Heather Headley played the role of Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard at The Adelphi Theatre, London. Tony and Grammy Award winner Heather recently took time out to chat about her career.
You were born in Trinidad and grew up there. Can you tell us how your childhood helped develop your interest in music?
My father was a pastor, and my mother a pastor’s wife, and at first we lived in an apartment that was attached to the church, and then in a house that was built close to the church. My playground was the church, as from a very young age my mother would take me into the church, where I would sit and play. I started playing on the piano from about the age of four, and as I got older, I would go and practice on the piano whenever I could, and I would also sing. I would close all of the windows and make it a kind of ‘hot box’, where I would play and sing for hours. I can remember that if I made a mistake, I would start all over again. That was my first ‘playground’ and I think that shaped everything for me. I am also very grateful to my mother who guided me into the direction of music.
Our church had a lot of young people who were into drama and the arts, and when they needed a 4-year old, there I was! The thing is that even now, when I practice I turn out all of the lights, and close the windows, and get myself back into a ‘sauna box’, and that helps me to focus.
You went to Northwestern University where you also started your acting career. Can you tell us about that?
When I was at Northwestern I got the equivalent to an Equity Card and had the opportunity to perform in Dreamgirls ‘Off-Campus’, and while still having a full workload of study I was then doing a show in the evening. I can’t say that it was fun, as it was very hard work. It was working at what in the UK you might say was at a ‘regional theatre’ level. I then did another show called “The World Goes Around”, before being pulled out of school to go into Ragtime, which was my first “we’re going to Broadway” show.
You made your Broadway debut playing the role of Nala in the original Broadway cast of Elton John and Tim Rice’s The Lion King. How did it feel to be originating the role at the time, and also now looking back at how successful the musical has become, knowing you were there at the start?
At the time I don’t think I was old enough to comprehend it. At the time, there was quite a lot of drama in getting me out of the Ragtime contact to do The Lion King, which my agent succeeded in doing. At the time I can remember thinking “Ragtime is a great show and I don’t know if this is going to work, this is crazy”. I can remember being backstage on Press Night and thinking to myself “Oh my gosh, I think I’m in something crazy here”. Looking back, I am just really proud of the phenomenon that the show has become.
What does it mean to you, and how important is it to you, to be successful as a singer as well as an actress?
When I am singing, it is important in the delivery of the song, with every word and every emotion that I am working as an actress. I want to be a good actress as well as a good singer. The two both work together and both mean a lot to me.
A teacher once said to me that in musical theatre, when you cannot sing anymore then you speak, and when you cannot speak anymore then you sing.
Having performed the role of Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, what is your overriding memory from being in the show?
I think it was one of the hardest and most challenging things that I have done, and the most gratifying, and that has brought me the most joy. It really is one of those shows that you look back on and think you couldn’t ask for a better role or better songs to sing. The role asks for a lot and out of respect for the audience and out of respect for Whitney Houston and her music, you have to give your all, and it takes a lot out of you. But when you get through that, it is one of the most gratifying feelings. At the end of the evening it is a feeling of YES!
What do you like most about London?
I can’t tell you that I love your weather, and I hate the traffic.
I did enjoy passing by some amazing historical buildings, including passing by Buckingham Palace every day on my way to the theatre. I love the fact that it is such an historical city. There seemed to be less drama on the news and that was kind of refreshing.
You are coming back to London to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on Sunday 2nd February 2014, for An Evening with Heather Headley. What can you tell us about the show and the music that you will be performing?
It’s a little bit of everything. I have always wanted to do a show for the London audience, and when I was in London before I didn’t think it was the right time, as I had to give my full commitment to The Bodyguard. I want to be able to say thank you for being a great audience for me, and for accepting me not only into your country but also into your theatre community.
I said to someone recently that it is usually the audience who is asking for an encore, but this time it is me who is asking for one.
The show will consist of the songs that I love singing. From songs that I used to sing in the church, through Broadway, my albums, pop music and everything that I have done. It has been hard choosing the songs to sing on the evening.
I am so very excited about coming back to London and really looking forward to it.
Interview by Neil Cheesman @LondonTheatre1
Thursday 12th December 2013