Heather Headley is known to take on some heavy and challenging material — she made her Broadway debut as Nala in The Lion King, won a Tony Award for her performance as the title role in Aida and, most recently, took on the catalogue of Whitney Houston for the musical adaptation of "The Bodyguard."
But, she's never done Into the Woods, and frankly, it wasn't something she imagined possible.
Was the Witch a role she always wanted to play? "No. Absolutely not, no. No!" she says, laughing. "No! My agent Joe Machota called me up. This is how he does it — Bodyguard, everything — he's like, 'Hey, I got something that I think you should do,' and I'm like, 'No.' And he's like, 'Heath, it's two weeks. By the time you're going crazy… And, it's the Witch in Into the Woods.' And, I said, 'First, again: No! Sondheim? No. I need like a year to figure that out. It's not in my head.' Sondheim: it doesn't believe in the C Major chord, and I love the C Major chord. And, it's so hard!"
She's got a mere ten days of rehearsal to figure out the complicated and complex Witch of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical fairytale. She hasn't seen the movie, she didn't do the production in high school, and she only recalls her friend Tracy Nicole Chapman's performance when she understudied Vanessa Williams in the 2002 revival. However, as a mother of two (with husband Brian Musso, formerly of the New York Jets), she can relate. John David is five-and-a-half years old, and Jordan Chase just turned 11-months-old July 18.
"As a wife, I am married to maybe the greatest guy on Earth because he has just been amazingly supportive," she says. "Even in these [situations], he'll just be like, 'Go! You have to go! Go! Please!' Either that or he just wants me out of his house for some reason, but anyhow…! He sends me off: 'Go do this! It's going to be so much fun, and we'll be fine. We'll bring the boys in and stuff like that.'"
She plans for all the "boys" to come to the St. Louis Muny, where Into the Woods casts its spell July 21-17, although the "legendary" St. Louis heat may keep her from allowing the children to come along with her husband.
"You don't get to see them," she explains, "but my mother-in-law [and] my father-in-law — he was a professional football player, and they moved around a lot — she's always said, 'It's just part of these kids' lives.' And, I think that's what it is. There's a point that you have to say, 'Okay, we have to slow down a little bit,' if it's school or whatever, but I love the fact that my son — both of them now, my sons — have been part of this journey with me. They get to see amazing places, they get to be backstage and in the mix of it and see mommy do things the same way that I'm going to be sitting at their games or their musical things or whatever they're going to do. It's a juggle — something gets sacrificed — but it's been great.
"I have to say that maybe five years ago, before I had my son, I wouldn't understand the Witch as maybe 'thoroughly' as I am — not that I am understanding her thoroughly — but having both of them and being a mommy now has given me this different view of the Witch. It's been different to see her now from a parenting point-of-view and figure out that she's not that crazy! Because I'm like, 'I will do the same thing!'"
"Stay With Me," in particular, has been resonating with Headley, who gave birth to her second son after her run as Rachel Maron in The Bodyguard.
"I think of my kids, you know," she explains. "I think it's that whole idea of us trying to shelter our children, and truth be told, I've been telling everybody I do not think that the Witch is crazy anymore because I would love to shelter mine… But sometimes you can't, so I find that to be holding my heart — just the sadness of wanting your child to stay with you, but knowing that your child can't and that we have to let them out into this awful world. I think that's one of the things in the song that always gets me: that there are princes out there and wolves out there, and it's dark, but she's like, 'Humans are out there — people are out there,' and I want to save you from them, but in the end, we have to let them go."
As for The Bodyguard, Headley is eyeing a return to Broadway in her Olivier-nominated performance as Rachel — a role and a learning process that she describes as "one of the greatest challenges of my life."
"We were kind of looking at Bodyguard for a second, but I think they're going to tour first, which I can't do," she explains, "but if it comes into New York, we'll see. And, we'll talk about that at that point. Aida was so good to me, and she spoiled me greatly, and Disney spoils me. I loved playing her, I loved being in that show with the cast that we had and everybody, so I think it's just looking for that role. And, there are many times I think that way with Bodyguard. You read it, and you go, 'That's her.' Even if you're trying to pull away, you're like, 'Okay, that's the girl. That's the one.' So I'm excited about that.
"Joe keeps [sending me scripts]. I don't know. Every now and then, I read one, and I'm like, 'Okay, this might be it!' So I'm looking forward to it, especially now — you get a little taste of just the camaraderie and the cast and everything like that… I think it will be fun to be back at some point and delve into the shows again, delve into the roles again, but also just delve into being a cast member again."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)