DIVA TALK: Chatting With Tony Winner and The Bodyguard Star Heather Headley

By Andrew Gans
October 19, 2012

News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



Heather Headley
Powerhouse vocalist Heather Headley is currently in rehearsals for the London world premiere of The Bodyguard, the new musical based on the film of the same name, which begins performances at the West End's Adelphi Theatre Nov. 6, prior to an official opening Dec. 5. Headley, who co-stars opposite The Bodyguard of Lloyd Owen, is cast as superstar Rachel Marron, the role created on screen by the late Whitney Houston. Directed by Thea Sharrock with a book by Alex Dinelaris, the score boasts Houston's greatest hits, which allow Headley the chance to wrap her impressive, soaring voice around such tunes as "Saving All My Love," "I'm Your Baby Tonight," "Run to You," "I Have Nothing," "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and "I Will Always Love You," among others. During her third week in rehearsal, I had the pleasure of chatting by phone with the Tony winner about her latest project, her first musical theatre venture since her Tony-winning turn in Broadway's Aida. The Grammy-winning pop star spoke about the pressure of following in Whitney Houston's footsteps, combining marriage and motherhood with a demanding stage role and the release of her newest solo recording, "Only One In the World." That interview follows.

Question: How did you originally get involved with The Bodyguard?
Heather Headley: Since Aida, my agent and I have been looking for what the right next show would be, so my agent reads through scripts, and I'd be like, "Okay, we can do this," and maybe it would fall through or it wasn't the right show. But my agent said, "I'm going to find a show for you." A year-and-a-half ago he called me and was like, "I need you to sit down. I think I may have found it… blah, blah, blah…" He says, "Well, they're doing The Bodyguard." And, I just started laughing, and I was like, "That's a joke…because you can't do it, and secondly you can't do it because nobody can ever get the rights to it."… They have it on lockdown. And, he said, "No, I read the script. I think it's great. I'll send it to you." I said, "Oh, good. Send me the script, but send me the music" — because, of course, they've written new music for it because there's no way that they have the music for this show, from the movie. And he goes, "No, I think they have the music." And, I said, "Well, that's impossible. I even know some of these people… There is no way. There is no way they have the music." And, they did. For six years, they've been pounding on doors and got the rights to all of Whitney [Houston]'s catalogue, and so I went to read it. They were doing a reading of it — a table reading — and asked me if I would come in to read it, but also just like another audition for all of us: to audition each other, I guess. So I came in, did the reading and liked it a lot. I fell in love with it. Just like, "Oh my gosh. This is a show. It's a Broadway show. It's all the music," and so that's what happened. And, I think a lot of people think that we started it after Whitney's passing, but they've been working on it for quite, quite some time.

Question: Had you seen the film? Had you been a fan of the film?
Headley: Oh, Andrew, come on! I've been playing Rachel Marron since I was like 14 when I saw this! [Laughs.] I just didn't want to play her on stage. I liked playing her in my bathroom! [Laughs.] But, no, I remember [being in] high school when we heard Whitney was doing this movie. "Whitney was going to bring this movie out, and it's with Kevin Costner!" I remember saving my money up and hitting the movie theatre right when it opened. I am a fan of hers… When you saw the movie, it was kind of every girl's dream — whether you could sing or not — to kind of be a part of that. It was great fun to do that and see the movie and be a part of it. I'm definitely a fan, which is another reason why I was trepidatious — hesitant — about taking it on, even before her passing…because I am a fan, a big fan. I always tell people this: "A few people taught me to sing. It's a short list." And, I don't mean that in a proud kind of way. I mean it in that, I actually listened to Whitney sing and listened to CeCe Winans. I listened to them. I knew every riff — I still do — what they did, what they sounded like. In essence, they were kind of voice teachers, you know what I mean? Because I didn't really have a voice teacher until I went to college, so all I did was sit down and listen to these women sing, so, yes, I'm a great fan of the movie, definitely of Whitney, and to some extent, a student of hers.

