FRENCHIE DAVIS TAKES “THE VIEW UPSTAIRS”

FRENCHIE DAVIS IS NOT AFRAID TO GET PERSONAL.

The View UpstairsIn 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.

Frenchie DavisDavis 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.

The View UpStairsHow 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 RentDreamgirls 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!


Click HERE to purchase your tickets for The View UpStairs, now playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York City through May 21st.


Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH THE VIEW HOST MICHELLE COLLINS

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.06.23 PMIf 2015 was the year of Amy Schumer, then 2016 has Michelle Collins written all over it.

Last week, New York’s reigning queen of stand-up kicked off the year with Magic Mich XXL, her brilliant and hilarious one-woman show at the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in lower Manhattan. For Collins, who is also one of the hosts of ABC’s The View, this performance was more than just a homecoming after years of performing in Los Angeles. It was the launch of a monthly residency that is just one of the many reasons that the Florida-raised 34-year-old is destined to become comedy’s next great superstar.

I caught up with Collins about her return to New York, her stand-up routine, The View, getting lap dances from Tyson Beckford, her upcoming appearances on various TV shows, and everything from Les Misérables to The Bachelor to Vanderpump Rules.

ALEX: Last week you performed in front of a sold-out crowd at UCB. Is this the beginning of more live stand-up shows from you in 2016? And if so, do you plan on taking your show on the road or maintaining more of a New York residency?

MICHELLE: Well, when I lived in LA, I did a monthly show at the UCB Theater there called “LOLS Angeles.” It was really fun. I enjoyed it and I performed a bunch. It’s taken me a little bit to get resettled in New York, but now I’m planning on doing a show every month at UCB! I already have a February date set up. I would love to take it on the road. I get tweets from people in places like Toronto and Austin that say, “Come here and perform!” I’d love to, but I have to make sure that I get my act together and get it organized first. Once that happens, I would love to.

What do you find to be the biggest differences between audiences in New York and LA?

The thing about UCB is that the people who go there go to laugh and just have fun. There’s no drink minimum. It’s different than your average comedy club where you have tourists and stuff. It’s a very welcoming crowd to perform for. Honestly, I don’t think there’s much of a difference between New York and LA audiences. The people here are less unemployed than the one’s in LA. That’s the main difference. They’re all great! I mean, I had such a good time there. And the show here was so much fun. It just got me back into the groove of doing those kind of shows.

As a comedienne, how do you feel that your humor is different when you’re appearing on day time TV versus when you’re doing your stand-up?

Oh, you’re a wonderful interviewer, Alex.

Well, thank you!

You were at the show, so hopefully you kind of saw the difference which was that when I’m given an hour, or ten minutes, or twenty to just be myself, it is a little different. I describe my stand-up as live spiraling. A lot of it isn’t written. In fact, none of it’s really written. I kind of go in knowing some of the stories I’m going to tell but I also let the energy of the room carry me through. Which is a lot of fun because I myself then don’t know what’s going to happen or where it’s going to go.

On daytime TV, you’re obviously a little bit more limited. I think any comedian would say that. Especially on a show like The View, where you have other people there too. It does change the vibe a little bit. It’s like a brunch versus just “me me me.” I also can’t curse on TV, which, as an educated lady of refined taste, hurts me deeply. I haven’t made a cursing mistake yet, but I’ve said things I didn’t know you’d get bleeped for. Like I didn’t know that “camel toe” was a bleep-able offense.

Camel toe? Really? How does that get bleeped but something like “bitch” doesn’t?

I think because it’s very visual. That really makes you think of camel feet.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.06.45 PMDuring the show last night, you spoke a little bit about your musical theater background.

Yeah. Or lack of a background.

When you performed “It’s All Over” from Dreamgirls in its entirety, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “She can really sing!”

I literally love to sing. I always have, Alex. I always have. I hope he agreed with you.

He did!

Good! I like him already.

How did you transition from theater to comedy?

There was no transition! I never actually made it in musical theater.

 So there’s no chance we’ll see you on Broadway one day?

