Dreaming Big: : Phillip Boykin

“Hey, I’m ready now. I was signing autographs.” The text comes in on what is for everyone else a lazy Sunday evening after Christmas.

Not for Phillip Boykin. He’s in the middle of a five-show weekend for the much-celebrated Broadway revival of On the Town at the Lyric Theatre in New York. It’s just the latest stop in what has been a dizzying few years for the electrifying bass-baritone, whose accomplishments culminated in Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Award Nominations for the 2012 Broadway production of Porgy and Bess and a Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut.

Boykin’s path from a rough childhood to rising Broadway star has been marked by a range of musical styles that reflect his background and his strengths as a performer-—from the gospel and spirituals he sang as a youngster, to the operatic training he had in college, to the singing-dancing-acting roles of the comfortable home he has found on Broadway. It helps that Boykin is naturally gifted with a voice that wraps you up like a blanket and the ability to sing a song as if he’s composing it on the spot. (Search for his “Ol’ Man River” on YouTube and just try to tear yourself away.) But as one of his college professors puts it, “It’s as much about him as a person as it is about his talent. Phillip is good with people, humble, and engaging. He has charisma but also humility.” That ability to connect as an individual and as a performer has no doubt helped open the way for Boykin, who has benefited over the years from many people who wanted to do what they could to help his career.

Today, Broadway is just one of the places you can find Boykin signing autographs. His “testosterone-fueled, raging bull of a Crown” (whatsonstage.com) in Porgy and Bess earned him the attention of comedian Chris Rock, who met him backstage after a performance, chatted a while, and took pictures. The next thing Boykin knew, a casting director was calling him to audition for Top Five, written, directed, and starring Rock. Boykin landed the role of a driver to Rock, who portrays a “comedian with a drinking problem,” as Boykin describes it. Top Five was released worldwide last December.

It was also during Porgy and Bess that a cast member suggested he audition for Freedom, with Cuba Gooding Jr., a movie about a family’s escape from slavery. For the audition, Boykin was asked to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the context it would be heard in the movie: after the character has been severely beaten, chased by dogs, and as if it were the first time the song had been sung. Boykin had the casting team in tears. Freedom was released in August 2014.

Boykin’s 2014 holidays were also punctuated by a 10-day tour of Japan with the New York Gospel Brothers, a quartet spinoff of the Harlem Gospel Singers, a larger ensemble that Boykin founded, directs, and arranges music for. The quartet will go to Asia every other year to perform and lead workshops, where gospel music is beloved among listeners and numerous amateur choirs. Gospel music has been in Boykin’s blood since his childhood, when he directed and arranged music alongside his adoptive father Dwight E. Woods, the founder of the Phillis Wheatley Repertory Theater for Youth in Boykin’s hometown, which nurtured many young talents, Boykin included.

Boykin grew up in what he describes as low-income housing in Greenville, South Carolina, the sixth—“Wait, the fifth? No, the sixth”—of 10 children, six brothers and three sisters. “Something in me just felt like I was supposed to be a singer,” he recalls. One day, at his uncle’s house, he saw an album cover of the 1963 recording of Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price and William Warfield. “I began to dream of being a singer, thinking that they made a lot of money,” Boykin says. “After all,” he thought, “they’re on album covers.” And because the performers were African-American, he could identify with them. Boykin confesses that the singing life hasn’t exactly made him a millionaire, but he would eventually count Warfield among his teachers, and “Porgy” would play a pivotal role in his career.

Fast forward more than a couple of decades. Boykin is now north of age 40, long past the ingénue years. It is 2012, and on his seventh time as a cast member in Porgy and Bess, he is headed for the Great White Way. The opera had been part of Boykin’s performing life from nearly his start as a professional, in 1996, and long before that, since he’s been singing along with Warfield. He never sang Porgy, as he had once dreamed, but smaller roles, in regional theatres and on tours internationally and in the U.S. He worked his way up to Crown, the most violent of the men courting Bess’s attention in Gershwin’s quintessential American opera about the lives of poor blacks in South Carolina.

In between turns on Catfish Row, Boykin honed his craft in other musical theatre landmarks: Joe in Show Boat, Fats Waller in Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fred in Smokey Joe’s Café, Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Inspector Watts in the New York City Opera premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz.

In 2011, director Diane Paulus was commissioned by the Gershwin estate to create a new musical theater version of “Porgy.” She remembered Boykin from a workshop he had attended at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the new production would be created, and she invited him to audition. Boykin credits his childhood in a poor neighborhood with his ability to humanize the villainous Crown. As Boykin told Playbill.com, Crown reminded him of “one of those guys you never knew which way he was going to be on any given day. He would fight for you, or he would fight you, you just never knew. When you add the element of alcohol or drugs to the mix, he would fight everybody. That’s who I thought of Crown as being. I didn’t want to judge him. He was a real person, just trying to live his life.”