Question: Was Whitney involved with the stage production in any way?
Headley: I believe Whitney knew that it was happening, of course. I'm told she was aware that, of course, it was happening. And, she would have been invited, of course, which I [wouldn't have known] how to handle. But she would have been invited and been here…

Headley in Aida.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How are you going about approaching the character and approaching the songs to make them your own?
Headley: I've been saying this: I can't be Whitney. I am not capable of being Whitney Houston. I had to stop listening to the records because they're intimidating. She really did have one of the best voices that we have ever been privileged to hear. And, I'm very happy that this is not a biopic, so it's not about her life. But in the same vain, it's like trying to come in after Barbra Streisand. You're trying to do Funny Girl after Barbra Streisand did it. You're trying to do Hello, Dolly! after Carol Channing — it's a tough thing. So, for me, I think the big thing has been to find my own Rachel. Of course, giving the honor and the kudos to Whitney's version, but just finding my own Rachel, within my body, within my voice because it is an original show — but yet it's not. I think there are a lot of people, especially now, who are walking in going, "Oh, you have to be Whitney," but I can't. I'm incapable of such. You know what I mean? So the deal is now to find — kind of treat her — as though it was Aida or just learning a new part. What is she to me? What do I feel? And, the nice thing about it is that…it's been adapted. And, so with [writers] Lawrence Kasdan and Alex Dinelaris, they changed it. There are new emotions, new relationships popping up, new everything, so I do have to find a whole new path down that road, but they are some very high designer shoes to fill!

Question: How would you describe the Rachel that you're playing?
Headley: She is a huge pop star, but has her own demons and has kind of been brought up in the spotlight and has her insecurities — has her fears. There's the fear of, "I have to succeed, but can I? Can I not?" … You have these insecurities on the inside that sometimes make you act out in not the best of ways. And, on top of that, she's a broken girl, which is the best story. It's about broken people, and these two broken people can find each other in each other's arms…

Headley and Lloyd Owen
photo by Matt Crockett

I remember being a broken girl and my husband coming in and kind of picking up all those pieces and putting them together. When you find the right person, you can just be. You can be you. You can pull that mask down and say, "I don't have to be tough today. I don't have to be cold today, and I don't have to be this…" So that's my thing about finding her. I'm not trying to base her on anybody's life or anything like that and be like, "Oh, she's based on this pop star or that." It's just knowing what people go through…

So every day — we've been in for three weeks — we're finding different nuances. I'm finding different nuances to who she is, and being around these people — this cast — is just amazing, and I'm not just saying that because it's a part of the conversation. It really has been. The Brits, I always think, they know drama…Shakespeare. It's just what they do. And, to see how they work, it's been such a learning experience being around them. And, they've all been so polite and so caring and so thoughtful and embracing. I'm away from home, and that's tough, but it's been great to be a part of their company — literally and figuratively, as well. Just to be within the company is great.

Question: Tell me a bit about working opposite your co-star, Lloyd Owen.
Headley: I've been blessed in my life to have these pretty men, sometimes. [Laughs.] Adam [Pascal]… I had to look at him every day. I mean, gosh, help me! And then Lloyd, again — just amazing. Lloyd is coming in as the actor-actor man, so he has no music theatre on him. The other day, he actually had me giggling because I said something to him, and he says, "Of course, you just project your voice." And, I was like, "No, honey, we're miked." And, he's like, "We're miked?!" I was like, "This is music theatre, honey! We get miked!" [Laughs.] So it's great to learn from him, see how he works. But on the other hand, he's just very giving, very sweet, a prankster — I think we're going to have some problems between the two of us when the show starts [laughs] — and it's been really, really a pleasure. It's a great cast because people have kids and wives and husbands and partners, and it's just been great to be with them and hang out and kind of talk on that level. He's great. He really is. I remember when they introduced me to Lloyd that first time. He walked in and I said, "Yeah, that's a bodyguard." That's who I would look for. I don't know this, Andrew, but I'm almost sure that Lloyd has a gun somewhere in his house because that's just what you would expect — that he's a sniper, and you're like, "Right. That's what he would look like." [Laughs.] So it's been great. He's a lot of fun. Yeah. I always miss my Adam, but Lloyd is a very, very good [co-star]. [Laughs.]

