In 1996, when Trinidad native Heather Headley quit her theatre studies at Northwestern University to join the cast of the tryout of Ragtime, no one could foresee that, by 2000, she would become one of the most embraced musical theatre actresses on Broadway. She was in the chorus of Ragtime in Toronto, and was a cover for the role of Sarah, and it did not take long for the actress with the almond eyes and the clarion voice to catch the eye and ear of the casting community. She was plucked from Ragtime to join Disney's The Lion King, where she originated the role of the lioness Nala. She is now the title star of Elton John and Tim Rice's new Disney musical, Aida, playing the Nubian princess and slave who falls for an Egyptian prince. Much as she hates the reality, the best reviews of the show were for Headley, and she earned a Best Actress (Musical) Tony Award nomination (competing with Ragtime's Marin Mazzie, who is up for Kiss Me, Kate). Has sudden success gone to Heather Headley's head? She talked with Playbill On-Line about divas, direction and determination.
Playbill On-Line: Everyone I talk to in the business says that you are so grounded and nice. Sudden success, which would ruin other people, hasn't made you a diva. How do you keep perspective?
Heather Headley: It's funny. Because it happened to me, I don't think it's anything that grand. I think that my upbringing and God has a lot to do with it. My parents have always said, be as humble as you can, remember that your talent is not from you, but from God. I always believe that if I don't give credit where credit is due, it will be taken away from me. It comes from before: You don't become grounded after [success] happens. You have to breed it before so that when it does happen, you can handle it. I've also learned that you get flies with honey, versus vinegar. It's not that I've "put on" being nice with anybody, but I think if we're all here for the same thing, which is the best thing for the show, then we're all here to do the same thing. If you're incompetent, we need to talk about it. But I don't believe in raising voices and throwing fits. I can't be throwing diva fits and breeding negativity when these are the people I need. Yes, the show is called Aida, but I need everybody on that stage to help me, and they need me to help them. It's all symbiotic. As I said, if there's incompetence, that's a different story and I'll go through the proper channels for that. I, myself, won't yell. I don't believe in yelling. It's about being grounded and knowing that you're not the only person in the show.
PBOL: Did you envision this success? Some people say if you imagine it, you will have it.
HH: I think I envisioned being successful. I won't lie about that. My thing is envisioning being the best at whatever I am. I am not comfortable with mediocrity, that bothers me.
PBOL: When you were a kid on Trinidad, what did you want to be when you grew up, an actress or a pop singer?
HH: I wanted to be a pop singer because that's all I knew at that point.
PBOL: You wanted to be Bette Midler or Diana Ross?
HH: I wanted to be Whitney Houston. That's all I knew. We had a drama group within our church. In retrospect, we were one of the best drama groups on the island. They would write their own pieces and improv. I never saw a script until I came to the states. In Trinidad, people don't make any money doing stuff like that. There's no Broadway. So all I knew was music. I didn't know anything about the Tony Awards. Not at all. Didn't know about the Tony Awards until we got to the states, maybe right before college. PBOL: Both of your parents were pastors?
HH: My father was pastor, my mother was the quintessential pastor's wife. She did everything.
PBOL: And your family and you moved to Ft. Wayne, IN, when you were a teenager.
HH: They got offered a job in Ft. Wayne. We also got offered jobs in Philadelphia and New York. But my parents picked Ft. Wayne, which was the best decision because if they had brought me to New York or Philly, I would have swam back to Trinidad! Culture shock! Ft. Wayne was big culture shock, but New York would have been worse on me.
PBOL: The good thing is, you were close to Chicago, a nice step before New York. You attended Northwestern.
HH: I didn't know about that at that point. God works in mysterious ways and He does everything for a purpose. I do believe that their trip to Ft. Wayne was for my betterment.
PBOL: You did musicals in high school. You played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
HH: I did three musicals in high school. I was the first black Jewish Fanny Brice. And I did Aldonza [in Man of La Mancha] junior year. Sophomore year they did Music Man. I did not do it because, I was like [with island accent]: "Whaat paht can I play in dere?"
PBOL: The island Marian the Librarian.
HH: The black girl with an island accent! Senior year I did Luisa in The Fantasticks at the local civic theatre. I was this black girl playing against a white man with a white father. Very different for Ft. Wayne, IN. And different for me at that time.
PBOL: Is English your native language?
HH: English is, but it's broken. We speak a dialect.
PBOL: Physically, there is so much to do in Aida. How do you prepare for it without losing energy? Vitamins?
HH: I don't know. I eat like a pig. I try to stay away from red meat, but if you bring me a good rib, I'll eat it. I decided not to speak before 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon on those days that I can. After the show, I go home and conserve energy. I take vitamins, but I can't say that I've been diligent about it.
PBOL: Do you have a vocal coach to maintain the instrument?
HH: I didn't have a voice lesson until I got to Northwestern. [Today] I have a "personal trainer" in town. It's not about teaching me to sing anymore. It's kind of like making sure I lift the weights right. I haven't had time to see him since we've opened just because I don't want to sing anymore than I have to. I think after the Tonys, when we're into the long run, I'll go to him and make sure everything's OK.
PBOL: I keep thinking, looking ahead, that we may lose you to a recording career and that you may never come back to musical theatre.
HH: I'm working on the [pop] album [for Hollywood Records] now. The funny thing about it, I love the whole Broadway experience. It's ironic that a girl who didn't know anything about it could now love it and embrace it that much. It's the place for me. My problem is, I love that instant gratification. I love "live." I love to look at the audience and figure out if you hate me or not. I like acting. I like putting on this role and saying lines and I like movement. And I like the fact that all three of them come into this beautiful building where these people come and see these shows. Yeah, I may take a year or two off and go do those record things. I think I will come back...hopefully...hopefully...
Heather Headley's official web site at www.heather headley.com.
-- By Kenneth Jones