The names alone conjure up memories in the minds of anyone who loves R&B music and is familiar with the résumés of these two superstars, who have helped shape the genre over the past 25 years. Babyface, as a songwriter, producer, LaFace Records co-founder and artist, is one of the most important figures in the history of R&B and pop music; and in 1992, he introduced the world to Toni Braxton, a beautiful young vocalist with soul and passion who would go on to become one of the defining female vocalists of the 1990s. Today, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Midtown Manhattan, media and fans are buzzing around these two legendary artists as they discuss their latest endeavor together: bringing their undeniable chemistry to the Broadway stage as guests in the hit play After Midnight.
Babyface and Braxton are in a jovial mood. They playfully pose for pictures and poke fun at each other, they finish each other’s sentences and within minutes, it’s clear to everyone in the room how strong the bond is between these two hit-makers. And the room is packed — with press, with curious workers, with a few fans. Everyone is clamoring for a moment. It’s understandable — when two of the biggest icons in contemporary R&B hit Broadway, the world takes notice.
Braxton and Edmonds are both nervous and excited about their appearance in After Midnight. A celebration of the music of Duke Ellington, the poetry of Langston Hughes and the glamour of the big band era in jazz, the play gives the longtime collaborators a chance to strut their stuff on the Great White Way. For Edmonds, it’s his first time tackling a Broadway play, and he understands the scope of the music — and the history.
“[With] Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes’ poetry, and Wynton Marsalis being a part of it — you knew there was going to be a quality to it,” he says. “And because of that it made it easy to say ‘yes’ to being part of such a play. I can’t believe I’m going to be a part of this project. I’m happy about it.”
“What excited me most was the music,” adds Braxton. “The fashion, the glamour — [the era] when music was sexy without being too revealing,” she says, before sharing, “It was a little [intimidating] for me, I have to be honest. I’m used to my style of music, so doing something like this is very challenging. But it’s exciting, something I think every artist, every singer, should add to their résumé.
“There’s a discipline and a simplicity about it — simple in that the lyrics are straightforward,” she continues. “And you get to kind of learn a little bit more about yourself and your own limits, how far you can go. Things you never thought you could do, things you were afraid to try. So even when I’m uncomfortable, I’m comfortable.”
“[We were] certainly respectful. So we studied,” explains Babyface. “And we listened to great singers of that time period. They wouldn’t come in there riffing everywhere. Not just for the music, but also for Broadway. Because you can come in here and riff your butt off and they’ll tear you up the next day. I think both of us are respectful of this opportunity and want to do the best that we can.”
Another aspect of the experience that intrigued Babyface is the opportunity to introduce contemporary R&B fans to Broadway.
“Toni keeps saying they are going to expect us to sing [their hit single] ‘Hurt You,’ ” he adds with a chuckle. “I don’t think so, but I hope that fans of ours that aren’t used to the Broadway experience will come and feel Broadway because it’s an amazing, magical place. I think more of our people and our kids should experience Broadway at least once in their lives.”
After Midnight is another milestone for a musical pair with two decades of history together. Most recently, Braxton and Babyface collaborated on the duets album, Love, Marriage & Divorce. With such a mature and well-received project under their belt, the duo is basking in their renewed synergy.
“It was just the right time,” says Babyface. “We could’ve gotten together and done this music and it could’ve not mattered to folks. What made it happen was [the fact that] we didn’t really think about that. We were just thinking about making music that felt good. And if we did that, we felt like those that would love it would come along. Because we weren’t approaching it like ‘Oh this gonna make us hot, this is gonna get it going again, this is gonna get me a new car,’ it wasn’t about that. It was about doing more music together. And this play is about going to places and doing things we don’t normally do. Going out of your comfort zone and trying new things. That’s the blessing we have, being in a position to try new things.”
Their chemistry was evident from their first collaboration, the hit 1992 single “Give U My Heart,” which was originally featured on the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang and set the stage for Braxton’s multiplatinum debut album. Love, Marriage & Divorce brought things full circle, and Braxton and Babyface have been compared to some of the most legendary male-female R&B duet partners throughout history.
“People look at us like Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye and all of the great duets,” gushes Braxton. “I’m excited about that.”
Like those legends, the musical and personal closeness between these two is evident. Braxton talks about her onetime mentor with the candor of a sister and the adoration of an especially close friend.
“The first time I met him, I loved everything about him,” she says. “He’s my big brother. And he introduced me to Star Wars! I’d never seen any Star Wars movies!”
But even more than schooling a young Toni to science fiction movie classics, he also shaped her artistry.
“He took me under his wing and educated me on how to be an artist and gave me an understanding of the discipline and he always told me ‘Toni you have a gift, you have a talent,’ ” she says.
“Toni was like a deer in headlights when she first came, so you could tell her anything,” recalls Babyface. “It was ‘Where do I go, what do I do?’ It’s not the same anymore. I worked with her and she’s earned her stripes. She became a superstar and a diva around the world. I have to respect that. It doesn’t matter so much whether I was part of it in terms of writing the music and producing.”
Braxton is quick to correct him. “It does!” she says, in faux frustration.
“You can write for anyone and produce for anyone, but at some point the artist has to take it the rest of the way,” Babyface clarifies. “How far they take it isn’t up to me. But I threw the ball and she went for it. That’s the kind of team you want to be a part of. You don’t want to throw the ball and they drop it. She’s kept on winning.”
And now, they’re taking that winning streak to the stage. For Babyface, it all makes sense — and he couldn’t pick a better person to stand alongside as he makes his Broadway debut.
“We’ve had a lot of firsts together,” he says thoughtfully. “To be introduced to Broadway with Toni Braxton — [there was] no better way for me to be introduced to it; to be a part of her story. And now she’s a part of my story.”