Thea Sharrock in rehearsal
Photo by Paul Coltas

Question: How does Thea Sharrock work as a director? What's it been like working with her?
Headley: Amazing. Amazing! We have this great energy in the room with everybody. There's the fun times — there's a lot of fun times, we laugh and joke and everything like that — but then there's a time to get serious. And, she has got that middle-ground cut. It's amazing how she can lead us to laugh and joke and go off course for three-four minutes, and then she knows how to pull that all back and get in. She's great about dealing with me as a woman and how Rachel would be and how Rachel is as a mother, as a girl — the insecurities that we talked about — who Rachel is. And, on the other hand, I've seen her be amazing with being connected with who Frank is in Lloyd and all the men in the show. I've been very impressed with Thea — very smart and just knows how to run the ship. Knows that script like the back of her hand. Kind of knows everybody's reaction. How she thought through it. She hasn't come here unprepared. When she sits down and says, "What are you feeling in that…?" It's not that she's going to tell you what you're feeling, but she already, in her head, has a little back-story. But if yours is different and yours makes sense, she goes, "Of course." It's not that she's like asking for, "What are you thinking? What do you think we should do there?" It's not that. She's been great. I've had a great time with her. She and I have already talked about the fact that…we are going to part ways in a little bit because my costume fitting was yesterday, so she and I may not be friends anymore. [Laughs.] After the costume fitting, I was like, "I have ten seconds to put that dress on!" And, she was like, "Yes, you do." [Laughs.] I'll be mad at her next week, so that will be a different story.

Question: How are you finding living in London? Is your husband there with you?
Headley: No, no. My husband's flying in tomorrow after like 10 days being gone. So he's in and out. Our son is here with me, and we have a nanny, and she's great. The nanny has been amazing. I had a lot of tears leaving because a year ago, when I said yes to the contract, I kind of thought to myself, "Oh, we'll take a year, and there's no way that this is going to go through," and then all of a sudden it was September, and they were like, "Here's your plane ticket. Get on the plane." It was a lot of tears. I cried a lot, and I was like, "What am I doing? What am I doing? I'm taking my child, and I'm separated from my husband." But I will say this: It was my husband who told me to go. When they offered me the part and said, "We want you to do this," I said no. I was like, "Absolutely not. I love my life. I love what I'm doing. I'm not coming to London. Call me when you get to New York, and maybe even not then." I didn't even know if I was going to fly to New York every week — we live in Chicago now. I called [my husband], and I said, "Hey, they offered me the part. I'm going to say no." And, he said, "Oh, no. You're going. This is what you've been looking for. This is exactly what you were made to do. This is it. You're going. You're going." I was like, "No!" And, he's like, "You're going. I will fly in there every three weeks. You're going." So I've been amazingly touched, amazingly humbled by his sacrifice because we have a young son, so Brian's doing a lot of flying.

Anyhow, with all that said, when we got here and settled in, The Bodyguard has been amazing, getting ready for us. We walked into a ready-made situation with the apartment and little to ask for. It's a great apartment, great city. And so it's fun. It's an amazing city, so for anybody who's wanting to come see the show, come on over because you're going to love London. There is so much to do, it's so beautiful, the people are so sweet — so polite — and I just think, in addition to seeing the show, you're going to have a great time in the city because every week I'm finding myself falling more and more in love with it. It's turning into like a side of New York…just with a different accent. I'm like, "Oh, these New Yorkers talk differently all of a sudden!" [Laughs.] That's how it feels. It's a really, really great city, and I think we're going to have a good time. As soon as I figure out how the husband's coming, when he's coming, it will be good.

Headley in rehearsal
Photo by Paul Coltas

Question: How old is your son now?
Headley: He's going to be three in December.

