category is: revival

Billy Porter resurrects ‘The Life’ in his NYC directorial debut

'The Life' at New York City Center
New York City Center Encores! ‘The Life.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

“We are at war to save the soul of humanity. Thoughts and prayers don’t mean shit. Hate is an action. Love is an action. Peace … is an action.” The words are spoken by Old JoJo, the narrator of a new concert production of The Life. But the imprint is decidedly Billy Porter, who has reimagined the musical for a new generation. And he’s taking no prisoners. 

Featuring music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman, and a book by the pair along with David Newman, The Life was nominated for 12 Tony Awards (winning two) when it premiered 25 years ago. But the production exposed its creators’ disconnect from the subject matter, which portrayed the life of sex workers in 1980s New York City.

Related: Billy Porter came out as HIV+ to liberate himself–and others–from shame

'The Life' New York City Center Encores!
Ledisi (left) and the cast of “The Life” at New York City Center Encores!. Photo by Joan Marcus.

New York City Center Encores!, which has produced 81 concert revivals of musicals to date, and more recently, asked artists to “reclaim work for our time through their own personal lens,” approached Porter to direct. He agreed, but with one condition. Porter wanted to reexamine the script and explore The Life in a way never seen before — one that revealed the reality of sex workers through a lens of trans identity, racial inequities, and the onset of the AIDS crisis. Cy Coleman’s estate agreed, and Porter was unleased. 

The result is a funky, syncopated, and at times, manifesto-driven slice of life on the street. Survival, sacrifice, and self-destruction all intersect in Porter’s world. And with Alexandra Grey and Grammy winner Ledisi in leading roles, the star power is palpable. 

Porter’s association with The Life began when he was 19 years old as the show was first in development. He auditioned for then-director Joe Layton, and although too young to play Fleetwood, a drug-addicted Vietnam vet with PTSD, Porter performed the role for backer’s auditions for years. Six Broadway shows later and having earned an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Pray Tell on Pose, Porter is not only in the limelight but shining it on artists and narratives that have been in the shadows for far too long. 

“It’s our job to reflect what’s going on in society,” said Porter in a New York City Center Instagram Live interview. “Our whole civilization … is in need of healing. And we can only do that, as artists, when we embrace our power.”

'The Life' New York City Center Encores!
Destan Owens (center) and the cast of “The Life” at New York City Center Encores!. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Though framed as a time-stamped story that explores life on the street, Porter catapults The Life into the present-day with a “Mr. Greed Montage,” an ironic Act II opening that satirizes former presidents Reagan and Trump in a purposefully garish sequence choreographed by AC Ciulla. 

Social and economic disparities — and the fight to overcome them — drive Porter’s narrative, with not-so-subtle messages leaping into the audience.

“Everybody up in this bitch now knows that ‘trickle down’ for us merely translates to more unemployment, more joblessness, more substandard public education, more evisceration and erasure of Black bodies,” says a younger version of JoJo, mocking “Reaganomics.”

The systemic oppression that JoJo speaks of reverberates through The Life as a community cannibalizes itself. What it takes to survive, what those on the brink are willing to sacrifice, and the Black sisterhood of resilient women who defy their circumstances tether Porter’s vision to present day. 

“This is one of those spaces that I get to tell the story,” said Porter, “speak for the unspoken, and be a voice for those who are silenced.”

The Life runs through March 20 at New York City Center.