Last night, Amber Riley made her New York City Center debut in their limited run production of Cotton Club Parade, which is returning for seven performances through November 18. In the show, which is a Broadway-style revue that celebrates Duke Ellington's years at the famed Harlem nightclub in the 1920s, Riley gets to showcase the simply sublime skillset she's been honing since birth.
ETonline caught up with Riley this morning to find out how opening night went, what it means to be part of this iconic production and how it will inform the hotly anticipated next phase of her career!
ETonline: How are you feeling after last night's debut?
Amber Riley: Amazing! This has been a life changing experience. I had no idea how much I really loved the stage. I've been bit by the Broadway bug.
ETonline: Why did you want to be a part of this production?
Riley: First, having Wynton Marsalis' [musical director] name attached to it and getting the opportunity to meet him was number one. I am obsessed with The Cotton Club era, Duke Ellington's music and everything that happened there. Dianna [Agron] actually got me a record player for my birthday, and all I listen to it is Duke Ellington, Lena Waters, Lena Horn and Dorothy Dandridge. All those wonderful singers. I'm just obsessed with that era – even the costumes, it was such a glamorous time.
ETonline: What's your favorite part of the show?
Riley: I actually get to do Sunny Side of the Street! Ella Fitzgerald did my favorite version of that particular song. But I didn't expect it would be so hard to learn. That style of music isn't exactly my forte, and it's a lot harder because everything is so intentional in the way they wrote this music. The notes, the intervals and the places I would naturally go to are not in there, but it's important to the music to sing those notes. I actually get to dance and I'm just living on that stage when I do that number. During that song, I feel like I am really doing something.
ETonline: How does this compare to the Glee tour?
Riley: It's almost the same thing. Once you're out there, there's no "cut!" The tour was on a larger scale, but I've never danced as hard as I do in this. I break it down a little bit. People are going to be really surprised. I heard people in the audience go, "Oh?!?" It was hilarious.
ETonline: Is that the goal with this next phase of your career; to show them there's more to you than just Mercedes?
Riley: Yeah. I loved playing Mercedes on Glee; she's a fun character to play and I got to sing the diva songs, but I get to play an adult here. Even though I'm just singing in Cotton Club, I'm also acting in it. There's a story with my character. I feel completely different from Mercedes when I'm doing this. I feel like a woman and it's amazing.
ETonline: You're also working on your debut album, how has that process been?
Riley: It's been really fun. I've been recording since I was 10 years old, so when I started Glee, I think I was the most experienced in the recording world, so to be doing my own album now is like home. I'm working with producers and writers I've admired for such a long time. My dream was to have people see my life point of view through my writing so I'm really excited for everybody to hear what I'm doing.
ETonline: How do you describe the album?
Riley: It's not done yet. I found my sound, but in the middle of doing Glee and everything else, you have to pick up and stop [recording]. It's a classic R&B album. There’s a pop sensibility to it, there are some easy listening songs, but I want to take it back to that old school R&B sound. We've lost that a little bit in music today. Everything has been pop, which is great too -- I love listening to a great pop song I can just snap my fingers and dance to in the club, but R&B is where my heart is.
ETonline: You have two more episodes of Glee that have yet to air, and whether or not Mercedes continues to pop up, what will it have meant to you to have been a part of this show?
Riley: It sparked my love for music and gave me a thirst to understand different genres of music more. Not just be in a box as to what I can sing, what I can listen to and what I enjoy. Glee gave me such a thirst for music knowledge. It was a catapult for my career and it's shown me in so many different lights, it's given me the avenue to go anywhere I want in my career. Not a lot of people get that opportunity on TV. A lot of people get pigeonholed because they play one particular thing. I think people see me as an actress on the show, they see me as a singer on the show, they see me as a dancer on the show, so they can see me on Broadway and they can see me as a solo artist. Glee gave me the opportunity to show all the different parts of myself.