In The View UpStairs, a provocative new off-Broadway musical set in 1970’s New Orleans, Davis plays the owner of the gay bar where the show takes place. Directed by Scott Ebersold and with music, book and lyrics by Max Vernon, The View UpStairs tells a poignant tale that not only examines the past, but explores how the lessons learned then can guide us in the fight for equality that still persists today.
Davis herself is bisexual and has deep family connections to The Big Easy. In her quest to bring The View UpStairs to life, she felt inspired by her own history to inform who her character is and why this story is so important for contemporary audiences. We spoke in detail about this journey, the role of art in today’s world, her days as a contestant on both American Idol and The Voice, and much more.
NAGORSKI: What has been the most exciting part about returning to the New Year theater scene?
DAVIS: The most exciting part of all of this, I think, has been being able to bring the character, Henri, to life and being able to be a part of telling this story.
The View UpStairs is inspired by one of the most significant yet all-but-ignored attacks against the LGBTQ community. As an LGBT woman yourself, you’ve been a vocal advocate for the community throughout your career. Is this what attracted you to this show?
Partially. I was attracted to this show because I thought the storytelling was witty and beautiful. I believed that this is such an important piece of our history and was really honored to have been considered for it.
How does Henri differ from other characters you’ve played on stage?
Well, she’s this no-nonsense, leather-wearing black motorcycle lesbian running a gay bar in the South in the 70s. Let’s start there! But underneath all of that tough exterior, she’s vulnerable and she loves very deeply the community of people who frequent the lounge.
What do you think audience members can learn from The View UpStairs about the fight for equality today?
So much of the dialogue in the show reminds me that even though it may often feel like we haven’t progressed at all, we have actually come a long way. We have a loooooooong way to go, but we have progressed and we should never take for granted the sacrifices those before us have made to ensure that progress.
The View UpStairs takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Have you ever been to New Orleans? If so, how did that experience inform your interpretation of your character/this show?
Yes, I travel to New Orleans often actually. I have family there and it is a place of such rich history. It’s the birthplace of jazz! It’s the only place where slaves were allowed to maintain and practice many of the cultural traditions they carried with them from West Africa. My grandmother got her doctorate in pharmacy in New Orleans! It was the closest city to her hometown where a black woman would have even been allowed to obtain a degree in any medical field.
So I carry all of that with me in bringing Henri to life. Yes, on the surface, the upstairs lounge is a shitty hole-in-the-wall gay bar. But for Henri, it’s a home. It’s a place she takes a tremendous amount of pride in. She’s a black lesbian in the south in the 70s, and yet here she is, running this business and using it as a safe haven for her LGBT brothers and sisters. These are the types of things that helped me to interpret the character of Henri and the show in its entirety.
As a vocalist, what are the most challenging aspects of singing Max Vernon’s score?
Belting F sharps!
Fashion plays a large part in this show as well. Do you have a favorite costume or look that you get to wear?
Well, Henri’s wardrobe is nothing like the stuff I like to wear. Although I have become a fan of the skinny black Levi 512s she wears. I can’t breathe! But I look good!
The show spans two generations of queer history. Who are some historic figures that have influenced you in your personal life?
Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Hattie McDaniel, and Bessie Smith to name a few.
The View UpStairs runs through May 21. Do you already have a sense of where your fans can catch you next after this show wraps?
Probably singing at Pride festivals and doing my cabaret act at various performance spaces across the country.
Simply speaking as a theater fan, what’s your favorite show currently playing on Broadway?
That’s impossible to answer! I love so many of them. All for different reasons.
You’ve been a part of several iconic musicals, including Rent, Dreamgirls and Cinderella. What is your musical theater dream role?
Oh my god, Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!
As someone who competed on both American Idol and The Voice, which show do you think shaped who you are as a performer more?
Neither of them shaped me as a performer. I was on TV for five minutes. I’ve been doing professional theater for fifteen years.
In 2012, you released your debut solo single, “Love’s Got A Hold On Me,” which went on to peak at #12 on the Billboard Dance Chart. Do you have any plans to release any other new solo music anytime soon? If so, do you plan to continue releasing dance music or are there other genres you’d like to tackle as well?
