Michelle Williams is back on Broadway starring as Sandra Isadore in the national tour of Tony Award-winning production of “FELA!” The musical, under the direction of choreographer Bill T. Jones (“Spring Awakening”), tells the life of Fela Kuti and Afrobeat, a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythm. Williams, known for her success in pop band Destiny’s Child, shares how she got started with “FELA!” and how she transitioned from concerts to Broadway.
The State Press: How did you initially get involved in the production of “FELA!”? What sparked your interest in the show?
Michelle Williams: I saw the show on Broadway then I saw the opening night (of “FELA!”) when it was in London. It was a fabulous production, and I remember sitting at the show in London, saying, “I know they could have had me do this part.” Two years later, I get the phone call asking me to tour with the musical, and I had met Bill T. Jones while he was putting on another production called “Superfly.” They called me and said, ‘Can you do “FELA!”?’ And I said absolutely … so here I am.
SP: What is it like working with Bill T. Jones?
MW: Doing this production is absolutely brilliant, absolutely amazing.
SP: In what ways do you relate to your character, Sandra, and how do separate your vision of Sandra from anyone else who’s played the role?
MW: I do my studying and do the character breakdowns. … All I can do is go into the rehearsal and take the direction that’s given to me and merge that into what I bring and hopefully make a stronger character. You just never know until the consumers watch and the directors come in. As long as they’re pretty happy and pleased with what you’re doing, and as long as it stays true to the show and the life of Fela, then it can work. Sandra Izsadore is still alive and lives in Los Angeles, which is another added pressure.
SP: Does Izsadore ever pop into rehearsals and watch?
MW: I believe she’s coming to the show in L.A., but when the national tour first started she was very involved in the development of the role. We’ve talked on the phone, and she’s everything I knew she was going to be — as sassy as everyone says.
SP: Is it challenging to know that the character you’re playing is still able to see your portrayal of herself?
MW: It’s a form of respect. I have to be me and what I believe my heart tells me to put into the role, but then it’s like OK you don’t want to just go up there and totally negate who they are and their spirit.Even if it’s the way that I walk or the way I do a hand gesture, I have to make sure it’s something she would have done. My idol was Whitney Houston, and if I ever got the chance to play her, I’d have to study her, not just walk out and act like Dolly Parton. They have different mannerisms. You can’t just make them up like a cartoon character.
SP:What do you see as the biggest difference between performing with a concert tour versus a Broadway tour?
MW:Well, a Broadway tour is crazy, because you literally have to stick to the script and stick to what’s written. There really isn’t a lot of room for free style, and less is more. Concert tours and Broadway tours are two different dynamics. A concert tour is a stage that I’m paying for, so I’m going to do whatever I want to do! But when it’s a Broadway show, you must do what the directors created.
SP: What was the transition like going from concerts to Broadway?
MW: It’s great, because I’ve always wanted to get into acting, so it’s no different than if I had accepted a movie role or a music video shoot where the director is behind the lens saying, “Do this; do that.” I try to make it as seamless as possible and not too big of a change. Everything I do piggybacks off each other. I can use what I learn in concerts on Broadway and what I learn on Broadway in concerts.
SP: What do you think the audience can expect from the musical, “FELA!”?
MW:The love and the struggle. The love that Fela has for Sandra and then the love he has for his music. The audience might be surprised to see that there was a slight tenderness about him. A very slight and comedic side.
SP: Would you like to do any more Broadway shows in the future? Any specific roles you’ve always wanted to play?
MW: I would love to do more Broadway! Someday I would like to just do a play that requires solid acting. Having a song to fall back on is great but to actually do a play would be fabulous. I have my eye on a Tony award one day — well, first of all, I have to get nominated. Even just to get nominated would be a dream come true.
“FELA!” will show at ASU Gammage on April 23 and April 24. Tickets can be purchased online at asugammage.com.