The 'Broadway Soul' of Kyle Taylor Parker
Broadway actor and Arts Camp alumnus chats about recording his debut album, rehearsing for Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, and learning to walk in “kinky boots.”
Kyle Taylor Parker (IAC 01-02) has performed for 9.6 million people—and that’s not counting his stage credits.
In April 2018, Parker performed in the ensemble of NBC’s televised production of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. It’s another accolade in an impressive resume that includes the original Broadway production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, national tour of In the Heights, and Paper Mill Playhouse production of My British Invasion. He’s best known for starring in the original ensemble—and later as Lola on the national tour—of Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots.
While Parker has become a star on the Great White Way, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. His debut album, Broadway Soul, is dedicated to his 12-year-old self: A perfect mixtape of the Broadway show tunes and soul ballads that were staples of his Wisconsin childhood.
“I wanted to create something that was an expression of me,” Parker said in a recent interview. “I decided to marry these two things that are so me and show them to the world.”
We caught up with Parker to learn more about his new album, Broadway successes, and memories of Interlochen.
You’ve dreamed of being on Broadway since you were a very young child. How did you become interested in theatre?
Annie was the first musical I saw. I saw the video first, and then saw it on Broadway with Mel Carter. I think it resonated with me because there were kids in the show, and I realized that kids could do this. I started taking classes and camps. One of my teachers told my mom, “He’s really good at this. He should do it seriously.” That’s when Interlochen was suggested to us.
What are some of your memories of Interlochen?
I think the idea of being completely immersed in what I love is what stands out the most. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about what I was passionate about, and I was doing it all day long. I was also being introduced to things like band music, orchestral music, seeing concerts. A whole world opened up to me that I wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t gone to Interlochen.
Interlochen is such a special place. I run into people all the time, working in the industry, who went to Interlochen. It’s just a comforting, magical moment. Suddenly, you can say, “Oh, I know who you are,” just from knowing that we know the same song: “Sound the Call.”
You had the opportunity to be in the live television adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar. What was that process like? How was preparing for a screen musical different than preparing for the stage?
Everything was higher stakes because it was a live event. Everything that goes into working on an original musical—it’s like that times a million, because you get one shot on camera. We rehearsed for two months: one learning the show, one with cameras and figuring out the choreography of the camera. You’re really creating two experiences: One for the in-studio audience, and one for the at-home audience. It was incredible. Our director, David Leveaux, was a genius; he told us to think about filming a live theatre event instead of thinking about filming a television program. He really did think about both audiences, which is why I think Jesus Christ Superstar was one of the most successful live musicals.
Let’s talk a bit about Kinky Boots. Was it your first time doing drag? How did it change your perspective of drag performers?
It was my very first time doing drag. Kinky Boots was my mom’s favorite movie, but I’d never seen it. My friends on the cast of In the Heights were so excited about the audition; I kept saying, “You would be great, you should audition.” Then I got a call saying they would like to see you read for this new musical as Billy Porter’s understudy. Billy Porter is someone I’ve always looked up to, so I jumped at the opportunity. I had to go deep into work: I went to every drag club I could find. I even asked my friend from In the Heights to teach me how to walk in heels.
It changed my entire life. The message of Kinky Boots is so much bigger than any of us. It changed my mind about masculinity, about drag, about humanity. To go from a place of “you would be great” to “this is my show”—that was the journey.
How did you learn how to walk (and dance!) in those boots?
It was painful. I went from Bambi to a gazelle. There was a lot of falling, a lot of icing of the feet. I wanted to perform it as a great tribute to all the powerful women I’ve gotten to meet in my life, like my aunt and my best friend.
Tell us a bit about your forthcoming album, Broadway Soul. Why did you decide to record a solo album?
I’ve always loved soul, and I’ve always loved to sing. When I was working on Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper’s manager said to me, “Where’s your album?” That was six years ago.
Six years? Why so long?
When you’re in theatre, audiences see you through your character. As I was meeting with record labels, they were kind of like, “Who is he?” I spent the next several years trying to create something that showed my truest heart. I loved Broadway as a kid: Billy Porter, Patti LuPone.... Bernadette Peters did a concert when I was at Interlochen, and that was a life-changing experience. I also grew up on Stevie Wonder. I decided to marry these two things that are so me and show them to the world. Aretha Franklin once said that “music is the highest form of self-expression,” and I wanted to create something that was an expression of me.
You’ve had a chance to be in the original cast of two different productions. How is that experience unique from working on a “classic” show?
I haven’t been lucky enough to do a revival; that’s next on my list! The challenge of a revival is that it’s already been done, and you’re compared to what came before you. When you are working on a new show, the entire creative team is depending on you to put your best foot forward and bring yourself to the work. It’s both a gift and a challenge.
You’ve had a wide variety of roles, both on and off Broadway. How do you find opportunities?
The easy answer is auditioning. For me, each job has leapt into the next job in a weird way. When I first started, I did In the Heights. It just so happened that the musical director for In the Heights was best friends with musical director of Kinky Boots. I was propelled into a circle of great people who wanted to work with great people. What has led me to roles is my ability to show up and be my best self.
In addition to your work on stage, you’re also a vocal coach. Why is teaching important to you?
I love it so much! The greatest gift of experience and career is being able to give those lessons back to someone else. Education is wonderful. You learn as a professional, and it’s important to give that back and share what it’s like to be backstage today.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
The best advice I can think of is something Ken Jennings said to me years ago: “Figure out what it is that you do, the thing that makes you so unique, and harness it. Don’t apologize for it, and show it off at any moment you can, as often as you can. The world is waiting for that.”