Well, I will always continue to do dance music. But I would love to do some ‘30s jazz/songbook stuff, as well as some soulful pop stuff. I also love trap music!
You’ve got two new movies coming out this year – We Are Family and Snapshots. As an actress, do you feel more drawn to the stage or to the screen? Why?
We Are Family! Oh my god, I filmed that like 7 years ago! I love both but theater is my first love. It’s what made me want to be a performer in the first place.
As a nation, we are going through some horribly dark, terrifying and divided times. What do you think the role of art is (or should be) as a form of making people feel safer and bringing them together? In other words, do you believe that art has a duty beyond escapism?
Art has always had a duty beyond escapism. I think that it is my responsibility as an artist, particularly as a queer artist of color, to use whatever platform I have to be a voice for justice and equality.
What’s your favorite thing to do to unwind after a show?
I love to come home after a show and listen to my ‘30s/’40s Jazz music playlist while engaging in herbal refreshments or alcohol drinking. Or both!
In 2004, she placed runner-up on the third season of American Idol. Twelve years later, she joined her fellow past contestants (including her husband, season five finalist Ace Young) to bid adieu to the series at its epic send-off live finale.
But if she had any reservations about returning to the Idol stage after so many years, DeGarmo didn’t need to seek guidance farther than Suzy Simpson, the character she currently plays Off-Broadway in The Marvelous Wonderettes. With a first act set at a 1950s high school prom, the jukebox musical’s second act finds the characters coming back for their ten-year reunion. And for The Wonderettes, this reunion means getting back up on stage to perform for and with their peers all over again. Sound familiar?
As the 29-year-old Georgia native continues her limited run (through the end of next month) in the beloved show, she and I chatted about the Wonderettes, reliving her days on Idol, and much more.
What attracted you to playing Suzy Simpson, and how do you feel she differs from other roles you’ve played in the past?
Well, first and foremost, I loved the music. My mother is a big music fan and a big part of my childhood was listening to the music of her childhood. So it’s fun to go back and sing songs that I’ve known my whole life. And to sing them on stage in New York City is every performer’s dream!
Also, to be involved with a female ensemble-type show is really fun. Suzy is a great character. I do feel that she has a lot of similarities to other roles I’ve played. But at the same time, there are a few other surprises in the show that I don’t want to give away but that definitely make her a unique character for me.
You mentioned growing up with the music. Which specific artists from this era shaped and influenced your own musical upbringing?
Oh, golly. I definitely remember lots of Aretha Franklin happening around my house. Also “Stupid Cupid” was a big song that I loved growing up. It was really funny when I found out that was going to be a Suzy song. I was like, “Oh, I already know the words to this one!”
My mom had all of the greatest hits CDs of the ’50s and ’60s. But then it was fun too because the show introduced me to a lot of songs I didn’t know. Now I just love songs like “Allegheny Moon” and “Secret Love,” which Christina Bianco just kills every night.
In the show, you get to sing some of the biggest hits from the 1950s and 60s, including “Leader of the Pack,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” “It’s My Party,” and “You Don’t Own Me.” What’s your personal favorite song to perform each night?
I think my favorite may be “Respect” from Act II. That’s a song that I have always loved singing. I do it personally in my shows just because it’s a great feel-good song for anyone who hears it. It’s got a good meaning to it. And for my character, it’s a big moment in the arc of her storyline.
In the first act, I also love “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.” I think that’s the only male song in the show, but of course sung by females. I love singing it and I love seeing the people that are fans of the music of the time. They kind of clutch their pearls or they squeeze their sweetie. This was a special song for them because it was a song for lovers back in the day. I love being able to help bring back those memories.
Between Hair, Hairspray, and now The Marvelous Wonderettes, it seems like you’re very interested in exploring American life in the 1950s and 1960s through your work.
There’s definitely a theme happening!
What is it about this period of time that keeps drawing you back to it?
I think I especially love the innocence of the ’50s and ’60s and just how everything was kind of a pure thought. There were no undertones to lyrics. Everything was just what it was. As a 2016 woman, there are some times when you look back at the lyrics to songs and you go, “Oh my God!” You know? They make your head hurt!
