WASHINGTON — For years, the name on everybody’s lips has been: “Roxie.”
But for the next two weeks at The Kennedy Center, the name on everybody’s lips will be: “Brandy.”
Grammy winner Brandy Norwood stars as Roxie Hart in the iconic musical “Chicago” from April 4-16.
“I’m excited,” Brandy told WTOP. “I love the play in general. It’s just dope. … I love this role. Roxie Hart is so phenomenal. She’s a dreamer, she never gives up, she can sing, she can dance, she’s funny.”
The Kennedy Center performance marks her third time playing Roxie after making her Broadway debut in 2015 before reprising the role at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles in 2016.
“Every time I get a chance to play her, whether it be on Broadway, at the Pantages in L.A., or at The Kennedy Center in D.C., I’m just happy to play her every chance that I get,” Brandy said. “I told my family, ‘Look, I wanna be Roxie forever! I wanna play her as many times as I can play her!'”
Based on the book by Bob Fosse, who crafts the choreography, and Fred Ebb, who provides the lyrics, the show follows Prohibition Chicago housewife Roxie Hart, who kills her extra-marital lover, then works with slick lawyer Billy Flynn and works with rival cellmate Velma Kelly to beat the criminal rap.
The 1975 Broadway musical was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actress for Chita Rivera and Best Actor for Jerry Orbach, but came away empty-handed against “A Chorus Line.” The show returned with a vengeance in 1996, winning six Tonys including Best Musical Revival, followed by Rob Marshall’s 2002 movie musical winning six Oscars including Best Picture.
“Bob Fosse is a genius,” Brandy said. “He was such an out-of-the-box dancer [and] choreographer. It’s just timeless. His work his timeless. We’re still doing it years and years and years later, the work just speaks for itself. He influenced so many great artists like Michael Jackson. He was just a force. I was just so happy I could pick up a little bit of the choreography. I still can’t wait to get in the rehearsals and just do the choreography. It’s just so fun. The choreography’s fun. The music is unbelievable.”
Indeed, John Kander’s songbook features unforgettable showtunes, including “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “Roxie,” “Mr. Cellophane,” “Razzle Dazzle” and Brandy’s personal favorite “Nowadays.”
“My favorite song is ‘Nowadays,'” Brandy said. “There is a moment in the musical where Roxie feels very alone and she just starts singing this song. She starts singing about how things are gonna change and things are not gonna be the same. … She gets this idea to go get Velma, and then they start singing it together. The melody of the song is beautiful, the words are beautiful, and I just love singing it.”
It’s just the latest career turn for the versatile Brandy, who first became a household name starring in TV’s “Moesha” (1996-2001). Before that she was a hugely successful pop and R&B artist.
Her self-titled debut album “Brandy” (1994) featured several radio hits, including “Baby” (No. 4), “I Wanna Be Down” (No. 6) and “Brokenhearted” (No. 9), while the soundtrack to “Waiting to Exhale” (1996) launched her hit single “Sittin’ Up In My Room,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart.
Still, it was her sophomore album “Never Say Never” (1998) that exploded the most, going five-times platinum in America. The album saw numerous hits: “Top of the World” featuring Mase (No. 4), “Have You Ever?” (No. 1), “Almost Doesn’t Count” (No. 16) and “The Boy Is Mine” featuring Monica (No. 1), which was nominated for Record of the Year and won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo.
“It’s changed my life forever,” Brandy said. “When I do shows, I get to sing all my oldies but goodies, and I love those songs. Just to relive those songs through my daughter’s eyes, because she’s 14. To hear her knowing all of these songs word-for-word. … Her saying, ‘Mom, you should do ‘Sitting Up in My Room’ or ‘Top of the World’ is such a good song, that’s a classic.’ My daughter is 14 saying this stuff about my music! Meanwhile, when she was 7 or 8, her favorite was Chris Brown and Beyonce.”
Fittingly, it was music colleague Usher who proved the possibility of Broadway’s “Chicago” in 2006.
“I saw it on Broadway when Usher played Billy Flynn and I was like, ‘Oh my god,'” Brandy said. “Usher, we started around the same time in the music industry. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, Usher’s doing Broadway, I should so do Broadway!’ It took me 10 years after that to do it, but I was definitely inspired. And then I loved the movie; I loved what Renee Zellweger did with Roxie. She’s one of my favorite Roxies.”
Her transition into musical theatre included Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” (1997), playing the title role across Whitney Houston’s Fairy Godmother in a TV movie choreographed by Marshall.
“I remember feeling so at home with ‘Cinderella’ because it was music and Whitney Houston was my Fairy Godmother. I was just in heaven,” Brandy recalled. “It was a musical, of course, but there was still [multiple] takes and editing and all that. But Broadway, that’s real show business. You can’t edit. You have to really trust the moment and stay in present time. … So I learned through theatre to just stay in the moment and focus on where you are right now, and the universe will take care of the rest.”
Tragically, the universe had a chapter of adversity planned. On Dec. 30, 2006, Brandy was involved in a fatal car crash on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles that killed 38-year-old Awatef Aboudihaj. Brandy was never charged, but she claims the role of Roxie Hart helped her find direction again in her life.
“She really helped me to dream again in my own life,” Brandy said. “There was a time where I wasn’t dreaming a lot, I didn’t know really what my purpose was, I didn’t know the direction I needed to go. When I got the call to play this role, I was able to dream through her eyes. … She has the accident with Fred … Now she’s in jail and she’s still dreaming in jail. … I just love that about her. … No matter if she’s behind bars, whatever she did, she was able to get her dreams out there and do what she had to do.”
Now, all these years later, Brandy has found peace and purpose under the stage lights.
“I’m just getting started,” she said. “My career is starting all over. I have the energy of a 12-year-old. I’m ready to give it to you guys the way you deserve. People need music. People need to feel they are not alone in their circumstances. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m a vessel. … I’m not afraid to try again.”
Click here for more info on “Chicago” at Kennedy Center. Listen to the full conversation with Brandy below:
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