BWW Feature: Vivian Reed Combines Lena Horne’s Class And Feistiness With Her Own In Her Feinstein’s/54 Below Tribute Show
Vivian Reed is a performer, through and through, a fact clear from the moment her feet hit the stage (and maybe before that if she has to saunter through the room first to get there). Even over the phone, her voice brims with confidence and joy as she talks about her current series at Feinstein’s/54 Below called VIVIAN REED SINGS LENA HORNE, a tribute she began in honor of Horne’s centennial birthday last June.
Reed first performed this particular show in Pittsburgh last April, along with Marty Ashby and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Orchestra, just two months before Horne’s actual birthday.
“It was an honor for me to do the show,” she said. “There’s a lot of Lena to admire because she did not have an easy life; [there were] prejudices on both sides. That’s what set the…ground for her going out and being an activist— not just for Black people but for all people.”
Reed first came to know Horne as a performer, not an activist. She described Horne as having “class but a feistiness about her.” Many, many years ago, before she even had the chance to witness Horne perform live on Broadway in 1981, Reed was the recipient of a generous gift from Horne, a truckload of gowns delivered to the Apollo Theater, where Reed was performing, a kindness she holds close to her to this day.
Now, in her Horne tribute, Reed focuses on four periods of Horne’s life: her activism, her earlier life, her two marriages (one successful, the other not), and her return to Broadway. It was difficult, she said, to pare down Horne’s vast repertoire into 60 to 75 minutes, sprinkled with dialogue, that will interest the audience.
To start, Reed arranged the 15-plus numbers in her set and enlisted “four fabulous musicians,” including her musical director William Foster McDaniel on the piano, Calvin Jones on the bass, Damon DueWhite on the drums, and Don Tipton on the guitar. She made sure to incorporate the guitar, especially, in the show because of how often Horne performed with that instrument.
As for how her audience reacts show in and show out, Reed suspects that most members over the age of 40 will be familiar with the honoree but that many younger ones will not know her. However, when she performed this show in Pittsburgh last year, it was the younger members of the audience who came up to her after the show.
“[They would] say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about her. Now I want to really look her up, hear more about her,'” Reed recalls. “It’s opened up a world for younger people who didn’t know about her at all.”
Reed herself is a two-time Tony Award-nominated performer and a Drama Desk Award winner, starring in major productions of BUBBLING BROWN SUGAR, THE HIGH ROLLERS SOCIAL AND PLEASURE CLUB, and MARIE CHRISTINE. In addition to performing, Reed is also a teacher; she has students at Marymount College in Manhattan and previously taught at Berklee College of Music. For her, teaching is a way of giving back.
“I think that people, at a certain point in their career, should give back,” she said. She added that she teaches because of the wealth of knowledge and experience she has gained over her career. “I wouldn’t want to study with a teacher who brings nothing to the table. [I would want] somebody who’s been there and can pass on good and bad experiences.”
As for what teaching gives her? It’s the joy of seeing students listen and implement what she has taught them in order to go on and maybe become stars of their own.
Reed makes it evident that she has a great passion for what she does. She speaks expansively, excitedly, about performing, which has come naturally for her. She has never really had to overcome stage-fright, she said, even when she was a child and her parents would encourage her to sing at church. It was something that brought her joy then, and it continues to do so today.
However, Reed took a hiatus from performing several years ago to attend to her dying mother. She doesn’t regret taking the time off because her parents had supported her 100 percent of the way through her career. It was another way for her to give back to the people who have helped shape her throughout her life.
“My parents recognized that I had something and they were such great supporters of mine,” she said. “When my father passed in the ’90s and my mother was by herself…I didn’t think twice about wanting to be there for her. They were always there for me.
“I didn’t miss it [at the time], but I’m happy to be back doing what I do. It has been a joy coming back to the business and being able to perform.”
Reed being firmly back in business benefits not just the performers on stage with her, but also those who get to watch her. Earlier this season, at 28th New York Cabaret Convention, she was awarded the Mabel Mercer Award from the Mabel MercerFoundation, which honors excellence in the field. A lifelong performer whose career spans over four decades, a multi-award winner and nominee, a multi-album recording artist, and a critical and commercial success… that’s not an easy feat in a famously tough industry.
“This business is not easy, and it takes someone who is in the business to be very passionate about it,” she said. “They must love it because it just will eat you alive.”
And Reed is clearly in love with this profession.
“The idea of taking words and lyrics that someone has written and then making them your own and looking for a way to best deliver them to people who are watching you, that’s what gives me joy.”