After starring on the West End in Chicago, West Side Story and Sister Act, Debbie Kurup is all but stealing the London premiere production of The Bodyguard from the formidable Heather Headley. Kurup is cast as Nicki Marron, younger sister to soul diva Rachel (Headley), in the high-profile musical adaptation of the hit 1992 film. After getting her seven-year-old daughter Saffron off to school, Kurup took time one recent morning to chat with Broadway.com about her career, the legacy of Whitney Houston and sharing the stage with a Tony and Grammy-winning star.
You’ve received strong reviews for The Bodyguard—though we probably shouldn’t say what happens to your character, in case anybody out there never saw the movie!
Let’s just say that her plight is a sad one! She’s a bit tragic. The role has been written really nicely, and she’s slightly different from the original movie. They ironed out some of the bits that were a little, well, fluffy̵—some of the creases—so her overall journey is quite well defined. The audience really warms to her.
Have you read your reviews?
I do read my reviews, and I think any actor who says they don’t is lying! The thing is, if you see a good review and you’re going to believe that, then you also have to believe what’s not so good. I’ve been pretty lucky so far: I’ve never had a review that’s really knocked my confidence.
Was this job a no-brainer?
I knew the film, so when I was sent the script, I had an idea of what the character would be like. But I read it and thought, “This is a new take on a role people might already know.” She was strong and silent, but she harbored pain that I knew would be a really nice emotion to play. Usually I’m cast in the feisty roles, so for me, it was lovely to go, “Wow, I’m not being typecast” [laughs].
Was the prospect of appearing alongside Heather Headley daunting?
Do you know what? I’ve always really respected Heather as an actress and was nothing but thrilled. It’s always nice when you are admiring of a fellow actor because it means, for me at least, that I’ve got to be the best I can possibly be; I’m playing with the big boys. It’s been a great blessing and privilege to work alongside Heather, and Lloyd [Owen], as well, who’s been such a great actor for many years.
What are your specific vocal demands in the show?
Well, my character sings “Saving All My Love for You” in the club lounge she goes to in order to get away from her life and troubles—it’s Nicki’s way of escape—and then I sing a duet with Heather called “Run to You,” one of the songs from the original soundtrack. In Act Two, I sing “All at Once,” one of Whitney Houston’s early ballads, which shows the pain Nicki’s going through. And then “Jesus Loves Me,” which I sing with Fletcher, the son, and Rachel [Headley] joins in as well, so it’s a trio. I think the soundtrack songs have been brought together really well with songs from Whitney’s back catalog.
Two out of four numbers with Heather? That’s must be a treat.
What’s fascinating is that we’re very, very different, but our voices blend very nicely. When we sing together in unison, we absolutely combine. We really could be sisters—it’s as if we’re singing the same, thinking the same.
Have you watched the movie since starting this process? Did the director ask you not to watch it?
No one’s said anything, but I don’t know that I would necessarily listen to a director who ordered me not to watch a movie [laughs]. In fact, I have seen the film since we’ve been doing the show, and what’s really interesting is to sit and think, wow, our changes make for much stronger choices. There’s a reason we’ve slotted that particular song there.
How would you describe your own association with the Whitney Houston songbook?
I’d always admired Whitney Houston’s voice. Growing up, I would listen to her and try to sing like she did and perfect all the riffs; I just thought she had the most amazing tone and power. Back in the ‘90s, there was that thing of, are you a Whitney girl or a Mariah [Carey] girl? I always preferred Whitney, I really did—the raw power and emotion in her voice.
You’ve had quite a run of American shows, from this and Sister Act to revivals of West Side Story, Rent and Chicago.
I’ve played so many Hispanic characters: Mimi in Rent, and Anita [laughs]! Chicago was amazing because I first saw it on the West End when I was 18, and there it was, no tricks or gimmicks, just a very classy production that was all about the performance. I got to play Velma twice, the first time here at the Adelphi and later at the Cambridge Theatre. I first went into the show when my daughter was three months old and that was pretty tough, but it was a great incentive to lose the baby weight; in fact, I auditioned when she was seven weeks old.
That must have been intense!
At that point, I wasn’t down to my target weight, but luckily, I’ve always had long, skinny legs.
You mention being cast as Hispanics, but you presumably go up for roles across the ethnic spectrum.
I do! My father is south Indian and my mum is English—I was born here— but the name [Kurup] is pretty ambiguous. Because of my look, I’ve found that I get to play all these fantastic parts because people can’t pinpoint where I’m from. Am I Hispanic? Black? People look at me and don’t know. It’s just fantastic.