This was a time of purity where we sang what we felt and there were no crazy sexual innuendos. There was nothing promiscuous. Even just saying “Stupid Cupid” was a big deal because you said “stupid” in a song. Now, it’s hard to find a song that’s not overtly sexy and sexual. So for me as a singer, I appreciate the melodies of the music a lot. You can actually sing with the music. You don’t need a computer as accompaniment. You can just sing the song and the melodies are gorgeous and it’s a fun time. It makes people feel good. Yes, every single decade has always had its pros and cons, but I thoroughly enjoy remembering the good times of the ’50s and the ’60s.
You play one of the four song leaders who are called upon last-minute to save the senior prom after the glee club boys, who were supposed to perform, got suspended. Going back to your own high school days, were you more of a well-behaved Wonderette or a rebellious glee club member?
Oh golly! I was definitely a square. I’m still a square. I’m not a very good rule breaker. I like to have fun and I’m always down for an adventure, but if there’s any sort of rule breaking, I can’t do it because I’m not a good liar. Even though I’m an actor, I’m not a good liar. And I was on Idol while I was in high school, so the whole second half of it is kind of a blur. But I was definitely a part of the glee club and our choir back in the day and would have, I think, been thrilled to perform at my prom. And I probably would have been a little nauseous at the same time! Our prom was definitely not as glamorous as the Marvelous Wonderettes’ prom is.
Act two of the show finds the Wonderettes returning to Springfield High for their 10-year-reunion. As an actress, how does your approach to playing Suzy change when you’re playing her as a teenager versus as an adult?
The great thing is that the music that is in Act II actually helps us all tell our characters’ stories very well. There are some physical attributes that Suzy acquires in the second act, which definitely help put me in the right mindset. A lot can happen in ten years to anyone. I think Suzy is still a very bubbly and happy person, but she has had a very interesting decade and you find her in kind of a rough spot of her life. But she’s still the same young and hopeful person that she is in Act I. It’s kind of fun to see that everything is still going to be okay for her because I’m actually at the same age that Suzy is in Act II.
What do you think that showing these characters at such different stages of their lives adds to the overall themes and messages that the audience leaves with?
I would have to say the show overall could be a hopeful reminder that there’s always something good, no matter what. Yes, there can be chaotic moments in life, like with the prom or with our reunion, and you see that the girls have all kind of gone through something. But everything is going to be okay. And you can sing your way through it!
I think that’s kind of the overall idea of it – that it’s all going to be all right as long as you have your friends to lean on and to stand with. You see these four girls go through a crazy kind of scenario in the first half, and then they have to relive it in the second half all over again – but ten years later. I think that especially as females, we need our tribes. We need female friends to hang onto and to help lift us up when it’s our time of need and sometimes we kind of forget that. We get a little too independent. I’m an independent woman. I love my husband and he’s my best friend, but I definitely need my girlfriends sometimes. They understand better than anyone else.
You wrap up your run in The Marvelous Wonderettes on July 31. Do you currently have plans to stay in New York after that to do any more Broadway or Off-Broadway work?
I have some other things on the cook top that are currently boiling away, so I don’t want to reveal anything just yet. Hopefully there will be some news to report in the next couple of months. But I’m definitely going to try and stay in the city as long as I can! It’s so great to be up here for the summer. I live back in Nashville now and I love being there. It’s great to have kind of a touchstone back to the way I grew up, so it’s lovely to go back there. But New York is definitely alive and thriving, especially in the summer. Ace and I are having a blast being up here and we’ll see how long we can stay.
That’s awesome! You’ve also been a part of various musicals’ national tours, including 9 To 5 and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. What have you found to be the biggest differences between traveling with shows versus staying put in the same venue? Do the types of audiences vary a lot and does the location where you’re performing ever impact how you play your part?
Well, the hardest part, which is also the very exciting part, is that the venue is constantly changing when you’re on the road. So sometimes you can’t get comfortable. We’re very fortunate here. Doing The Marvelous Wonderettes at the Kirk Theatre, we know where everything is, we know how the sound works, and there are no surprises in the show anymore. There’s no, “Oh where did that come from?” or “We can’t use that that scenery piece” or “We have to change this.”
