You’ve likely never heard a Roxie Hart riff like this before. R&B star Brandy Norwood is the latest in a steady line of actresses to step into the silky stockings of starry-eyed Roxie in the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago. But even though she’s following a slew of fellow musicians in the role (including Michelle Williams, Ashlee Simpson, and most recently, Jennifer Nettles), Norwood’s Broadway debut as the merry murderess comes with a wholly original array of Brandy-grade vocal twists.
The Grammy winner is the first to admit that her engagement in Chicago (where she’s appearing through June 21) marks both a personal and professional resurgence. She’ll head back into the studio this year to record her seventh studio album, and she’ll soon star in an upcoming BET series following the conclusion of The Game.
EW caught up with Norwood to chat about her new digs on Broadway—and, of course, the 1997 remake of Cinderella that we’ve never quite erased from the DVR.
Entertainment Weekly: What steps do you go through when you approach a classic score like Chicago‘s? How do you both honor and reinvent it?
BRANDY NORWOOD: I wanted to bring my own flavor to it, and the team at Chicago really allowed me to discover that. They were my foundation and my first audience—they laughed at things I did, or they said, “Oh, maybe try that.” They allowed me the freedom to discover who Roxie was from my perspective. I loved preparing for it. I feel like everything that I’ve done in my life has prepared me for this moment in my life—from acting, singing, dancing, Dancing with the Stars. All of the things that I’ve done have prepared me to [play] Roxie.
When did this musical come into your life?
I did see the movie, and Renee Zellweger is actually my favorite Roxie ever. I saw the musical when Usher played Billy Flynn, and I was blown away. I was like, girl, you need to do Broadway. But I was always afraid of what that experience would be like, so I never really looked into it.
What was the fear?
The fear was that it was the unknown. It’s live. You can’t go back. I was so used to action, cut, let me do it again. That’s not what live theater is. You have to get yourself into a position where you trust the moment and all of the grind that you prepared before it. You can’t get ahead of yourself. I can’t think about “Roxie” at the beginning of the show—I’ll get too nervous. It’s about living in the moment and trusting it. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences. I want to do theater for the rest of my life, along with everything else that I want to do.
You haven’t flexed the musical theater muscle since 1997’s Cinderella, no?
And that was television! It was a musical, but it wasn’t theater. But that opened the door for the interest of wanting to do live theater one day. And I worked with some amazing people. I worked with my idol, Whitney Houston; I worked with Whoopi Goldberg; Bernadette Peters, who was a Broadway legend. That was a great time in my life, being the first African-American Cinderella. But Chicago, Roxie Hart is a different thing.
As you’re performing the monologue during “Roxie,” when she details her dreams of getting her name in the papers, what’s going through your head?
That’s where I relate to Roxie the most. In that particular moment, it’s Brandy becoming Roxie and Roxie becoming Roxie. It’s like a dream, because I’m really in Chicago and Roxie is rockin’ Chicago. We have a connection there, and I get a chance to relate to the audience and become this comedian. It’s a beautiful moment and I love that song and singing it in my own way, but still having the respect for the character while putting my own flavor to it. This is really a dream being realized as it goes along. This has really, truly reawakened my life in a different kind of way.
Do you ever identify with Velma? She’s been around longer, she’s a more seasoned showbiz veteran…
Velma is pretty much the same as Roxie. She’s a dreamer. She gets things very wrong in terms of crime, but deep down she’s a dreamer. She wants to be a star. She wants to inspire people. So we have the same dream. She’s just a little bitchy towards Roxie. But we pull it together, and at the end, we’re the coldest duo you ever want to see in the 1920s.
Which elements of the show came easiest, and which took a little longer to wrap your head around?
I just figured out the mouth of the puppet [in “We Both Reached For the Gun”]. I’ve done 20-something shows already, and I just couldn’t figure out that mouth. But I got it last night—so I can’t wait to master that going forward. The Fosse at the end, “Hot Honey Rag,” was challenging because I’m naturally pigeontoed. But Roxie is pigeontoed! So I tell myself that it’s okay. What else? There’s a scene in the courtroom where I have to be very over the top, and it’s a lot of lines, and I talk very fast so I just want to make sure I pace myself. It’s a lot that I’m doing. I just have to take it step by step.
How do you prepare for this show, as opposed to one of your concerts?
I’m a differently focused type of person now. My discipline is completely different. Where I start in the morning, I meditate. I do three long pages of journaling and affirmation. When I get to the theater, I do my own makeup, and there’s something about it that just settles me. I listen to the Theory of Everything soundtrack. It’s got this really soft music, like classical, no lyrics. About 10 minutes before [the show], I go out and I put my energy onstage. I take my hands to my heart and I just throw it out there and I start affirming: It’s a magical show! It’s a fantastic show! It’s going to be spectacular! The audience will love it! I do that whole speech, and then I go and do my ten push-ups, my ten plies, my stretching, and then it’s showtime.
You said this was a reawakening for you. What do you mean?
About eight months ago, I was in the worst place of my life. I was the worst version of myself. I was not okay. I was very, very depressed and in a dark place, and I just got tired of feeling like that, because I had been feeling like that for a very long time, for a couple of years. Through conversations and prayer with friends and really having an honest conversation with God, I just decided that I’m going to be the best version of myself. So I started to get into a discipline. My spiritual practice, my meditation, my journaling. I started to just affirm that I’m getting ready for something big. I’m getting ready for my purpose, my dream. And then Chicago presented itself. I’m afraid, but I’m not going to let it cripple me. I’m going to step into this to see if I’m supposed to do it, and I stepped into it and realized that I’m born to do it. And I’m here, and now I’m dreaming of everything. I’m not just dreaming of having magical shows every night. I’m dreaming of inspiring people in every way of my life. I feel so good to just feel this way, and my life is reawakened. I feel like it’s a new book, it’s a new story. It’s the next Brandy, and I don’t ever want that feeling to go away.
You’re back in the studio for new music this year, and back on TV next year with your own show. Are you daunted?
I’m here for a reason, and that reason is to inspire people. I love people and I love entertainment. I love the arts, and this is what I’m here to do. I’m here to be a great example for my daughter and I’m here to be a good daughter to my mom and dad and I’m here to be a great friend to my friends. I’m here to have a balanced, creative, spectacular life. What else is there? There is no other option.
I imagine that the face time you get with your fans at the stage door has to be a big part of that reconnection with yourself and the new Brandy.
I need them. I need their love. I need to just feel connected to them, because without them… if you have something to share and there’s no one there to give it to, then your gift doesn’t matter. If no one shares your gift, it’s not a gift. They make what I give special. And so I need to see them, I need to look them in their eyes, I need to thank them for coming, I need to take pictures with them. I need to know what they feel about the show. I need to know that they’re inspired, because how [else] can I continue to do what I’m doing? I need them just as much as they need me, and so I go out and meet them every show. I get to everybody, so everybody can know how much I love and appreciate them. I really do. You hear celebrities say this, “I’m nothing without my fans!” No, it’s really true. I know that I’m nothing without my fans, because my fans have been with me through the darkest times of my life. They believed when I didn’t believe in myself, and they stuck with me, and now there’s all of these new theater babies that are coming up and appreciating the work and I’m just so inspired.
Chicago currently runs at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre; Brandy Norwood stars as Roxie Hart through June 21.