Heather Headley has blazed a theatrical trail for herself on the strength of two Broadway shows (The Lion King and Aida, winning a Tony in 2000 for the latter) and via a Grammy-winning recording career. [Her latest CD, Only One in the World, was released in September.] Now, the 38-year-old Trinidadian-born force of nature is making her West End debut, inheriting the late Whitney Houston’s 1992 screen role as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard. The stage musical, co-starring Lloyd Owen as Frank Farmer and directed by Thea Sharrock (Equus), is in previews at the Adelphi Theatre, prior to a December 5 opening. Broadway.com caught the effervescent Headley in her dressing room early one recent evening to talk about her stage return, following in the footsteps of a legend and her young son’s newly acquired British accent.
Welcome back to the theater. It’s been a long time between shows!
It has! But Aida was so good to me on so many levels, from the role itself to my cast, Adam [Pascal] and Sherie [Rene Scott], to working with Disney. I left the show only did because I had an album [being released]. Over these past many years, my agent has said, “I want to find a show to bring you back,” and I was, like, “Good luck!” There have been a bunch of scripts, and I always compared them to her [Aida] and found myself thinking, “Is this what you come back with?”
Until The Bodyguard, presumably.
About two years ago, my agent sat me down and said, “They want to bring The Bodyguard to Broadway.” I laughed and said, “That’s not going to happen,” but he said, “Read the script; I think it’s good.” So I read it, and every page I turned, I was expecting the next page to be a mess—she’s going to do a pole dance, or the second act is a dream sequence [laughs]. But I got to the end and thought, “Oh my goodness; now go find me some music.” And he said, “I think you know the music!”
And here you are, making your way through previews.
We’ve had a standing ovation every night!
How are you finding the regimen of the theater after so many years away recording and doing concerts?
It has not been fun! [Laughs.] And this is a concert, though we’re dealing with it slightly differently, of course. I have 12 songs to sing, and the lady that sang them before me was really good; let’s agree on that. When I sing 12 songs, I normally have a day off after, so right now I’m trying not to do the matinees. It’s not healthy doing 24 songs in a day, not to mention the speaking. But no one’s really done this before, so we’re figuring it out on a daily basis— what can and can’t be done.
When Whitney Houston died, did your feelings change about doing the piece? I can imagine thinking that the timing might no longer be appropriate. Or, conversely, that it has become more necessary as a tribute.
I felt the former, at least at first, not because it was going to be mawkish, but part of me thought, “I cannot do this now; [Houston] has become a saint.” I don’t know if I would have signed the contract if I’d not signed it already. Also, the part of me that felt I couldn’t live up to her legend felt it even more so after she passed. But, you know, by the end of what we’re doing every night, people are loving the show and there’s a beautiful smile that goes up to Whitney with thanks for all the music. I do feel as if we are paying a great tribute to her in that way, even though this is not a tribute concert.
Do you connect to the milieu of the show—one requiring bodyguards, or celebrities who exist in that sort of glare?
It’s a world I recognize, though it’s also a world I try not to be in. There have been times I’ve gone places where I’ve needed guards, so, yes, I’m aware of it, but I’m not living it on a daily basis. I live in Chicago, where it’s great to be able to get in the car and go to Costco and then three days later to be in New York and put a dress on.
Does this production feel like a pre-Broadway tryout for The Bodyguard?
The dream is that the show has to go to Broadway, and I do feel— knock on everything—that it should; it will. I feel like we’re sitting on something amazing, and I wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. But at the same time, London is such a sophisticated town, and there’s no sense of this as a second city in any way.
I see you tweeted about singing for the Queen [at the annual Royal Variety Performance].
It’s quite, quite the honor! I’ve been thinking, “I’m this girl from Trinidad, and now here I am singing for the Queen? When did that happen?” [Laughs.] I am terribly humbled, truly.
It’s interesting the extent to which you embrace social media, between Twitter and what you refer to online as your weekly “Social Digest.”
It’s an ally. Sure, it can get obsessive to the point where you’re always checking everything, but I have people around me to calm that down. And it is amazing to be able to tweet something like singing for the Queen, and everybody knows within 10 minutes. I think for us as performers and what we do, it’s a great tool. What I’m still trying to figure out are the people who say, “I’m tying my shoelaces.” Why waste your time? [Laughs.] It’s about finding a middle ground.
I've seen the footage on YouTube of you playing Fanny Brice in a high school production of Funny Girl. Did you ever consider doing that role professionally?
We talked about it at one point during my years of going, “What? What? What?” The problem is that Fanny was an actual person, you know? Doing that show remains one of the highlights of my life, and I still sometimes warm up to the music.
Is it hard to be away from your husband [Brian Musso, a former pro football player who co-owns a financial firm in Chicago] for a year?
What’s great is that because he owns the firm with his brother, no more than 14 days will pass without him coming over to see us. He will be here for opening night and for Christmas. My son is with me, and he’s having the time of his life. [John David turns three in December.]
Is he picking up a British accent?
He has already. What I’m prepared for is him saying, “Mummy, you’re a commoner.” [Laughs.] It’s already started!