Oh my gosh, are you kidding? I would love that! I always say that my dream role would be Jean Valjean or Javert. People are always like, “Um, those are male parts.” But that’s my voice! I would make people cry. If I was Jean Valjean, people would literally openly weep in the theater. I love Les Miz, it’s my favorite. I would either have to be one of those characters or Mama Morton in Chicago. There are very limited parts for a curvy, baritoned lady like myself.

In terms of fellow comics, who inspired you the most growing up?

Growing up, my parents were really into comedies. My father was actually a part-time stand-up comic when I was little, so we always had stand-up playing in the house. I would say Joan Rivers was the main inspiration in my life. We watched a lot of George Carlin. Back in the 80s, Ellen had an HBO special that I remember thinking was the funniest thing I had ever seen. It probably still is. But out of all the stand-up, the one thing I wasn’t allowed to watch was Eddie Murphy Raw. For whatever reason, my parents would not let me watch that and I was furious. I was like, “what could he possibly say in it?”

So obviously that was the one you watched the most because it was the forbidden one!

Yes! Whenever they’d leave the house, I would watch that and Harmony Korine movies like Kids. I’d be like, “I’m sooooo edgy” and “I can’t handle how edgy I am right now.” I would say all those for sure really inspired me. And then there were a lot of wonderful female comedians in the 80s like Rita Rudner and Elaine Boosler. You don’t hear a lot about those ladies anymore but they’re really funny.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.07.14 PMWhen you’re working on your stand-up, are there any specific topics that you always make sure to include? In other words, is there anything that you have to make sure to cover because it’s signature Michelle Collins?

I always talk about my hair because it’s a topic of conversation for everybody, obviously. Height needs to come up. I’m 6’1”. My height is actually the second most searched thing after you put my name into Google.

Really?!

Yeah, the height comes up second. A lot of people seem to be curious about it — and maybe a little aroused? I like to begin with a little self-deprecation, but in a creative way, not in a classic Cathy comic strip way. And I really try to get a song in. You know, just in case there any bookers in the crowd, so they know of my many gifts. But my stand-up is for the most part stories that happen to me. So yeah, my height and the size of my feet come up a lot. I’ve really made my ankle boots – my anky-bees – into a linchpin of my stand-up. It’s such a sad little life. I’m so sorry, Alex. Please go on.

What advice would you give to a struggling or aspiring comic about what defines success in this business?

I feel like I’m not even in a place to say it because I’m not a road comic. You know what I mean? I think a lot of people want to tour the country doing it, but I haven’t ever done that. My advice would really just be to put yourself out there as much as you can. I’m very lucky that I have a theater like UCB that gives me the opportunity to perform. So I’d say to just put yourself out there as much as possible. And I honestly think the Internet is the best way. That’s kind of how I started, actually. Blogging and writing. The great thing about the Internet is that it refreshes itself so often that there’s always something new to talk and be funny about.

Speaking of the Internet, as the Managing Editor of VH1’s Best Week Ever website, you received two Webby Awards for Best Celebrity/Fan Blog in 2008. Then In 2009, you won the ECNY Award for Best Female Standup Comedian in New York, and in 2010, you won Logo’s NewNowNext Award for Breakout Comic.

I’m actually presenting at the NewNowNext Awards this year, by the way! They’re on February 1st. And I’m also doing stand-up on Logo on January 30th as part of Bianca Del Rio’s Comedy Cabaret.

That’s so exciting! I’m setting my DVR as soon as this is over. Between being on The View and having all of these aforementioned accolades under your belt already, what do you personally consider to be your biggest career achievement and/or highlight to date?

It has to be The View obviously, right? I mean, listen. As a comedian, just to sit next to Whoopi Goldberg on a daily basis, it’s like, are you kidding me?! I truly don’t understand how it happened. I feel so, so lucky every day. I know it’s so annoying when people say that and I feel annoyed at myself for saying it. But it’s true! I can’t lie about it and I don’t want to be too cool for it. It’s a really, really fun thing that I’m lucky enough to do. I would say that’s pretty big. And on a personal level, The Bachelor After Show is a highlight just because I’m such a Bachelor super fan. I’m actually going to be on it January 25th! I love a good Chris Harrison moment, you know I do.