The Paulus version of Porgy and Bess, co-created with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer-arranger Diedre Murray, trimmed the three-hour opera to a more manageable musical theatre length and fleshed out more characters with new dialogue. The resulting work, renamed The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess met with approval by the Gershwin estate but was not without controversy—no less than Stephen Sondheim decried the production, and critics sharpened their knives. Boykin says the initial stir served to make the cast closer and redouble their commitment to doing right by the work. Surely that closeness strengthened the chemistry for the intense physical scenes that Boykin shared with Audra McDonald, the powerhouse performer in the title role.

The production closed on Broadway in late 2012. Boykin joined the company tour, began filming movies, and had a couple of concerts at Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher on the horizon.

But before all that, Boykin had some work to do. Growing up in Greenville, he would play music and sing along to it all night long—singing until he felt he got it right, singing until he was hoarse. The Warfield-Price recording of “Porgy” was among his late-night repertoire. “My brothers and sisters just hated it,” he says. “They would put cotton in their ears, put their heads under pillows, and complain to my mom: ‘Would you please tell Phillip to shut up?’”

They weren’t entirely in the wrong. “All of my teachers and church choir directors said I was tone deaf,” Boykin admits. “Every time they would offer for someone to sing a solo, I would raise my hand, and they would look right over me, and I could never figure out why.” Try as he might, as a youngster he actually couldn’t match pitch. “But I just kept singing, I just kept raising my hand,” he says.

Gradually, once his voice changed, his pitch improved, and he started getting more opportunities. “In middle school and high school my music teacher, Mrs. Bennett, saw my potential and would give me solos,” Boykin recalls. “She let me direct, and I even choreographed the chorus at Greenville High.” During high school he also spent his afternoons at the Fine Arts Center of Greenville County, the first specialized art school in South Carolina, where he studied voice, dance, and music theory. Originally, Boykin dreamed of a career as a gospel singer, but his teachers came to convince him that his voice had operatic potential.

At the same time, in the same household, Phillip’s siblings were following a different path. All of his brothers and sisters would eventually be involved with criminal activity, and none of them would finish high school. But among Boykin’s advocates was his mother, who took great delight in her son’s musical success. “I wanted to finish high school and go to college just to see her eyes light up,” he remembers.

A chorus teacher at the Fine Arts Center encouraged Boykin to audition for the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts, a summer program, where he started classical vocal training and had his first experiences with opera and musical theatre. At the program he was also introduced to the chair of the music department of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, where he began his opera studies in earnest. But teachers recognized his burgeoning talent—or, as Boykin puts it, “I found out that I had a pretty good voice for classical music”—and suggested he transfer to the North Carolina School of the Arts. There he studied with Fredric “Fritz” Moses, beginning a relationship that would last six years and have great impact on Boykin’s development. “I give him the majority of the credit for how my voice is today,” Boykin says. “It was his technique and his teaching.”

Moses was more than a good voice teacher. When Moses left North Carolina to join the faculty of the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, he included Phillip in his contract to come with him on a full-tuition scholarship.
The scholarship, however, did not cover all expenses, and Boykin at times found himself without the means of paying for it all. During his time at Hartt, administrators would call about unpaid bills. Eventually, as if by magic, Boykin says, the phone would stop ringing. Boykin later learned that Moses and the dean at the time, Larry Allen Smith, who had also known Boykin in North Carolina, had personally intervened to help keep him in school.

“Over my many years as an arts executive and educator, I have had opportunities to help talented students in different ways,” Smith recalls. “Phillip Boykin was one of those students. He was/is an extraordinary talent and person, and I wanted to make sure that he could continue his studies. One does what one can to help those who are truly deserving.”

Teachers and colleagues at Hartt saw him through what he describes as “one of my lowest points,” when his mother passed away when he was 24. “Up until that point, everything I did was for her. I would love to tell her that ‘Momma, I’m going to Europe’ or ‘Momma, I’m singing with an orchestra’ just to see her eyes light up.” Boykin describes his difficult adjustment to the idea that his music was something he was no longer doing for his mother but for himself. “When I went through those stages of grief, I didn’t want to learn songs. I just wanted to go to clubs and dance. Fritz stuck with me.”

Boykin spent five years at Hartt after very few of his course credits transferred from his previous colleges. He also wanted to do a lighter course load over a longer time because of his dyslexia. Dyslexia? It had always been there.

As a student, everything was “so, so difficult,” Boykin says. “I was a slow reader because I had to straighten the letters out. I couldn’t figure out why everyone else could do the homework faster than me.” But Boykin was determined “to do what it took to see the smile on my mom’s face.”

Once he finally finished his undergraduate studies, Boykin found himself “a little afraid” to move to New York and start auditioning, despite encouragement from his teachers. Instead, he started a master’s degree in opera and jazz vocals at Howard University, adding the gospel musical Black Nativity by Langston Hughes to his repertoire. But professional opportunities came calling, and he eventually withdrew. “I wanted to get my master’s, just for me, and one day I’m going to finish that master’s,” he says.