When you’re on the road, the show is a constantly evolving creature. It does keep you on your toes in a way, which is exciting, but sometimes it can get a little exhausting. I need a break! I just want to do the show and not think about, “Where is this going to come in from tonight?” or “When is that going to happen?”
I love being in New York. This city is a wonderful, great supporter of theater and I feel very fortunate to be back here for the summer. But being on the road was great too. I love getting a chance to take shows to people that may not ever get a chance to come to New York City. I love bringing them Broadway shows, and showing up in the theater and telling them a great story and entertaining them for a few hours. I’m a Gemini, and so I have two different sides. Half of me loves being on the road but half of me loves being here as well.
You’ve played the role of Fern/Vylette in a couple of industry readings of the musical adaptation of Jawbreaker. What’s the status of that show? And do you plan to continue being involved with it once it lands on Broadway?
I would love to be a part of it! I currently don’t know what the status is either. They don’t tell the actors those things. I wish I knew! I loved being a part of Jawbreaker. I’ve been with it for a few years, which is crazy to think, and the music is so infectious. The character of Fern/Vylette is so wonderful. It’s so fun to play a complete polar opposite human being in the same show. At the end of the day, it’s a great story about how you really have to be true to yourself and that beauty is only skin deep.
I think it’s got a great story – especially for today’s social media generation, where we see how everything looks so pretty and perfect online. But the reality is, it’s not. Life is not perfect. None of us are and I think that show highlights that. Particularly for high-schoolers.
It kind of reminds us that we’re all just human beings. I love that and I hope to see that it comes to Broadway one day. I’ve got my fingers, toes, legs, arms, everything crossed to be a part of it again. We shall see!
You have a movie, After The Sun Fell, coming out later this summer. What can you tell us about that film?
It was really quite a cool experience. We filmed in Lewiston, New York, just north of Buffalo. Lewiston itself is just this cute little picturesque town. I felt like the whole town was a movie set, but it wasn’t. We shot in a very historical building, this beautiful home. It’s a great small ensemble piece, but it’s a dark comedy, which I had never done before. I’m usually kind of in the more in-your-face comedy, so to try and do something more situational was really great. Everyone that I worked on the film with was so talented.
It was our lead actress’, Joanna Bayless, first film and she’s a theater actress, so she and I got to bond really well because I’ve been there. When it’s your first film, you’re like, “Wait, how does this work?” and “What’s happening?” I’ve been fortunate to do some other film work in the past, and so we got to buddy up. I loved that she always had her script on set with her. I was like, “See! That’s what us theater kids do. We come with the whole thing!” She is absolutely magnificent. The story is a play that has been transferred to film and I think it’s going to be a really, really cool new story not just for myself as an actor, but also for the indie film community.
As an artist, do you find acting or singing more creatively stimulating?
It depends on the day. It really does. Again, I’m a Gemini. I equally love both. I love the challenge of finding a character that no one would expect me to play, because when you meet me you’re like, “Oh, you can’t be mean or you can’t do this.” They may try to put you in a box and I love breaking that box wide open and saying, “Yeah, that was me on stage!” or “That was me in that show!” It’s fun surprising people.
I love going into music and singing stuff that’s from my heart. Living in Nashville has been a wonderful outlet for that. I’ve been getting a chance to really sing what I grew up singing, which is country music. I know most people know me for pop because I have sung it for a few years, but my heart lies in country music. And I love being able to sit down and just sing a song that really speaks to my heart.
Back in April, you performed on the American Idol series finale. What was going through your head during that performance, knowing it would be the last time you and any of the other previous contestants would ever be up on that stage?
It was really just like one big party! It really was just like a big family reunion the whole week we were there, which was really fun. We had a great time. I think the reality of the situation didn’t really hit anyone until the beginning of the live show when we all came out and sang “One Voice.” That specific performance number was kind of Nigel Lythgoe’s baby. It was his dream and vision to see everyone come out and sing that song. Everyone was kind of laughing and joking up until right before we started the show and then everyone kind of looked at each other and thought, “Holy cow, this is real! This is really happening!” It was very nostalgic but, at the same time, it was a little like if a party met a funeral.
