Three decades passed between the 1964 Carol Burnett vehicle Fade Out - Fade In and her 1995 return to Broadway in the comedy Moon Over Buffalo. Denzel Washington skipped 16 Broadway seasons between 1988’s Checkmates and his turn as Brutus in Julius Caesar in 2005. As for Barbra Streisand, who became a superstar after headlining 1964’s Funny Girl, audiences are still waiting.
Heather Headley hasn’t been on Broadway since her star-making turn as the title character in the 2000 Disney show Aida. That Elton John–Tim Rice Verdi-inspired pop opera won the then-unknown actress a Tony and Drama Desk Award, and made her, in the parlance of the trade, an overnight sensation.
Now, a new generation can finally see what all the fuss was about. Headley has finally returned to the street that made her name, taking up the role of slinky roadhouse singer Shug Avery in the Tony-winning revival of the musical The Color Purple.
A return to Broadway wasn’t quite how the singer planned on spending this summer.
“I was very excited about my summer,” says Headley, from her dressing room at the Jacobs Theatre, the wall newly painted a soothing light blue, covering what had been a more appropriate (but also perhaps more optically jarring) rich purple. “It was going to be great. I was going to have a calm summer. I had a few gigs, but my aim was to plant a lot of pots and have ladies over and have tea parties in the backyard. Then my agent called.”
As agents are wont to do when opportunities arise. The job in question arose with the exit of Jennifer Hudson from the role, as the man-eating and worldly mentor to the show’s protagonist, in director John Doyle’s production. After turning to an inner circle of theatre gurus for advice, including Disney Theatrical Group president Thomas Schumacher and veteran press agent Chris Boneau, Headley did what all wavering would-be stars eventually do: She went to see the show she was being invited to join.
It was an altogether new experience. She had not seen the original Broadway mounting of The Color Purple in 2005 and was not familiar with the score. She had intended to take in the show and then mull over the offer for a time. But the reaction of her husband, former New York Jets player Brian Musso, preempted that plan.
“Something happened in the theatre,” says Headley. “It became this spiritual experience that kind of overwhelms you. I looked over at my husband and he was laughing and crying—and this man does not like anything I’m not in!”
A lot has happened to Headley since Aida changed her life, including that marriage to Musso, which has produced two children, one six years old and one just under two years. Her powerful singing has been featured on four solo albums, beginning with This Is Who I Am in 2002. She has been nominated for a Grammy Award four times, winning for Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album for her 2009 album Audience of One.
She hasn’t entirely stayed away from the stage. In 2012, she had a high-profile gig on London’s West End as the star of a musical adaptation of the 1992 Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard. She was nominated for an Olivier Award for her work.
Nonetheless, returning to the town that led her to those other career highlights has been a special experience.
“It’s incredibly overwhelming,” she says. “I don’t know if you ever forget it. But this time, getting back on the bike, you feel the air. I was telling someone the other day, sometimes it takes being removed from a place to realize how great it is, how great the people are.”
During Aida, she admits, she may have not fully appreciated her surroundings. “I had my blinders on. It’s a defense mechanism,” she explains. “It’s a way for me to work better. If at any time you look up, you get caught up in everything around you.”
As Shug Avery, Headley gets to wrap her vocal chords around numbers as different as the juke joint roof-raiser “Push Da Button” to the gentle ballad “Too Beautiful for Words.”
She’s found the music to be a good fit for her voice. Her relationship with the character of Shug herself, however, is a little more complicated. Both bold and insecure, brassy and tender, the flashy Blues singer Shug Avery is a complex package.
“One of Shug’s defensives is her sex appeal—and maybe music and being a rebel,” hypothesizes Headley. “We’re all kind of broken. We all put up these masks. You always know that people who put up those walls or masks are battling a lot of things inside.”
The New York Times helped make Headley’s homecoming all the warmer when the paper re-reviewed The Color Purple, writing, “Ms. Headley crackles with electricity from the get-go. … In this incarnation, she’s a born jazz baby who might have emerged from the womb in slinky sequins and marcelled hair and who can clearly turn on the juice whenever it’s required.”
Her victory would be complete if she could only win the good opinion of her six-year-old, who shushes her when she sings in the car.
“He is not very impressed,” laughs Headley. “To him, everybody else in the cast is more interesting.”