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Chicago's Brandy Norwood on a Broadway Debut 18 Years in the Making

How Disney training wheels and words of affirmation brought a pop star to the Great White Way.

Over the past 17 years, an illustrious roster of stars from all over the pop culture hemisphere have cut their Broadway teeth in the cast of Chicago. Earlier this month, Brandy Norwood joined their fishnet-clad ranks as the company's latest Roxie Hart — Kander and Ebb's famously homicidal adulteress with a yen for the spotlight.

Her eight-week run, coming to a close on June 21, marks the R&B singer's Broadway debut — though as Brandy aficionados may recall, she first waded through the musical-theater pond in 1997 opposite Whitney Houston and Bernadette Peters in Disney's televised reboot of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. It took nearly two decades to take her skills from screen to stage, but now that she's here, Brandy has found more "magic" on the mean streets of Chicago than she ever did in Disney's kingdom of CGI.

Brandy Norwood making her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in the cast of Chicago.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

How have you been enjoying your Broadway debut?
It's so new and different every night. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know before I got here what it was gonna be like and when I stepped on the stage the first night, I felt like I was supposed to be there. At this time in my life that's such a great discovery.

Has Broadway always been a goal of yours?
Absolutely, it was always in the back of my mind. I've always loved Broadway. I've always respected how amazing these artists [are, who] get onstage every night and do acting singing and dancing live — every night — one day off a week. I just always respected that and wondered what that would be like and what kind of discipline and focus that would take. Finally the opportunity came for me to see if I could do it. And I'm here! And I'm doing it! And it feels amazing. I'm so blessed to have this experience.

When this opportunity was first presented to you, what was your initial reaction?
I was shocked, I was nervous. And then I also felt…because four months prior to actually getting the call to do Chicago, I started a focused, disciplined type of lifestyle with meditation and working out and really getting my mind and my body and my spirit ready for something big. I just kept saying, "You gotta stay ready — stay ready because something's coming." I was just affirming that and affirming that and then Chicago presented itself so I was like, "Whoa, this is it. This is what I've been preparing for." To get out here and to really become Roxie Hart and for people to really respond well to what I'm doing — it feels like magic.

Were there any performances in particular that inspired you to give Broadway a try?
I saw Chicago with Usher and I was like, "Oh my God, I gotta do Broadway. Usher's doing it, we're from the same world, I gotta do it." I saw Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun. I was blown away by her. And I had an opportunity to do a musical with Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg and Bernadette Peters in Cinderella back in the day, and that was a sign that this is something that I'm supposed to do. It took me so long to get it but I finally got it. This was the opportunity, this was the chance, this was the time to step into it. This is the real show business here. Broadway is the real deal. There are no smoke and mirrors here.

Brandy in Disney's 1997 televised musical Cinderella.

Was Cinderella your first experience with musical theater?
That was my first experience with musical theater and it wasn't even really theater — it was television, so it's still not the same. The only thing I ever did was a play in church [when] I was about eleven. That's as far as it went. What I'm doing now is the debut.

With your music background, is it strange performing to an audience as a character rather than as yourself?
No, that's what's so magical about it — that I'm somebody else. I'm getting a chance to use what I've learned throughout the years, just being a performer. I'm using all of it. You're singing and you're dancing and you're doing it right there in the moment. How magical is that?

What has been the most surprising part of the whole Broadway experience?
Well, I know that I'm a different person now because my focus and my discipline has gone up thirty-nine thousand notches. Every audience comes there and they want the best that I have, so I have to be so focused and disciplined to give each audience the best version of me… so I have to be on point and I have to pace myself to make this work.

Of all the Roxie Harts who have come through Chicago over the past eighteen years, how do you want yours to be remembered?
I just want her to be remembered as colorful, and funny, and cute, and free, and serious, and emotional — everything that a person is, everything that a person embodies. Because she's everything in that character…She's a trickster, but she's a good person all at the same time. She's so all over the place. So I want her to be remembered as every emotion that life has to offer. I want for people to remember that as my Roxie.

Brandy on her opening night at the Ambassador Theatre.
(© David Gordon)