At the Headley of the Class
A month ago, I was talking to friend, ace TV writer Adam Belanoff about my trip to Chicago and the big reunion gala that I'd be attending at Northwestern. In our conversation, I listed many of the famous alumni from Broadway, movies and TV who'd be performing, and one of those I mentioned was Heather Headley. Though Adam knows theater well he nonetheless wasn't familiar with her. To be clear, hey certainly did at the gala (the place went wild with standing ovations after both of her songs, the second of which closed the night), but it occurred to me that many others might know her either, since much of her career has been on Broadway -- although she has won a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance (and has three other Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist in 2004 and Best Female Vocal Performance the same years. So, I thought I should write about her here.
She got her start in the original Broadway cast of The Lion King, and then came to fame starring in the title role of another Elton John show, his Broadway musical of Aida, for which she won the Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical. As the story goes, if I remember correctly, she was offered the Lion King role while she was still a student at Northwestern, and wasn't sure if she should take it since it meant leaving school. She asked the beloved head of the Musical Theater program, Dominic Missimi, whose answer was basically, "Are you nuts??" She left and has done awfully well since.
She also starred in the Whitney Houston role for the musical version of The Bodyguard, which premiered on the West End of London (getting nominated for an Olivier Award as Best Actress in a Musical). And when The Color Purple returned to Broadway, she took over the role of Shug Avery in the production. She's currently in Spike Lee's adaptation of She's Gotta Have It being done on Netflix.
So, among other things, that's who Heather Headly is. But it doesn't close to doing it justice. Since my Adam didn’t know her work, I sought out a video to send her, but the problem was I couldn’t decide between a few. So, I sent him three -- and figured I'd post them here, as well.
This first is her singing “Your Song” to Elton John at the Kennedy Center Honors. The fact alone that they gave her this song, his most iconic speaks volumes. It's especially deeply-touching given that her first two shows were in Elton John musicals which is the foundation of her career -- a fact that is in evidence in this performance and his reaction. Before watching, I thought it might not be a great song to show her full range, since she can belt and this is such a quiet song…but boy, does she knock it out of the park. And that's a tricky thing to do -- if you make it a showpiece, you risk mucking up the song's tender charm and grace. But if you're too low-key, you can end up adding nothing to it. And add to that the challenge of making something "your own" that is owned by Elton John.
How well did she do? After sending these three videos to Adam, he wrote back that he watched the first two of them twice and added, "“Heather Headley is spectacular. Truly, about as good as any stage performer I've ever seen. Just phenomenal and I've shared that 'Your Song' video with friends.”
Much as I adore that rendition of "Your Song," it doesn't present her in full to those who don't know her work, because, at heart, it's a quite number, and Heather Headley has a voice that can hit the rafters. So, I wanted to include something else for a more-rounded picture.
As I noted, she also starred in the musical version of “The Bodyguard” when it played in London’s West End. Here she is at the Royal Variety Performance with “I Will Always Love You." Somewhat similar to the challenge with "Your Song," the hurdle here is to keep close enough to the Whitney Houston, while not just repeating it. That's all the more a hurdle since she's playing the same character and singing it in the same spot of the story, so it pretty much does have to be similar. There just is much less leeway to make it one's own. And honestly, given the specific circumstances of this actually being The Bodyguard, I don't think a performer should "make it her own." Yet even at that there's an enough of an added texture which I think helps her make it soar with her own slight touch. And soar she does.
One of the things that I think makes Heather Headley stand out (okay, besides that voice) is that unlike most singers, she's a seriously trained theater actress. And she you don't just get the vocal performance, but a physical, character performance, as well. Not too much to overwhelm the vocal, but enough to enrich it.
And just for the heck of it, here's one more as a bonus. It's an onstage performance of one of her songs on Broadway The Color Purple.
And so that's Heather Headley. And should anyone ask, now you know. As well you should.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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