Melba Moore, one of the stars of the current tour of Brooklyn the Musical, calls the show “a gospel play.” For Moore, a born-again Christian who has spent the last decade immersed in the world of gospel music, there’s no higher praise. “Most people normally think the gospel world just means church,” she says. “But it’s a new day. There’s an art genre that exists out of religion. It’s inspirational. It touches more than the heart; it touches the spirit. I call Les Miz a gospel play. And so is Brooklyn. The story is actually about the spirit of man. That’s why so many people who saw the show [in N.Y.] kept coming back to it.”
Brooklyn, which opened on Broadway in October 2004 and ran for 284 performances, is about the eponymous title character, a young girl searching for fame and the father she never knew. Set on a street corner under the Brooklyn Bridge, the musical was written by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson and directed by Jeff Calhoun. The seven-week tour, which plays Atlanta, Houston and Dallas this month and concludes its run in August in San Jose, stars former “American Idol” contestant Diana DeGarmo as Brooklyn. The cast also features Cleavant Derricks, who reprises the role of Streetsinger that he originated on Broadway.
Moore plays Paradice, a sassy, unscrupulous, deliciously wicked diva, the nemesis of young Brooklyn. “I’ve been waiting for a part like this,” she says. “It’s a plum role, and it seems like it was tailor made for what I do best. It’s broad comedy. It’s contemporary. The vocal part’s very rangy and right up my alley. And I’ve never had the opportunity to do anything like this.”
Moore skyrocketed to fame in the musical Purlie, stopping the show nightly with her rendition of “I Got Love” and wining a 1970 Tony. She went on to a successful TV and recording career, but everything fell apart in 1991 after a very public divorce that wiped her out financially and left her career in disarray. “I’ve really had to fight to continue to be an artist,” she says. “And, it’s become very important to me how I use the art. I can’t just sing or do any old thing. It’s not mine anymore. I belong to God and He gives it to me, and I’m getting better as an artist because of that.” Her faith enabled Moore to persevere through the dark times. And gospel music gave her a new and meaningful way to create art. She made her last Broadway appearance in the mid-1990’s, briefly portraying Fantine in Les Misérables, before immersing herself in gospel music. “I didn’t grow up singing gospel,” she says. “But religion was on my mind—that was all I was interested in. I felt I had to leave everything else alone and develop this music, because it’s my life. You have to live your life first, and the art comes out of that. So I just started my life over, and it’s a good life. It’s a ministry now. It’s art, but it’s my ministry.”
In addition to resurrecting her career, Moore has also become a motivational speaker. “That came out of religion,” she says. “In churches they want you to give your testimony, talk about what it is that God has done in your life. In the beginning I didn’t know what to say. But when I started to do it, I found it was interesting and inspiring to people. And I realized it wasn’t as complicated as I thought. In the church it’s your testimony; in the theatre, it’s your autobiography.”