Question: How would you say motherhood has affected not only your life, but yourself as a performer?
Headley: You know, everything now surrounds him. What was such a big deal before is slightly trivial. Before it was like, "We have to get this done! Ah!" All of a sudden, you're kind of like, "We'll get it done. It will be fine." You're still on top of things, but there are these bigger people in my life now — husband and baby. You're just kind of like, "Okay." I will tell you this. I remember before I got pregnant, I remember going to my doctor and saying, "Listen. I'm going to get pregnant in February, and I'm going to have the baby in November, and I'm going to be back on stage by Nov. 2. This is how it's going to be." And, I remember her looking at me like, "Okay. Whatever you think." And, it's the truth. These little babies come out, and there is such love just blowing in their direction. You're just like, "Oh, I want to be with you." But the beauty is, he's traveling with me amazingly well. He's very good with everything, and we've now created this balance, so I can do what I do thanks to my husband and nanny. I can do what I do and still go home and be mommy to him. It's tougher, but we have to get our priorities together and do that. He, also, is making a sacrifice for me — our son. He doesn't know it, but you know, where mommy would be home maybe all day, she's not. Women do it, and I have to remember my priorities. The last time I did something like this, I had no husband, I had no child… We've decided to do this. We decided to take a chunk out of our lives and come do this show. I decided to leave my country to do this show — be separated from my husband and move my child to do this show. So, Andrew, I'm saying that I'm not doing this show just because it's an easy show… "Oh, that will be fun to do." We believe in it. We believe in it as a family. And, my aim is to make it a success and people love it and enjoy it because I do believe in it that much to uproot everybody. [Laughs.] Yeah, it's going to be good.

Question: Is there any talk about The Bodyguard coming to Broadway? And, would you want to come to Broadway with it?
Headley: Well, that's what they would like to do, and that's one of the reasons I said I would do it. I didn't think it was something you can do in two months and figure it out. It's one of those things that has to be — especially with the whole Whitney factor — you have to get it into your body. Yes, the ultimate theme is to bring it to Broadway, and I think it will be amazing on Broadway. It's really good. It's just different… It's a story. It's a play with music. It's almost like a concert with a play around it or a play with a concert around it. And, the way they have woven the songs into the show is slightly genius to me. On one end, you're going to sit there and think, "Wait. Did Whitney sing the songs after the musical?" Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which came first, the musical or Whitney's songs? They've woven the songs into the show so well that you will sit there as a music theatre fan, or anybody, and go, "Of course, that song's supposed to be there. Of course, that's what they would sing." They really have done a good job with it. And, I'm not just saying that. I'm telling you. Seriously. That's the only reason I'm here. [Laughs.]

Headley and Adam Pascal in Aida.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you have a favorite song of the ones you get to sing?
Headley: No. There's one I particularly hate singing, but it's one of the best songs. "I Have Nothing" is just a great song, but it is so hard. It's keeping me up at night. [Laughs.] They're all so hard. That's one of the reasons I had to stop listening to [the recording]. They really are tough songs. Aida was tough, but these are not easy songs. I think even her easiest song — even when she's singing calmly — they're tough songs. And, I have 11 of them I think, so it's a lot. Again, I love her whole catalogue. Now, it's different when you have to sing it. [Laughs.] Singing in the bathroom is one thing…

Question: Whitney didn't have to do all these songs eight times a week.
Headley: Right… For me, it was a big discussion about keys. It was a big discussion about how this is going to be done. Yes, you're completely right — singing them eight times a week. And, I'm not trying to diminish Whitney in any way, at all, but that's another beast. That's a whole other beast. Normally, when we do these shows in my pop-life, or whatever you want to call it, you have a break. You do a show, you take a day off, you travel somewhere else, and you sing the next night. For me, right now, it's the stamina. Every day or every other day I take about an hour… Right now, actually, in a few minutes I will head to a rehearsal space with a pianist and sing through five or six of them. It's just about building up the stamina. And, on top of that, there's dancing. On top of that, there's scene changes and clothes and moving around and having to do mommy at home. It's a very, very tiring and engrossing show.

Cover art

Question: You have a new CD out, and it has some of your own songs on it. Tell me about the recording.
Headley: You know, when I was starting to work on the album and started writing a bunch of stuff, I was going to put the album on hold because of the show. My husband, again, came in one day and gets in the car and said, "I think you should release it and kind of release it for the fans. I know you're leaving town, but let's just release it for the fans." And so that's what we decided to do. And so I kind of went through some of these songs that we had been writing, and because I'm really critical of everything I do, I was like, "Well, I think they're okay," but for me, songwriting, I love to be in collaboration with other people… It's just been a diary. I love, I love, I love having songs and putting them into my own voice and translating them, and then on the other end, I love being able to be a part of a team and write. It's not easy, but when, in the end, you come out with some beautiful gems, it's just the best thing in the world. (Read more about Headley's new recording here.)

[To book tickets The Bodyguard: A New Musical, contact the box office on 0844 579 0094 or visit www. thebodyguardmusical.com for more details.]

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