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Bringing a legend to life

SINGING THE BLUES: Nina Kristofferson stars as Billie Holiday in her one-woman show

AFFECTIONATELY KNOWN as Lady Day, Billie Holiday is celebrated as one of jazz music’s greats. But behind the music, the famed US songstress became plagued by addiction, suffering from drug and alcohol abuse until her untimely death in 1959.

Now, her life and legacy is examined in the hugely anticipated West End production, The Billie Holiday Story.

Revered for her unique vocal style and celebrated jazz standards including God Bless The Child and the protest song Strange Fruit, Holiday’s troubled life saw her being raped as a child, working in a brothel, and being imprisoned for a short time for prostitution.

However, her bluesy vocal style would eventually earn her acclaim. After coming to the attention of John Hammond, a well connected jazz writer and producer, Holiday spent much of the 1930s working with a host of great jazz musicians, including Duke Ellington, Ben Webster and saxophonist Lester Young, who gave the songstress the nickname Lady Day.

But in a tale akin to that of the late great Whitney Houston, Holiday’s talent would tragically begin to fade as she fell prey to drugs and alcohol addiction, before her death at the age of just 44.

Nevertheless, the singer pioneered a new way of manipulating, phrasing and tempo through her vocals, and continues to be influential to this day – not to the least of singers in Nina Kristofferson. 

The accomplished vocalist won critical acclaim for encompassing a variety of musical styles, including jazz, blues and opera. With theatre credits including Porgy & Bess, Anthony & Cleopatra and Medea, Kristofferson now brings her one-woman show The Billie Holiday Story to the Charing Cross Theatre, following the production’s sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, and a successful tour of the UK in 2012.

“I’d always toyed with the idea of writing a jazz musical or an opera and it was merely timing that led me to write about Billie Holiday,” Kristofferson explains. “I had played Billie before so I had a fairly good knowledge of her.  I wanted to create an emotionally driven character, which would give you an insight into the complexities of language and relationships, whilst revealing how Billie’s given set of circumstances helped to shape her.   

“After playing her the first time, I had to do a lot more research because I felt the need to speak about Billie’s delicate balance of life. Not just on a factual level, but to try to convey an understanding of the depth of love, abuse, addiction and perhaps give an insight as to why she was so vulnerable.  I also have a good musical background covering many styles of jazz, which I love, and this helped to frame the music and dialogue.”


LEGACY LIVES ON: Billie Holiday

Reflecting on whether she has any similarities to Holiday, Kristofferson says: “Yes, I can relate to Billie on many levels, and yet we are so far apart on others. I think we all lead emotional lives and most of us have experienced love in one form or another. Billie’s life was so hard and she had to fight for everything, not just because she was a woman, in abusive relationships, and suffered from addiction, but because I think she had very little support. I felt she was at her best when she was singing.”

Though Holiday’s life has been well documented throughout the years – perhaps most notably by the singer herself in her 1956 autobiography Lady Sings The Blues – Kristofferson hopes her one-woman production will offer new insights into the jazz legend.

“The script does help to peel back layers of understanding and empathy for a woman who was so talented and yet died so young like so many talented artists. But this is not the gospel according to Billie Holiday.  It’s my offering to you, in which I invite you to journey with me as we take a look at the love, abuse and drugs in her life, whilst celebrating the wonderful songs she created and her truly expressive voice.”

With this in mind, Kristofferson says that while she was initially concerned that Holiday fans would be critical of her portrayal of the star, the production is her own personal interpretation of the Don’t Explain hitmaker.

“I am concerned at the thought of not being able to give her justice. However, the show is my interpretation of her; my understanding. I am not offering a tribute or impersonation of her. I’m offering a great night of music and drama, which is accompanied by amazing music, a five-piece jazz band, and my insight into how she lived her life through songs.”

And with Kristofferson being all too aware of the taboo issue of black audiences’ reluctance to attend West End theatre productions, she hopes The Billie Holiday Story will help to break this trend.

“Of course, there are many reasons for this, but that’s all the more reason to give an iconic figure like Billie Holiday a presence. I don’t see why black audiences won’t venture into the West End to celebrate Billie Holiday, the one and only!”

Considering her hopes for her production, Kristofferson says: “I’m no different to anyone else –  I hope this production will be a success.  It’s magical and it has all the right ingredients and the support of an amazing team. We’ll have to see how it plays out and I think people will have to come and see for themselves and enjoy a great night out.  

“The music is excellent and the band is brilliant; they will have you tapping your toes whilst leaving you breathless, and all this is cushioned by a great story.  I hope the audience will laugh, cry and sing with me and celebrate the talented Billie Holiday.”

The Billie Holiday Story is at the Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2 until May 25. Call the box office on 08444 930 650 or visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

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