of LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole was announced to play through the summer months.
Due to a denial of contract concessions from numerous theater unions—allowing the show to temporarily go dark over the July 4 week (between scheduled appearances by LaBelle and Knight) to conserve money and avoid dismal ticket sales—the plug was pulled. After Midnight was nominated for seven 2014 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and won one for Best Choreography (Warren Carlyle).
“I don’t like that at all. I don’t like some of the kids not having work when it’s over, the crew, the backstage workers, the band. This just is not nice,” LaBelle, who previously starred in the 2009 Tony-winning musical Fela!, says. “So I have a few angels out there working now, and we’re praying that somebody will save the day. Because Gladys won’t get a chance, Natalie won’t get a chance. And it’s something that everyone should experience, seeing the renaissance of Harlem. The play needs to go on so everybody can learn about our past.”
With a career spanning five decades, the Philadelphia native said that while seeing Fantasia in After Midnight motivated her to sign up for the show, she still had some reservations: “I just had a problem thinking about memorizing my lyrics… and the fear of being talked about badly by the public with them saying, ‘Miss Thing came up there with her 70-year-old self and forgot every lyric.’ I’m not trying to be beat up by the press. But seeing Fantasia did help me a lot.”
But some other rewarding factors sealed the deal for her. “The best thing is, there’s no intermission,” she says. “That’s straight through music, song and dance. You hit and you quit it. And the next best thing, of course, but not in this order, is the crew and the characters that are on the stage. They’re all so wonderful. That’s number one. Everybody in that theater, they’ve been touched by angels. They’re so sweet.”
LaBelle says she’s open to touring with the show if producers mount a national jaunt.
“I’ll do this play for a year if I didn’t have other obligations,” she adds. “And if it was going to stay after Natalie, I would want to come back.”
Looking ahead, LaBelle is launching a tour with fellow Philly natives Maze featuring Frankie Beverly later this summer, and has plans to release her very first jazz opus later in the year.
Covers of songs popularized by Nina Simone (“Wild Is the Wind”), Frank Sinatra (“Softly As I Leave You”), Peggy Lee (“The Folks Who Live on the Hill”) and Shirley Horn (“Here’s to Life”) are to be included on the set, which she worked closely on with her ex-husband/ex-manager Armstead Edwards. “I just love the songs that I’ve chosen. I did about 11 or 12 songs, just a bunch of old jazz songs. And they’re all beautiful,” she says.
LaBelle, who is the author of best-selling cookbooks, beams with excitement about her line of food products, Patti LaBelle—Good Life, which are currently sold in Walmarts across the country. “My hot sauce, barbecue sauce and marinades are already in 600 stores,” she says. “And I have this crab cake that I make that I can’t tell anybody what’s in it; it’s called PattiCakes. We’re going to have that and macaroni with lobster and shrimp, and then a plain one in the freezer sections.
“And then I’m opening some restaurants, but I can’t tell you what kind, because I don’t want anybody to get my ideas. But I’ll tell you everything when I can.”
Ask one of the greatest divas of all times her opinion on TV One’s popular reality show R&B Divas, and she’ll pause and act like she doesn’t hear you. “Did you ask me that question? I didn’t hear you,” she quips. “I don’t want to touch on that. Can I not?”
LaBelle has starred in the 1992 sitcom Out All Night as well as her very own television special, and made guest appearances on A Different World. Now she’s open to doing more small screen work—reality television: “There are people begging me for one now. A few people. And nothing’s impossible. I’ll be classy with whatever I do. I’m not going to be hood rat.”
With the widely reported riff between her and Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, it’s no wonder reality TV producers would thirst for a chance to film her.
Earlier this spring, Franklin sued a satirical website for $10 million after it published an article describing a fictional fight in which the two divas came to physical blows. (Imagine.) Similar online fodder came in the wake of a brief moment at the White House’s Women of Soul concert in March, where it appeared that cameras caught Franklin avoiding LaBelle’s outstretched hand.
“I plead the fifth. Can I plead the fifth?” LaBelle jokingly asks when probed about the R&B beef. “All I know is, I love her like fat kids love cake. She’s the best singer in the world. She has the most beautiful voice and I love her. That’s all I can say. “
Patti LaBelle in After Midnight is currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre until June 29.
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in Jet, Playbill, Billboard, The Daily Beast, Essence and CNN.com. On Twitter, he’s @TontoKaru.