"Born For This: The Bebe Winans Story" Makes Its West Coast Debut
As a pioneering gospel artist, Benjamin “BeBe” Winans knows what it’s like to take creative risks. They have powered the six time GRAMMY® Award-winner’s every move in a rise to fame that has yielded a string of hits—both solo, with his brothers, and as one half of the gospel’s best-selling brother-sister duo, BeBe & CeCe; a starring role on Broadway alongside Chaka Khan in Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple; and his own radio show on Sirius/XM’s Heart & Soul Channel. Now the star is rolling the dice on his biggest gamble to date—his highly- publicized stage musical, “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story”.
Kicking off The Broad Stage’s 2017-18 Theatre Season, the musical —directed by Randolph-Wright (Motown: The Musical)— is the coming of age story of Detroit teens BeBe and CeCe Winans who experience the ultimate in culture shock when invited to join Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Praise The Lord Network in Pineville, North Carolina. The Bakkers become an unlikely surrogate family as the teenagers become the hottest stars in televangical America before crossing over to mainstream fame, where BeBe must reconcile the temptations of fame and fortune.
Exceeding expectations in both Atlanta and Washington D.C., Los Angeles is just the third stop for the play which will run July 11 through August 6, and is ultimately headed for Broadway.
Ironically, Winans says doing the play was not his idea. Instead, it was a conversation with Roberta Flack that got the ball rolling.
“We were just talking”, Winans recalls, “when she detours from the conversation abruptly and says, ‘When are you going to write that musical about you, your sister and your family? You’ve got to do it. And then it’s a movie and TV…’
“I pulled the phone away from my ear and thought, Roberta didn’t take her medication,” he laughs.
“After I hung up, I just remember sitting there,” Winans continues. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Five days later, I was in Montreal. I checked into the hotel and when I got to my room and opened my laptop, it was like a faucet came on. I sat there for about an hour and wrote the first draft of what is now “Born for This.”
Nearly a decade would pass before the play debuted on April 5, 2016 at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, and from the writing and casting to the financing, it's not only that the musical bears his story, but as writer, creator and producer—it’s the project Winans has waited his entire career to do.
There is much people will find out about Winans that wasn’t easy for him to address in the two-hour production, including his initial rejection by the PTL>
“I didn’t get the part. CeCe got the part,” he states. “I could have allowed rejection to stop me from what I believed God had called me to do, but I went to North Carolina so CeCe could have the opportunity.
“People don’t understand that doors can open for you because you are there for other people.”
The lead characters for the show were naturals. His nephew, Juan Winans, plays BeBe and his niece, Greenleaf co-star Deborah Joy Winans plays CeCe. Casting is, in fact, one of the things he says the play got so spot on that it even caught some of his family members off guard.
“When the actor who plays my [late] brother Ronald walked out on stage, they all lost it,” Winans reports. “They wept. I knew they were going to do that because one day I came into rehearsal and as soon as I finished speaking to him I had to run into the bathroom because I felt like my brother Ronald had just hugged me.”
The greatest compliment, however, came from his Mom.
“My mom called me and said, I’m proud of you, but I just have to say, you gave me a chance to see my husband and my son again.’
What may surprise theatergoers who have followed his career over the years is that this is not platform for the BeBe & CeCe melodies that helped to usher in a new era of crossover gospel hits, popularizing the genre to mainstream audiences.
“It’s not a jukebox musical,” says Winans. “You have a little bit of [Winans’ classic hits] “Tomorrow” and “Question Is” and mine and CeCe’s “I Owe You Me”, but what I focused on was original songs that tell the story so that people are not disappointed when they leave. They are actually saying ‘where can I buy the music?’”
And while there was no soundtrack available when the show first opened last year, Winans just completed an “inspired of” CD that features eight songs from the musical and three new songs, set for release this month. Guests on the CD include Tramaine Hawkins, Marvin Winans and newcomer Kiandra Richardson who reviewers say brings the Whitney Houston to life in the play.
“When she comes out on stage, people think that Whitney is back. When she opens her mouth, their jaws drop,” notes Winans, who can hardly contain his excitement when speaking of her.
Richardson had come to the last day of casting auditions for the Atlanta show. Winans had returned to his home in Nashville the day before.
“We got a phone call from the casting director who said that a young lady had come in after I’d left and took her breath away. She videotaped the audition and sent it to you, but don't get too excited because she has already signed to be on the last year of “American Idol” and is scheduled to leave in a week to go to Los Angeles.
“I opened up the video and when I saw her, chills went through me. The resemblance to Whitney was so striking. I thought if this girl can sing a little bit, I’m calling her. Then she opened her mouth and I was floored. I called and pleaded with her not to go to Los Angeles, but to come with us. Two days later, she called and said, I’m not going. I’m coming with you.”
While his name served as a guarantee of interest in the play, financing was a major hurdle, particularly for Winans, who was raised strictly by his parents to not ask for money. And while he raised a good portion of the enhancement of his musical, the balance came from a source inspired by the patriotic CD, America America, he’d released in 2012 amid a great deal of criticism.
“People thought it was crazy when I did that album five years ago, but I was just inspired to do it,” says Winans who—while raising money for the show—was asked to perform the title track at an event held at the Supreme Court.
“Afterwards, this man comes up and says, ‘You moved my heart.’ He asked me for my card and long story short, he’s become my investor for the whole musical. Turns out he’s one of the richest men in America.”
“It’s amazing how God has things lined up, but you have to be willing to go against the grain and not follow what people say, but what He says. It’s not about me. It’s about God getting the glory and opening up the door for others to come in.”
Surprisingly, Winans—who serves as Executive Music Producer for the OWN Network series, “Greenleaf”—has always been more passionate about writing than singing.
“I always knew I was not the person who was going to be on tour my whole life. It’s a great thing to go away for a minute. People appreciate you more and I’m always open to what’s next. I believe there’s always a next until you leave here.”
And while the 54-year old Detroit native and the seventh child born to America’s famed gospel music dynasty, has said goodbye to many things, gospel is not one of them.
“Gospel is a part of me. That’s who I am”, he states matter-of-factly.
But today, the bigger picture for Winans is that the world his musical touches reaches far beyond gospel.
“The faces of those who come to see the musical are black, white, older, younger…those who knew our music and those who didn't have any idea of our music. That to me has been the most enjoyable part of this journey. That the truth of our story is everyone’s story.
“There have been so many testimonies from people who see this musical who have gone back after their careers or degrees, because they’ve been inspired and understand they too, were born for a reason.”
It is by the grace of God that Winans has found his.
“Through this journey,” he states, “there have been moments where I’ve heard some of the conversations that I had with Maya Angelou and in one of them she was talking about the struggle. She said, ‘BeBe, enjoy the struggle. Everyone is trying to get out of the struggle, but it’s in the struggle where you discover who you are. It’s in the struggle where you find out who people really are, and it’s in the struggle when you find out who God really is.”