It’s a late Thursday afternoon and hours after news broke that Prince had passed away in his home at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, MN, at the age of 57. Like most of the world, Deborah Cox, the critically acclaimed Canadian R&B singer-songwriter and Broadway actress, is devastated. Across social media, Cox expressed that she was both “speechless” and “heartbroken” at the loss of the legendary rock musician, and when asked about it, she reiterates the significance of having theatre-makers revisit the stories of legends, past and present. Cox has grown rather adamant in recent months, especially as she prepares for the “first very first orchestra read-through” of a new musical, Josephine, which premieres at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, FL through May 29. Cox will play Josephine Baker, the world famous cabaret showgirl and Jazz Age fashion icon, notorious for her salacious gowns and show-stopping dance.
“She transcended race, she transcended gender. These icons, namely Prince, he was so androgynous and transcended sexuality, as well, and so brought so much of what is [considered] ‘taboo’ to his music and back then, Josephine Baker was breaking down barriers and doing the same thing. As a woman, which of is unheard of in her time, to be [that] fearless…it’s an honor to be performing at the Asolo doing this show,” Cox says. “This was a great vision that [producer] Ken [Waissman] had and it’s been a long time in the making and its ready now.”
Known for her opulent mezzo, Cox eventually expanded her horizons beyond the recording studio and made her Broadway debut in 2004 as the leading lady in Elton John-Tim Rice’s afro-pop musical, Aida. The Grammy-nominated singer returned to Broadway in the 2013 revival of Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse’s Jekyll & Hyde. Now Josephine, a project that has been in development for seven years, is likely bound for Broadway. The story focuses on Baker’s run as the star of Folies Bergère in Paris, her affair with Swedish Crown Prince Gustav VI, and her civil rights activism. With the piece, Cox originates a role for the first time.
“The idea of originating a role, it was so tantalizing, I had no choice. I literally just had my daughter like three months before and got this amazing Roberto Cavalli dress, got this little short wig and flew to New York. I didn’t rest on my laurels as a recording artist. I get it. I have to earn it,” Cox says.
“It started out where I had this idea long ago,” says Waissman, who saw Baker at the Palace Theatre two years before she passed away in 1975. “I read this biography by her [friend and former] manager Stephen Papich. Eventually, I decided to go forward with it as a musical, and then of course putting just the right the creative team together— Ellen Weston and Mark Hampton as the book writers—I put them together, they didn’t even know each other, I thought they would be a great combination. Finding composers took almost three years, really.”
“Then, we started to develop it. It’s harder to develop musicals today because nobody is in the same place long enough,” Waissman says.
Waissman declares Cox was born to play Baker. He knew it the moment she sang one of his favorite show tunes, “Look To The Rainbow” from the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow—the show that first inspired Waissman to become a producer at the age of six.
Cox’s career as a recording artist launched while singing backup for Celine Dion. In 1995, after being “discovered” by music mogul Clive Davis, Cox signed to Arista Records. She’s racked up 12 number one hit singles. Cox is set to perform in the U.S. premiere of the musical theatre adaptation of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1992 Oscar-nominated film, The Bodyguard, in the role Whitney Houston originated at the Paper Mill Playhouse. While Cox has met legends like Houston, even recording a duet with the R&B icon, she says her obsession with Baker began with the viewing of The Josephine Baker Story, a 1991 biographical HBO drama film starring Lynn Whitfield. When the show was announced, she said she was terrified because she wanted it so much.
Nevertheless, she says this has been the most challenging role she’s taken on in her career.
“I’ve having the best time of my life because I am actually using all of my talents,” Cox says. “I’ve never been in a role where I danced, sang and acted. These dance scenes are completely different than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve been in Pilates, ballet, gymnastics and African dance just to think and be like a dancer for the last six months. Singing is what comes the most naturally, but being able to use all of these muscles, I feel like a kid again; totally uninhibited. It’s also an emotional boot camp.”