Singer, dancer and pianist Manny Houston is in Chicago right now. He’s in the cast of the musical Kinky Boots, currently running at The Paramount Theater.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Houston said. “You can tell that the audience is super excited to see live theater again. The Paramount apparently has the second-largest subscriber base in the United States, so the place has been packed every night just about.”
Houston is basically living his dream. The College of Charleston grad left town in 2019 and moved to New York to pursue a career in musical theater, but he’ll be coming back Sept. 18 for a performance at the Charleston Music Hall.
Houston will be teaming up with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra for a show called Jazz on Broadway. With Houston out front, and occasionally on piano, the ensemble will be taking on jazz-friendly showtunes from Porgy & Bess (“I Got Plenty Of Nothin’”) to My Fair Lady (“On the Street Where You Live” to Hamilton (“My Shot,” “Wait for It”)
“We wanted to work our way through the actual jazz standards we play as jazz musicians,” Houston said. “A song like ‘On the Street Where You Live’ is a standard that you find in any real book that jazz musicians use for gigs. It’s just a standard jazz piece you can call out.”
Of course, jazz musicians have been pulling from the songbooks of musicals for decades. Singers like Ella Fitzgerald and instrumentalists like Miles Davis spent large chunks of their careers doing it. And while The Lion King and Hamilton might not be considered “classics” on the level of West Side Story yet, Houston said they one day will be.
Houston said to prepare for the show, he’s looking back at some classic interpreters to see how they reshaped the songs.
“In studying these tunes, I like to go back to people like Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and listen to all of the different versions they’ve done and how they’ve improvised around it,” he said. “When it is a ‘standard,’ there’s a set way of how things are going to go, but then you have fun with it.”
Houston said he’s looking forward to returning to Charleston now that he’s making his dreams come true elsewhere.
“Being able to come back to Charleston in 2021 and have some major accomplishments from the theater field under my belt, it makes me very happy because I’m not lying,” he said with a laugh. “I want to show the people that support me from a city that I love that I’m doing what I said I was going to do. The kid is actually kicking it in New York. So it means a lot.” —Vincent Harris
See Jazz on Broadway starring Manny Houston at 8 p.m. Sept. 18. Tickets are $25-$62 available through Charleston Music Hall.