Cynthia Erivo Is Wickedly Talented at Perelman Performing Arts Center’s Opening Night

Before performing at PAC’s opening night gala, the Tony winner chatted exclusively with VF about how she’s spending the shutdown, Cats the musical, and the importance of downtown theater.
Cynthia Erivo Is Wickedly Talented at Perelman Performing Arts Centers Opening Night
From Craig Warga/Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Backstage in her dressing room at the Perelman Performing Arts Center, Cynthia Erivo was calm, cool, and collected. Dressed in an black oversized sweater, black knee-high boots, and green dangly earrings, she was 20 minutes away from taking the stage at the multi-space performing arts center’s opening night gala to celebrate the building designed by Joshua Ramus, located steps away from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

“The destination is really special,” Erivo said in an exclusive interview with Vanity Fair. “To put it here where so much pain was, to bring art into a space that otherwise was devoid of it—it’s really cool.”

James Taylor

From Darian DiCianno/

The Perelman Arts Center, or PAC, was conceived to bring light and art to the Financial District in the wake of the devastation of 9/11. Over two decades later, the $500 million Perelman Arts Center, named for billionaire Ron Perelman, is finally ready to open its doors to the public and deliver on the promise of restoring art and culture to a neighborhood marred by loss. To mark the occasion, Erivo, along with poet Amanda Gorman, ballet dancer Tiler Peck, The RootsTarik Trotter, singer Tori Kelly, and the legendary James Taylor, among others, provided inaugural performances at the venue on Thursday, showcasing the wide-ranging potential of the space and the diversity of artistic expression that PAC hopes to provide and foster.

“I always say take a moment and say a prayer before I get onstage,” Erivo said. “I always ask to be a vessel for whoever needs to hear anything they hear. I always ask to be a connection between me, the music, and whoever listens to it because I think that that’s the only way to get the truest version of it.” It’s evident from her outfit backstage that Erivo is still a vessel for Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West she’s playing in the highly anticipated Wicked movies, opposite Ariana Grande’s Glinda. Wicked only had 10 days left of filming before the SAG-AFTRA strike shut down production, and while the cast is now physically separated, emotionally, they are very much in touch.

“I’m staying in contact with my castmates for sure,” Erivo said. “They’re kind of stuck with me…. It was a good time. We’re good friends, and it’s like we made a family.”

Despite the family being pulled apart so close to the finish line, Erivo seemed in good spirits.

“I’ve been okay because the main thing I wanted to do once [the Hollywood strikes] happened was just to take care of myself. We worked really, really hard. We were all working really, really hard, and we’re constantly working hard. I just want to keep myself in a constant state of readiness, for anything really.”

Once the SAG-AFTRA strike began, Erivo leaned into a self-care routine, resting, hitting the treadmill, and, as she said, “taking her vitamins every day.” “I don’t think that this moment is a moment to put aside the way we take care of ourselves,” she said. “I think it’s a time to really dig in and take better care of ourselves, so that’s what I’ve just been doing.”

She also leaned into her first love—live performance. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Erivo burst onto the American scene in 2016 with her Tony-winning performance as Celie in The Color Purple Broadway revival and has not slowed down since, winning a Grammy and earning two Oscar nominations as both an actress and a musician. While she’s ascended to the top of Hollywood’s A-list, Erivo is still a passionate advocate of the downtown arts scene.

“That’s where I started,” she said. “My first play was in Brighton, just outside of London. It’s absolutely not the West End. It’s nowhere near the West End. It was called Marine Parade. And I can’t tell you how much I loved doing it. It’s one of the most vivid memories I will ever have.” Erivo waxes on nostalgically, lovingly describing the tiny flat she stayed in, the older couple she rented it from, and the time her sister came to visit. Perhaps the joy of this foundational experience is why downtown arts venues, like the Perelman Arts Center, free from the commercial pressures of Broadway and the West End, are so important to Erivo.

“When we give different shows the room to explore, we’re only doing ourselves a favor,” she said. “We can be experimental, and you don’t necessarily have to worry about the bottom line. You can worry about creativity.”

The Perelman Arts Center’s inaugural season is certainly not afraid to get creative. Alongside more traditional fare including concert series with Broadway luminaries like Ben Platt, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and LaChanze, PAC is taking at least one big risk in its first season, putting up a reimagined version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats set in the world of NYC ballroom culture straight out of Paris Is Burning in June of next year. While it may sound outlandish to some, Erivo is all for it.

“Perfect. Great. Cats and ballroom works,” she said with a laugh. “Genuinely. That’s the best way. It should have been done like that ages ago.” Her reasoning? “It is literally based on T.S. Eliot’s nonsense poem about different types of cats. If we’re going to watch Cats, please let it be ballroom. That’s what I want it to be. Why not?”

Michael Douglas and Whoopi Goldberg

From Darian DiCianno/

Soon, it was almost time for Erivo to take the stage and the audience to take their seats. After an opening poem from Gorman, former mayor Michael Bloomberg, chair of the PAC board, spoke of the “bright new chapter” that the arts center represented for NYC, honing in on his efforts to rebuild the city post 9/11 but failing to mention that the $500 million arts center was originally supposed to cost anywhere from $100 to $200 million, and that he footed the rest of the bill. (But, of course, Perelman made sure to). Throughout the night, introductions to various performances were given by stars like Michael Douglas, John Leguizamo, and a post-pregnancy-comment controversy Whoopi Goldberg (“Apparently, I have lost the ability to stop things from coming out of my mouth,” Goldberg quipped. “That’s why they have written down things for me to say.”)

And then, it was Erivo’s time to shine. After an introduction from Goldberg, she sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” and then “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” “I chose the first one because I love singing it and it felt right,” Erivo told me backstage. “And the second one…I think I’m stuck with Aretha for the rest of my life. It always feels odd when I don’t sing her.” Though the night was marked with some technical difficulties—Gorman’s poem disappeared from the teleprompter at one point; Taylor’s inner ear piece wasn’t working during his first song—everything seemed to align perfectly for Erivo to deliver two powerhouse, vocally thrilling performances of the classic tunes, instantly recognizable and yet entirely singular. And she did it all wearing—what else—a green dress.

From Craig Warga/Bloomberg Philanthropies.