We were all having a great time but then everyone got very somber. We were able to revel in the moment and it was a great show to be a part of and a great show to watch. And, I had fun getting up there and singing alongside my fellow artists and friends. Of course getting to share the stage with my husband and then some other friends from other seasons, we just all had one heck of a time.
Ace and I jumped on a plane right after the show and took a red eye here to do a reading back in New York so we didn’t get to party the night away with everybody. As they say, the show must go on! But it was wonderful and it was definitely a experience that, just like Idol itself, I will cherish forever.
Now that Idol is totally over, are you able to look back and pick a single performance of yours that you consider to be your favorite from your time on the show?
Because my season was back in the day, I’ve been very lucky to have had a wonderful career post-Idol. For me, Idolwas 12 years ago, so I was able to go back to the finale with a completely different mindset than some of these other kids whose seasons were like 2-3 years ago. I felt like a mother hen at the finale.
As for my favorite performances, I have two that I really loved. One would be when I performed for disco week in the top three. Meeting Donna Summer, who I’ve always looked up to as a vocalist, is still one of the most monumental and life-changing moments I’ve ever had. I remember asking her, “How do you keep your voice healthy? You still have such a gorgeous voice and you could sing the paint off the walls!” And she told me her trick was pineapple and Coca-Cola. I thought that was the coolest thing ever!
Then, I also loved when I performed for Latin week with Miami Sound Machine. Gloria Estefan was our mentor that week. She and Donna Summer are two very strong, iconic singers. As a young female performer, to get to sing her song that she made popular, and to perform it with Miami Sound Machine while on stage wearing a dress that Simon Cowell told me I “looked like a car wash” in – those are just permanently synched into my brain and into my personal life.
I’m sure! You haven’t released any original music since 2012. Do you have plans to return to the studio to work on your solo material?
Yes! I’ve toyed with stuff over the past few years, but when I’m in the studio, I like to focus on one thing at a time. I’m not a good multi-tasker. Right now I’m focusing on doing the show. So I’m being pulled in and out of the studio, but luckily Ace and I are building a studio at our home in Nashville. But I do have an album in the works. Hopefully it’ll be done as soon as we get back. There’s definitely lots of exploration that has happened over the last couple of years and songs have started creating themselves. I definitely feel there is another solo album coming your way. Hopefully sooner rather than later but the songs are there. I just need to get my butt in the studio to record them.
Will this album have more of that country feel you mentioned?
Yes, for sure. Definitely more of a country feel. It’s just continuing the music that I really want to sing. I’ve been really lucky because the past few EPs I’ve done have been more along the lines of who I am.
My first album, even though I love it and I support it because my name is on it, wasn’t entirely me. It was a baby of the record label that I was just happy to be a singer on. There are some songs on there that I love singing, but it wasn’t truly what represented me. I think that still, even many years later, I’m still trying to show the world who I am. But I guess that’s the whole part of the human experience, right?
Earlier this month, you and your husband, Ace Young, celebrated your three-year wedding anniversary. Congratulations! How did you two celebrate?
Thank you! We celebrated with a two-show day. We’ve had this tradition for several years now. We made a point to see as many shows as we could, so that weekend we went and saw The Robber Bridegroom and An Act of God. Then we saw American Psycho on its closing night. We want to see everything! It was a wonderful way to celebrate all weekend long because we don’t live here and I get so jealous that some shows close before we get a chance to see them. We’re always hearing friends talk about things and so we had a long list of shows we wanted to see. We loved each of those three shows. And Bright Star! Oh my gosh. Don’t even get me started on that.
Oh, I loved Bright Star!
I felt all the feels.
Yes, me too. Well, thank you so much, Diana. Is there anything you want to discuss that we didn’t cover?
I think the best thing for The Marvelous Wonderettes is that it’s a great show for anyone to come to. We take you on a trip down memory lane and we can give you a great lesson in some damn good music!
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