Who do you predict is going to win this season?

I don’t even know their names! How can I possibly predict a smear of peach colored foundation? I don’t know who they are or where they came from. I know one’s from Russia. There’s really only one star, her name is Lace. She is clearly a producer plant. She’ll probably last another maybe two or three weeks for fun.

What do you find to be both the most rewarding and most challenging parts of being a host on The View?

My favorite thing to do is the celebrity interviews. I love when people come on because they’re always so happy to be there. I think for me, actually, it ties into the most challenging part, which is sitting at a table with someone like, for example, Toni Colette, and then not spending the whole time we have together telling her how much I love Muriel’s Wedding. You know what I mean? I have to reign myself in. I want them to know, “you are making a difference!” and “this stuff is incredible!” So that’s been really hard for me to just through gritted teeth be like, “when’s your next project coming out?” instead of bringing up all of these incredible things they’ve already done that have impacted and resonated with me personally.

As for rewarding, I’ll tell you something. It’s been really fun being back in New York, which is my favorite city in the country by far. Just having people randomly say to me, “I love you on the show!” is so wild. Like how do you know who I am?! It’s just a very weird thing to happen. It’s really, really a fun show to be a part of. I genuinely mean it.

What’s been your favorite episode so far?

Well, I did once get a lap dance from Tyson Beckford.

 Oh, well, that sounds like it would probably be anyone’s favorite episode!

Right? He gave me a lap dance and I think that in that very same episode, Billy Crystal also gave me a lap dance. I literally felt Billy’s crystals. And Tyson is, I mean forget about it. Sometimes certain actors come on and I’m so intimidated that I turn into a Gwen Stefani Harajuku girl. The woman that you saw at my stand-up show was not the version they get on The View. They get sort of a wilting flower, who is all sweet and shy. It’s like I turn into Hatsumomo from Memoirs of A Geisha.

You had done various guest spots on the show before you joined the panel full-time. How did you find out that you were selected as a permanent host?

They actually told me in person. I was doing the show after a red eye from LA to New York and I was exhausted. They called me to the office afterwards and told me. I was so dead tired that I was worried that I was having a fever dream. I hadn’t slept in probably 24 hours and the only thing I could keep saying was, “That’s awesome! Thank you, that’s so awesome!” I mean, I could not have come off any stupider. They were probably thinking they hired some idiot who can’t even form a full sentence. It was like Guantanamo levels of exhaustion for me.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 1.07.01 PMTonight, you’ll be making your Bravo clubhouse debut on Watch What Happens Live alongside Jax from Vanderpump Rules. So I’ve gotta ask, are you Team Jax or Team James?

Oof. That’s a hard one. It’s funny because a friend of mine, Lara, has a podcast called “Pumped Podcast“, which I’ve been a guest on, and they only talk about Vanderpump Rules. I’m friends with Ariana and Tom on Twitter, and Ariana especially is just so nice. But Lara has met James and she says he’s hysterically funny in person and that you don’t really get to see that side of him on the show. So I don’t know! But I’m going to say I’m Team Jax because at least he’s honest about his own shadiness, and there’s definitely something charming and to be said about that.

To wrap up, if you had won the Powerball lottery, what would you have done with the money?

I would probably have bought Fox from Rupert Murdoch. He’s getting married now anyway, so he doesn’t have time to run a network. I’d have just given myself like a solid three-hour block of programming, probably after MasterChef Junior. It’d be like when Robert DeNiro gave himself a talk show in Casino. And then I’d become America’s sweetheart, and I mean, what else is there?

I think that’s a great plan.

I love you for that.

Well, thank you so much Michelle. I really appreciate it and I can’t wait to catch your next UCB show!

Oh my gosh, thank you! I’m really glad you had a good time at the show.

Originally published on PopBytes