Ten years ago this spring, Fantasia Barrino took American Idol to a new level with her soulful rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Three years later, the reality show champ shocked naysayers (and won a Theatre World Award) for her blistering performance as Celie in The Color Purple. After some well publicized ups and downs, Barrino is back on top: She nabbed three 2014 Grammy nominations, including Best Urban Contemporary Album for Side Effects of You, which New York magazine named one of the year’s 10 best recordings; and she is thrilling Broadway audiences as the featured soloist in the new musical After Midnight. An upbeat Fantasia recently chatted with Broadway.com about channeling great jazz vocalists, what she loves about Broadway and why she’s feeling thankful at the dawn of a new year.
How much fun are you having in After Midnight?
We feel exactly how it looks. Everybody in the show is a fan of the Cotton Club era, and we want to honor the people who came before us. Every night, we say, “Let’s enjoy ourselves. Let’s put a smile on the face of someone who has never seen a Broadway show.”
Are there particular singers from that era who inspire you?
Oh, of course. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway…they’re all favorites of mine. When I sing “Stormy Weather,” I always picture Lena Horne, who was an amazing, beautiful woman. I want to let their legacy live on, so I keep it very authentic. These songs are my babies.
Did you grow up listening to this kind of music?
I come from a musical family, so I grew up listening to all kinds of music. It started at age four or five with gospel; my mother and father and my two brothers and I would sing in different churches, and we had two gospel albums out. But even before [producer] Scott Sanders asked me to do this play, I had been on a jazz mission. I didn’t want to hear anything on the radio—I listened to nothing but jazz. So when [After Midnight] came, it felt like God’s way of positioning me for this role. I felt like, “OK, I’m supposed to do this.”
You look gorgeous in your Isabel Toledo costumes. How cool is it that a fashion designer is making her Broadway debut?
First of all, I’m in love with Isabel and her husband [Ruben Toledo]. They have the most amazing eye—so much so that she’s designing my dress for the Grammys this year. When it comes to After Midnight, she really got it: She would come every night [during previews] and watch the show as if she had never seen it before. She was always there to make sure that when we hit the stage, we were comfortable and didn’t have to worry about anything other than doing a great job.
What do you enjoy about singing on a Broadway stage, rather than in concert?
Concerts are my first love, so that will never change. With Broadway, the challenge is doing a new show for different people every night. It’s almost like a ministry for me—when we get out there on that stage, we are ministering through songs or stories or tap dancing. You never know you’re blessing, and it’s a joy to go out there and do the same show and have it feel a little bit different every time.
How does this experience compare to the last time you were on Broadway, as Celie in The Color Purple?
At the time I played Celie, I was still so young, and so many things in my life were not fixed the way they should have been. Between dealing with my life and dealing with Celie’s life [of abuse], it was a very trying time. I’m a grown woman now—I’ve been around the world; I’m a businesswoman; I’m a mother of two and I raise a niece, so that makes three. I’m in a great place, and nothing can change that.
That happiness comes through in your performance.
When I say, “Nothing can break me now,” people say, “Are you sure?” And I say, “Yeah, do the research! Go back and Google.” I’ve been through things that a lot of people my age probably wouldn’t have made it out of, so nothing can get me down. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is that I’ve lived to see another day. I say, “Thank you, Lord.” I’m healthy, I’m in my right mind and my children are blessed. It has nothing to do with money or position or material things; none of that means anything to me. This time on Broadway, it’s about embodying the music of these amazing people. I would love to be the new school Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. I want to stand there and say, “I’ve been through things, but look at me now.”
Congratulations on your three Grammy nominations and on New York magazine naming your album one of the 10 best of the year!
Get out of here! Really? I didn’t know that. Oh my god.
Did anyone from your record label advise you not to do Broadway?
I have to say, I have a lot of great supporters at my label no matter what I do. I’ve heard that they are amazed to see me doing so many different things—from American Idol to my book and Lifetime movie [Life Is Not a Fairytale] to going on the road and singing in Italian with Andrea Bocelli to playing Celie in The Color Purple, and now this show. They look at me and say, “What’s next?” It makes me feel good to surprise people. I don’t think [Broadway] puts you in a box; I think it expands who you are.
Aretha Franklin has suggested that you should play her in a movie. Would you be interested?
Of course I would! [Laughs.] She is at the top of my list of people I love dearly and respect. I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin since I was a little girl [rather than] CDs that most young people my age had. I know a lot about her, and if she calls for me, I will be there.
You mentioned your kids. What do you enjoy doing with them in New York?
When I’m with them, I feel like a big kid. I had my daughter [Zion, now 12] at such a young age—I was a child myself, but when you become a mother, you put away childish things. It was harder for me having a girl because you have to teach her how to be a woman. Now, we enjoy doing things I never got to do. We like to ride rides; we love to pop popcorn and watch scary movies. My son [Dallas] is such a boy, and it’s looking like he is going to be very musical. He just turned two, but he can sing and harmonize. I have a videos of him playing notes on the piano, and my mother said, “That’s how you were.” My daughter and my niece are into fashion, so I’m thinking about helping them with some type of clothing line. To see these babies grow up into smart young women makes me feel so blessed. I enjoy every moment with them.
Is there any chance you would come back to After Midnight later in the run? [K.D. Lang, Toni Braxton and Babyface have signed on as guest vocalists in the coming months.]
There’s been talk about that. With this music, this band and this cast, you’ve got me. It’s hard to find a group of people who are as passionate and loving. Every day before the show, we go on stage and pray together. We genuinely love each other, so of course I would come back!
See Fantasia Barrino in After Midnight at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.