Is there West End life after Heather Headley? The answer is yes at London’s Adelphi Theatre, where British soul singer Beverley Knight is leading the Olivier-nominated musical The Bodyguard into its second year. Knight has inherited Headley’s original stage role as the American singing sensation Rachel Marron, opposite Tristan Gemmill as the (mostly) non-singing bodyguard of the title. Broadway.com caught up with the ebullient performer one recent afternoon to talk about dealing with stalkers, her new stage musical career and what it’s like to be (in Knight’s own words) “bad-ass.”
How are you finding life as the lead in a West End musical?
You know what? I knew I’d love it! I love singing and theater, so I knew I’d enjoy the challenge. It’s hard work, but I’m absolutely loving every single moment.
What about the repetition of doing six shows a week? (Joelle Moses does the matinees.)
That’s part of it, but you kind of get repetition in touring as well. Of course it’s not exactly the same in concert because I can always vary my set. That said, there are always little nuances that shift slightly each night, and the audience brings a new energy to every show. Even though things may seem to be the same, they’re actually not.
You tweeted a picture of a sold-out sign in front of the Adelphi. That must be satisfying!
We’ve got a real crescendo going on, to the extent that you can’t think about coming at weekends unless you know someone in the cast because you ain’t getting in!
Tell me why you call this show the “bad-ass.”
It is “bad-ass” because it’s fiery and sassy and emotive. There are a lot of people out there who have preconceptions about musical theater, so they think they know what they’re going to get, and then are surprised to find something that hits them in the same way a film would. This baby’s got attitude; it’s a show that bites!
Of course, the show is based on a film—the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner starrer of the same name. What are your thoughts on the movie?
I was there when it opened. I went to see it! I was like, “Whitney’s in a film? I am goin’, bye!’” [Laughs] I’ll be honest with you: I prefer the stage production because I just feel as if it has a lot more weight to it. There’s more focus on the characters. For instance, in this version Rachel only has one stalker to worry about, and he’s an absolute fruit loop! I think all that adds up to a much better experience.
I hope you haven’t had any real-life experience with stalkers.
Oh, I’ve had my share of stalkers, though not to the extent that Rachel does in the show, thank Christ. But I have been there—a guy who said he was flying from Sweden to England convinced that we were going to get married and I was like, “Really? I think not!”
What does your husband [James O’Keefe] think about your rigorous West End schedule?
My husband was the one who instigated this whole thing so he’s been 1000% behind it. He said to me, “This is your role and if you don’t go for it, you’re insane,” and he was right. Plus, James is a gaffer and does lighting for TV commercials and stuff like that so he gets the idea of odd hours. He understands all that.
Were you at all apprehensive about taking over from Heather Headley?
I’ll be perfectly honest with you—and forgive me if this sounds arrogant—but this was a case of me being “bad-ass.” The truth is, I wasn’t worried about anything. All I cared about was doing a good job and going back to the script and not doing a copycat version of what anybody else had done.
What about the acting demands, given your career as a singer?
Well, I knew that Whitney had never acted before she did this, so I didn’t let that worry me too much—until opening night and then I wet myself!
You have a very distinctive English sound, so it must have been fun planting yourself firmly in such an American world as this show.
It was, and the fact is we’re all so familiar with America here in England that we feel as if we absolutely know it, even as far as the local differences between one place and another. But you’re right: it’s one thing to be familiar with Americana and another to put yourself inside it. I worked hard to get as close to all that as I could—to understand the speech patterns and intonations—and the more I researched, the more I realized I had work to do!
Have you ever lived in the States?
No, but I’ve been back and forth a million times.
What about other musicals? Has this whetted your appetite to do other shows?
There are any number of shows that people have been mentioning to me. I mean, a lot of people have said to me, “If Dreamgirls ever came to London, there’s only one person who could sing the song in that show and that’s you”—though of course I don’t look like Effie, if you know what I mean. What’s wonderful is to think that this is opening up all sorts of new doors. It feels like there are a lot of really fascinating roles that I could maybe one day do.
It’s great to hear you in such firm, full voice now over the phone even though you have to start singing your heart out in two and a half hours.
I’ve always been the kind of person who rarely has problems with my voice, so I’m very fortunate in that regard. I’m touching wood as I talk to you but so far so fine!