Actress and singer Heather Headley is a long way from the lonely girl in the hallway at Northrop High School. The Tony and Grammy winning performer has been a longtime talent that has brought the city pride with roles in "The Lion King" and "Aida" on Broadway.
Now, Headley makes her return to the stage Tuesday, replacing Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery in Broadway's "The Color Purple," which was recently nominated for four Tony Awards.
"Tell Fort Wayne I'm really grateful for all of the support, and the continued love and encouragement," Headley says. "People already tell me, "Hey, we're going to drive to New York, and everything like that. It's great, especially all the love that comes from Northrop."
Headley, who hasn't had an ongoing Broadway role since "Aida" in 2000, discussed last week how she's been preparing for "The Color Purple," crying on the first day of school and how her two sons think her return to Broadway is really a play date.
Some of the responses have been edited.
Q. How are you preparing for "The Color Purple"?
A. I was quarantined to a room for the first week, which I kind of like to some extent, because normally with the shows before, I kind of – and I don't say this is in a presumptuous way – but, I originated the role. So you're always with the cast, and you're kind of learning with the cast and making mistakes with the cast. In this instance, the cast already knows the show, and they have performances. So I was kind of in a room, learning it, but I've been learning it by myself and making mistakes by myself and not having everybody see them (Laughs) It's kind of nice not to be like, "Oops, that doesn't work. Let's try it again," in front of everybody. ... A few days later, I had some of the understudies come in, and then a few days later, they kind of put the whole cast around me. ... I actually enjoyed the process of just kind of sitting with the director, the assistant director, the music director and kind of just fighting through everything before I met (the cast). Needless to say, they are ahead in the class, and I'm kind of coming in mid-year, trying to catch up.
Q. The character, Shug Avery, is a jazz singer that serves a maternal role. How are you connecting to this character?
A. You know, it's funny that you would say that, because I do think there is that bit of a maternal side to her. The big sister side to her. And there are times that in the song, I kind of look over at Cynthia (Erivo, the 29-year-old British actress who plays Celie in "The Color Purple), and I don't call (Shug) a mother, but it's that big sister role, and I do kind of connect to that even with my children. Like, "How would I say this to my child?" But in a better way, of course, because she's much older than that. It's been beautiful to have that connection, and to be able to be a big sister to not only the cast, but maybe even for (Erivo and Danielle Brooks of "Orange Is The New Black"). They all got Tony nominations, and so, this is maybe a time for me to also be a big sister to them and say, "Okay, what do you need to know from me about this process?"
Q. Shortly after your "Color Purple" casting was announced, you posted on Instagram that your sons (John David and Jordan Chase Musso) "don't care if mommy is going to back to Broadway..." Are they are aware of your success?
A. They really don't care. They have no care in the world. They are just like, "Where are you?" Even now, they're home, and my son goes, "Where are you? We haven't seen you in a thousand months!" With my son, everything is a thousand. ... I'll say, "Well, I'm in New York City," and I think in his head, it's "Why? What?" He thinks mommy just goes off to sing, and I do think he just thinks it's like a play date.
Q. Have you reached a point in your career where you have become more selective of the roles you play?
A. Yeah, I think so. And I thank God for that opportunity. ... There's a time where we come into the business and you kind of take everything. ... I'm grateful that maybe I can (be selective), and say, "This is a great thing, and we're going to do it."
Q. You're replacing Jennifer Hudson as "Shug" in "The Color Purple." Have you two had a chance to talk?
A. I have not spoken to Jennifer, yet. I tried to kind of stay out of her way to some extent because she also has to finish up her work. She has a week to go, and it's a weird thing when you take over. ... A lot of times, you have this new energy, so everyone is kind of like, "Okay, what does this person need?" It's kind of like having a new visitor. You're changing the sheets ... but the person there still has a job to do, and still has work to be done. So I've tried my best to kind of sit out of it, and stay away to some extent. I'm sure I'll see her in a day or two, and I'll get to say, "Hi, how are you?" and stuff like that. But I just don't want to be in her way. ... It's like when people move into your house. You're like, "I'm in my house! Do you really need to tell me where you're going to put my couch?" ... And another thing, (Hudson) originated this, and she went through the process with these people, and it's important that she finishes that process with them. I know how this is. Having those mixed feelings of like, "Yay, I'm leaving," because I have other work to do, but it's also like "Ugh, I'm leaving," because we went though things together. We put up a show together.
Q. What are some of your favorite memories of Northrop High School?
A. I remember my first day, being overwhelmed and crying. I hated it, because we moved in on Oct. 12, and I was in school by Oct. 14, and I had come from my island (Trinidad), and here I was at this school, with everybody moving too quickly around me, not knowing anybody, not being able to open my locker. I think everyone knew my locker combination, because I would just be like, "Can you help me?" I did not know how to do anything. So it's the first day of crying, and saying in my head, "I want to go home." Sitting in the counselor's office in tears, and being like, "I can't. I don't know how to do this. There's too many people here." ... I would juxtapose that to my last days there where Northrop was everything. I knew every corner in that place. I could open my locker with my eyes closed. My teachers, I still love them. H Hall, which I think I will dub, "Heather Headley Hall," was my oasis, doing all the musicals there. That school has a very, very deep place in my heart.
Q. What is the last thing you do before going out on stage to perform?
A. I pray. Once everything is on, makeup is on, shoes are on, and the body feels fine, I just start a little session of praying. I pray for myself, for my voice, and for the audiences that they would get everything I want to get. ... I pray for my cast members, I pray for the crew, I pray for the stage, because things can go wrong. You guys (the audience) just see us on stage, and we get all the credit, but there's so many people back there making sure that thing runs right. If a crew guy is not checking every light every night, you don't know when one of those things could fall on your head. Things can go very wrong, and get very ugly. So I pray for the crew, and the stage, and for our safety. And I pray for the audience. One thing that hit me many years ago was that in that audience, there are people who are hurting and in pain, and who had a tough time. And for two hours, we get to hang with them, and take their minds off of it. So, I pray for them that they have a great night, and that this will be a life-changing moment.
Q. Where do you keep the Tony and Grammy?
A. They are in a little office, and in that office is where I have all of our stuff. So I have the posters, my Gold record, the plaques, all that kind of stuff. They are actually proudly displayed in there. However, I don't get in there a lot. So in my head, I don't believe that the Tony and the Grammy are in the house with me. So every now and then when I go in there, I'm actually in shock that they are still there. That they didn't sprout wheels and drive away out of protest of being in the same house as me. ... So I'm in the rest of the house, and the rest of house is those two boys going, "We really don't care you're going back to Broadway. What's for dinner? And why is the chicken not juicy? And why are we driving through Chick-Fil-A again?" That's the rest of the house. So every now and then, something allows me to venture to the office, so I go in and go, "Oh my gosh, I was cool at one point!" And then two seconds after I think that thought that I'm cool, someone goes, "My pants are dirty! My pants are dirty!" And then I leave the room, and I'm not cool anymore. (Laughs)