DIVA TALK: A Chat With Hands on a Hardbody Star Keala Settle

By Andrew Gans
08 Mar 2013

Settle in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you remember when performing changed from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
Settle: To be honest with you, I really am not a musical theatre performer. I'm more an R&B singer and have been doing that my whole life. My mother is — well, was — also an R&B singer, in New Zealand — she's a native of New Zealand — and did a lot of Dusty Springfield as well, stuff like that, and it kind of passed on in our family because it's a cultural thing, because all of us sing. But, I guess for me, I got into musical theatre really late in the game because I didn't really know you could do it because I was too busy wanting to sing backup or doing studio work singing chorus stuff, and singing backup for Gladys Knight in Vegas — because I was living in Vegas for a while, very briefly. The funny thing was that I remember reading they had an audition for Hairspray, and I wanted to be one of the Dynamites. [Laughs.] That's how clue-free I was — just so you know. I went into an open call in Los Angeles and went, "I'm going to come out being a Dynamite because I'm going to blow this out of the water! I couldn't be more black, trust and believe." [Laughs.] And, I walked in there and came out — eight auditions later — being the standby for Tracy Turnblad. And, I thought, "What is going on?" … All the way to the first day of rehearsals, I figured they had 24 hours to fire me and say this is a joke because I don't get it, but if you get it, then I'm good. [Laughs.] That was the last person I wanted to play.

Question: Did you end up taking that role? Did you get to go on…
Settle: I did! I went on quite frequently, and finally the girl that I was the standby for — she was transferred to New York, and then I just took over her spot. That was six months in, and I finished out the tour.

Question: What was that like for you, stepping into the world of musical theatre?
Settle: It was scary because it was my very, very first big thing, and I didn't know how to live in that world. I mean, I'd done bits and pieces of musical theatre, which was really like R&B stuff, in Vegas, but it was never the real thing. I went from nothing to everything, and I didn't handle it very well and ended up getting really sick. And, once the show ended, I had to leave the business for a few years and kind of get myself back together and in order.

In the interim, during those years, because I had spent so much time with stagehands on the road, they ended up looking after me the last year, and so I kind of started getting into their industry… Because I didn't want to leave the stage completely… I wanted to be a part of it, and so I talked to as many people as I could, who were sound designers — asking them, "Where did you guys work?" They do all these out-of-town shows in La Jolla or San Diego, and I thought, "Well, maybe I'll just go over there," and I got in the car and drove one way to see what would happen — and that was working with all these great designers… All these people that were teaching me and, at the same time, keeping me alive because it was the only thing I wanted to do.

I did that for a couple years, and I finally saw that they were doing some production of South Pacific somewhere — in Texas or something — and I was like, "Maybe I'll just go do that real quick to see if I still have anything, and I found out that it was the Lincoln Center production," and that was it. I got called in, and came back.

Settle in South Pacific.
photo by Peter Coombs

Question: What was it like for you coming back?
Settle: It was scary. It was really, really, really, really scary — to the point where I had to pull the director aside and said, "I can't do this. I can't come back to this." I had forgotten how different the world is — the two different worlds are… From being a member of IATSE to being a member of Actors' Equity — they're so completely different. We work together towards the same goal, but the mindset is completely different, and I didn't know if I could do it.

Question: What was it like for you getting to Broadway with Priscilla?
Settle: I was scared because I wasn't originally a fan of this city. I mean, I was raised on a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean… You walk off the plane in Hawaii, you get a lei and a hug — completely different — but, you know, I could live in that world and say, "I hate that, I hate that, I hate that." Or, I could just roll with it and be me. I just do that, hopefully… [Laughs.]

Question: Last question. How has audience reaction been to this show so far?
Settle: I think it's been fantastic. I think a lot of them were expecting something completely different, and, you know, by the time intermission hits, they're all looking at each other going, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe this is happening!" [Laughs.] The music that we're singing — it's like a rock concert. It's a dream… We have old-school people in the pit… We have serious rockers in the house, and it's fun to have them a part of our show.

[The Brooks Atkinson is at 256 W. 47th Street. Tickets range from $55-$155, and are available at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre box office and at Ticketmaster.com or at (877) 250-2929. For more information, visit handsonahardbody.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.