On Glee, Amber Riley has belted out some of the greatest diva songs of this generation…but as a singer, she was looking to explore some different styles of music. This weekend, she is starring at New York City Center in Cotton Club Parade, paying homage to Duke Ellington’s glory days at the eponymous Harlem nightclub and backed by Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
“The main thing that attracted me was the era of the music,” she says. “That era is one of my favorites to reenact and pay homage to.” As a fan of both Ellington and Marsalis’ work, she was eager to channel her inner Ethel Waters and Ella Fitzgerald and perform numbers like “The Sunny Side of the Street.”
“It’s such a challenging song to sing,” she says of the number. “But that’s why it was my favorite: I worked the hardest on it to get every interval and every single note as close to [Ella’s] as I could, but also making it my own.”
So how is she making these iconic songs her own? The most important element, she says, is finding your own “feel” for the music and lyrics to make them different. “You have to feel the song. Putting your own notes into your rendition of it makes it your own.”
While many singers and performers lament the brief and intense rehearsal period for a City Center production, Riley is familiar with the experience. “Rehearsal schedules for Glee are actually way harder and run for longer hours than this show,” she says, adding that the process is essentially the same: “You get up in the morning, go to rehearsal and come home. It’s not that different. You rehearse your songs and you go through the show, just like any other.”
But Glee did help prepare for performing live in terms of developing stamina and learning a song quickly. “I brought that same mentality when I came here as I do when I’m working on Glee…I’m used to rehearsing a show number that we’re going to record on Friday [when I’ve only learned it] on Wednesday.” Ultimately, she had more rehearsal time for Cotton Club Parade than for any given episode of the TV series. In addition, because the performers on Glee usually lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks while filming dance numbers, singing and dancing at the same time during Cotton Club Parade has given her a new set of skills to use.
While she has no immediate plans to make her formal Broadway debut, Riley says that appearing at City Center has given her a taste of something new—and she wants more. “I’m bit by the Broadway bug,” she laughs. “Totally and completely. I love being onstage. It’s a totally different energy.” She also has high praise for her co-stars in the show, who include some of the top singers and dancers in the business. “Everyone brings their best,” she says of the cast. “They bring their A-game when they get out there on the stage. We inspire each other to do our best out there on the stage. I actually missed my opening cue because I was watching everybody perform! I was so enamored of what everyone was doing, I forgot I was in the show.”