billy porte
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anyone around you thinks about it.”

Two years later, he conceived and directed a groundbreaking musical, Being Alive, infusing the illustrious works of Stephen Sondheim with jazz, soul, gospel, R&B and hip-hop. Fellow Carnegie Mellon alumnus Leslie Odom, Michael McElroy, Vanita Harbour and Patina Miller also worked on the ambitious endeavor.

“I don’t in any way disparage any time I’ve had in the trenches because it really has made me the artist I am today,” Porter reflects about his out-the-box projects.

Kicking it up in red, thigh-high, six-inch heels eight times a week in Kinky Boots marks a triumphant payoff for the former Star Search champ, who had no qualms about performing in drag for his big Broadway comeback. “I called the director [Jerry Mitchell] after it was announced and told him I wanted to come out of a semi-retirement for that part,” he reveals. “I was already on his radar so it didn’t take a lot of convincing… but I had to audition just like everybody else. I had to prove myself, go in and jump through hoops of fire like everybody.”

Porter says he was more than familiar with Kinky’s source material, the 2006 indie film that launched the Hollywood career of Chiwetel Ejiofor. Working with theater pioneer Harvey Fierstein and pop music legend Cyndi Lauper was added value, everything he could possibly dream of. “[They] are sort of godparents of creating work based on their individual singularity, and as somebody who is very individual and singular, it’s been great having that around—learning from them and learning how do it deeper is fantastic.” 

Porter seems to have a bright future ahead of him, even as he approaches the age of 44. And the numerous theater award wins this season hasn’t gone to his head either.

“Listen, I don’t do this for awards,” he proclaims. “Now I’m not going to lie and say I don’t like them or wouldn’t want to win them or it’s not nice. But after a certain period of time in a person’s adult life, once you get past the initial sort of motivation that gets you into being a creative person, the only way to continue forward and be present in your life is to focus on the work, and know that it’s the work that matters and not awards. I would be in this regardless, no matter if I was having an award or not. It’s easy being who you are when what you are is what’s popular. It’s easy to present yourself when everyone is listening.”

Wolfe echoes the same sentiment: “Hopefully [the award] helps to increase the number of zeros on your paycheck and expands your work options. But when it comes to the actual doing of the work, it has no impact whatsoever, nor should it. Because the next day, you still have to get back to the grind, writing a new play or working on new role.

“And so the true reward has got to be the exhilarating, exhausting, liberating journey you go on when you are in a rehearsal room, or in performance, not a bauble win along the way,” Wolfe continues. “The dignity, spirit and power Billy displays each night on that stage is the real reward, for us and for himself as an artist.”

Kinky Boots is currently playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York City. A national tour gets underway September 2014 in Las Vegas.

Karu F. Daniels's work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Vibe and Uptown, among others. Follow him on Twitter @TONTOKaru.