BeBe Winans has spent his entire life writing music and performing. But before he sat down to write “Born for This,” the new musical based on his life story, he went back to school.
“I went to see Broadway musicals to learn,” says Winans, whose show plays the Cutler Majestic Theatre June 15-July 15. “I studied the structure, I listened to the way the songs are organized. I’ve written lots of songs with stories in them — I love a good ballad — but I’d never written songs that lined up with a story.”
“Born for This” follows BeBe and his sister CeCe’s journey as teenagers from a musical family in Detroit — their four older brothers formed The Winans in the 1980s — to the Praise the Lord Network led by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, before leaving PTL and crossing over to the R&B charts.
The winner of six Grammys (three with CeCe), Winans has a rich catalog of songs to draw from. He and his sister had R&B hits in the ’90s with “Addictive Love,” “Lost Without You,” and a cover of “I’ll Take You There,” along with earlier gospel hits like “Lord Lift Us Up.” But he says he wasn’t interested in a musical revue, or a “jukebox” musical.
“That would have been too easy,” Winans says with a laugh. “I wanted to do something that was going to stretch me, and force me to break out of my comfort zone.”
Most of the more than two dozen songs in “Born for This” are new, Winans says. Some, like the title number, have new lyrics to fit a coming-of-age story that also explores the balancing act between faith and fame.
“Fame is an addiction,” says the artist who witnessed the Bakkers’ evangelical empire crumble in scandal, and his close friend Whitney Houston’s life unravel. “An artist has a desire to display their talent, but the sacrifices that come with the attention can destroy people. Too often, people put pressure on you to do things that are tempting, and every day you have to make a decision to be true to yourself.”
Although Winans says he wrote a first draft of “Born for This” a decade ago, after his friend, singer Roberta Flack, suggested it, he turned to director Charles Randolph-Wright, who directed “Motown the Musical,” for help shaping the narrative and integrating the music.
“Charles knew the story from the outside while I knew the story from the inside,” he says. He was committed, he says, to an honest portrayal, and showing his weaknesses, as well as his strengths, onstage was not always easy.
The team spent three weeks workshopping the show at ArtsEmerson two summers ago, where Winans says they received important encouragement. “Born for This” debuted in a co-production of Alliance Stage in Atlanta and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., before going on to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif.
The original production starred his nephew Juan Winans as BeBe and niece Deborah Joy Winans as his sister CeCe, and the roles seemed made for them. But both have found more demands on their careers, with Juan recording music and Deborah Joy one of the stars of TV’s “Greenleaf,” for which Bebe Winans serves as executive music producer.
The shift to a new cast for the Boston production has, he says, opened his eyes to the talented artists out there competing for roles.
“So many powerful vocalists, with terrific acting talent,” he says. “It was hard to choose, but sometimes it comes down to the performer’s deep understanding of the person they are portraying. When Kirsten Wyatt walked in the room, I just knew she was Tammy Faye.” The production also stars Donald Webber Jr. as BeBe, Loren Lott as CeCe, and Chaz Pofahl as Jim Bakker.
While “Born for This” follows the story of a man who achieved enormous success, Winans says his personal disappointments are no different than anyone else’s.
“I think everyone has felt those moments of doubt, or seen others struggle. When people walk out of the theater I want them to know that no matter where they are coming from, they have a purpose. I hope this show is the push that helps them pursue their dream.”
From Boston, Winans expects the show to head to Broadway, and around the world.
“That’s not hubris,” he says, “that’s faith.”
BORN FOR THIS: A NEW MUSICAL
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Cutler Majestic Theater, June 15-July 15. Tickets from $18, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com