BeBe Winans on God’s favorite song — and his musical, ‘Born for This’
Growing up in 1980s Detroit as part of the Winans gospel clan, music was a way of life for BeBe and CeCe Winans — and later it became a calling. After the teenage brother-sister duo joined Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s “The PTL Show” (later renamed “The PTL Club”), they catapulted to televangical fame, among the first African American stars on the Praise the Lord Television Network. Now a six-time Grammy winner, BeBe Winans has turned their life story into the musical “Born for This,” with a book by Charles Randolph-Wright (“Motown the Musical”). The production, directed by Randolph-Wright, begins previews July 11 at the Broad Stage, kicking off its 2017-18 season. BeBe Winans spoke about it for this edited conversation:
Why turn your personal story into a musical? Why that medium?
Writing a musical was nowhere on my bucket list. But I had a conversation with a dear friend 10 years ago, one of my icons, Roberta Flack. She said: “BeBe, you’ve got to write that musical about your family.” And I thought: “Did Roberta take her medication?” Four days later I walked into my room and it was like a faucet came on and I wrote the first draft of “Born for This.”
Your ascension in the gospel music industry is a unique story. Yet you’ve called it “everybody’s story.” How is it universal?
It’s simple: Everyone has experienced loss. Everyone has experienced rejection on some level. Everyone has experienced the disappointments, the loneliness, things that many in this world will suffer. My story of how I navigated that may be a little different from yours, but it’s still the same reality.
Your nephew and niece, Juan and Deborah Joy Winans, play you and CeCe in the musical. Is Juan’s portrayal of you spot on?
Spot on! It’s funny — sometimes, in real life, people thought he was my son because he was with me so much. He wanted to be just like me. It’s like: You’ve been learning this role for a long time.
“Born for This” debuted at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and played at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Will the L.A. run be any different?
Yes. The run in D.C. was different than the one in Atlanta — different songs as we continue to evolve. There’s different dialogue now. L.A. has one new song, and we got the chance to pull more out of the story. That’s what I love about this art form. You have a chance to evolve. You have a chance to express what you didn’t before. A recording, after you finish mastering it and mixing it and putting it out, you can’t go back. In theater, you can.
How has your success influenced your personal worldview or your relationship with God?
Well, 85% of our success has been on mainstream R&B radio, and that, at first, was very upsetting to the Christian world because we were viewed as heathens. Our music was played on secular radio, and so we were looked upon as two individuals who sold out to be successful — that instead of going after God, we went after success, which was untrue. But I learned you can’t control what people say or how they feel. And my success really built my faith because I had to endure such negativity. And I found out that really, growth happens when you’re going through something.
OK, rapid fire: Musical influences outside of gospel?
Gladys Knight. The greatest performer in the world is Gladys Knight.
Divine intervention, true or false?
I think true.
When not in church or recording music ...
I am sleeping. It’s my favorite pastime.
What, about yourself, might surprise us?
I think I’m an Italian deep down inside. I want to live in Italy, I love Italian food. I think I’m a black Italian.
If God had a favorite song?
“Let the Sunshine In.”
You’ve won six Grammys, with nine gold and platinum recordings. Is stardom, with all its trappings, at odds with any churchgoing messages the music is meant to be spreading?
There’s nothing wrong with fame. But there’s everything wrong with going after fame. There’s a difference. You can be the best at who you are and because of that, fame will come. But if you’re just going after that, you’re going after trouble. And that’s what this story is all about.
Why did you choose to serve as an ambassador for Metro World Child?
It’s such a well-kept secret, an organization that has fed children, clothed children — not only children, but getting involved with their families in the inner cities in New York and various places around the world. A little love can change the trajectory of a child’s destination.
Final inspirational words?
There’s a song in the musical that says, “Can’t stop. And if you never stop, you will arrive.”
Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin
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