Moving between opera, Broadway, and the movies, Boykin has learned the different performing styles and rehearsal expectations.

Adapting from stage acting to the screen, Boykin found that he had to shrink his gestures and actions-—no small feat for “a big guy to begin with” who was accustomed to playing large personalities in big spaces. “On stage you want to be large,” he says, making sure that all movements can be seen in the last rows. On set with Cuba Gooding Jr., Boykin heard that sometimes all that a screen actor needs to do is to think a movement for it to read on camera. “The size of your projection is the biggest difference for me,” he says.

What stands out to Boykin about the movie-making process are the “long, long hours,” he says, recalling shoots that went on all day or all night. “I never knew it took that long to make a movie,” he says, also musing about how much material was filmed that didn’t make it into the finished product.

Coming from classical music to musical theatre, Boykin says, the biggest difference is that no one expects opera singers to sing full voice in every rehearsal. In musicals, however, “if you mark, they immediately think that you can’t do it. It is always full out unless the director says you can mark.” Boykin describes times when he would mark a song in rehearsal, causing production leaders to raise eyebrows. Boykin had to explain that he could do it, “otherwise they would have changed it or given it to someone else.”

And unlike singing an opera that has long existed in a critical edition, “sometimes they won’t send you scripts or music in advance,” he explains, especially for a new work or production that is still in development. In that case, “on the first day of rehearsal, you sit with a music director and learn it, record it, and come in the next time and know it.” Working with the challenges of dyslexia, this arrangement can pose problems. “I always tell them that I have dyslexia,” he says, and that “if you can’t get it to me [beforehand], you have to know that I will get it eventually.”

Boykin is fastidious about his preparation, taking time to write out all the words of his part without punctuation or paragraphs. “My mind connects with my hands and gets familiar with words,” he says. He then goes through each line to find relationships between the words and the character and the music and to think about why these words were chosen instead of others. “I make it make sense to me; then I can remember all of it,” he says. “Then I add my Phillip Boykin-ness.”

What’s next for this musical polymath? “I want to continue to sing everything that I can sing,” says Boykin, who identifies himself as an entertainer above any musical category. He muses that the press now call him a Broadway star, but during Porgy and Bess they referred to him as an opera star because of his classical training and his appearance with New York City Opera. “That’s not a bad thing to be called,” he says. “I’ve been called much, much worse.”

In an exciting project currently in development, Boykin will create the title role in the new American musical Lord Tom, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that opened Americans’ eyes to the ills of slavery and galvanized the abolition movement. With music by Stanley Jay Gelber and lyrics by Gelber and Kimberly Vaughn, Boykin will explore the paradoxes of the character, who is portrayed in the book as a martyr who helped people fleeing slavery but whose name has become an epithet for blacks accused of being subservient to whites.

Lord Tom will have a Developmental Lab Production in April, the next step toward bringing a full production to Broadway. Over five fully staged performances for industry professionals, Boykin will work with the cast and creative team to deepen the character for the stage, refining the words and lyrics before the musical reaches its final form. Given the current national dialogue on racial injustice, it is a very timely project—and another opportunity for Boykin to leverage his personal experiences to enrich his performances.

Like any singer, Boykin dreams of appearing at the Met. “I don’t care what show it is, I’ll do it,” he says. And he wouldn’t turn down another movie role. But above all, Boykin says he feels “right at home on Broadway because I get to play all these different characters and sing different styles of music” as well as enjoy his talents for acting and dancing. Boykin is looking forward to the development of Lord Tom, which features “a wonderful mix of music,” from gospel to Broadway to ballads.

Still, Boykin finds himself haunted by the contrast between his career and the destinies of his siblings. “I used to feel real guilty sitting in Spain on the Mediterranean, just in tears at the beauty, knowing they never would see it or have the desire to see it,” he says. He concludes that the struggles of his brothers and sisters are what happen when you become a product of your surroundings and can’t dream your way out of it.

“I’ve always said it’s my choices that made me successful,” he adds. “We all had the same mother, grew up in the same home, went to the same schools, and lived in the same neighborhood.”

Whatever the future brings, Boykin plans to keep dreaming big. “I tell kids you don’t have to be a singer or actor. Whatever you dream of being, stick to it and believe it, and you will achieve it,” he says.

Boykin’s dreams are certainly coming true. “I just burst into tears when I saw my name in the credits,” he says of sitting in the audience at the screening of Freedom. After a lifetime of imagining just that, how sweet it is.

Amanda Keil

Amanda Keil writes for Classical Singer, OPERA America, and BachTrack.com, and she also runs her Baroque company, Musica Nuova. Find more entrepreneurial ideas on her blog: thousandfoldecho.com.