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Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles Breaks Out of Her Country Confines as Roxie Hart in Chicago

The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter rebrands herself for her Broadway debut.

Grammy Award-winning country star Jennifer Nettles is embracing the perks of a Broadway schedule as Chicago's newest Roxie Hart.

"Normally for me, performing and sleeping in one's own bed are mutually exclusive," she joked, reflecting on her typical touring lifestyle as the frontwoman for Sugarland and a newly christened solo artist.

Beyond the regular sleeping schedule, however, Nettles is using her two-month Broadway debut at the Ambassador Theatre as an opportunity to revisit her longtime love of musical theater — a road she considered taking, but ultimately decided against early in her career. The path she chose, of course, led her to the top of the country-music charts, making her one of the niche genre's most recognizable voices. Nevertheless, she's excited to finally unveil a few colors from her musical palette that have yet to make it to the airwaves.

Grammy winner Jennifer Nettles stars as Roxie Hart in Broadway's Chicago through March 29.
(© Len Prince)

How familiar were you with Chicago before joining the cast?
I feel like it's one of the shows that I have always known about. The first time I saw it on Broadway was when Usher was in it several years ago. Growing up loving theater, being in community theater, and doing theater in high school and in college, I feel like I've always known the music. It's so iconic, and as a musician I gravitate towards that first.

When was the opportunity to make your Broadway debut with this show first brought to you?
It was in the fall that we started talking about it. I've been looking for the right opportunity and the right role at the right time in my career. I'm between record cycles now and had time off [from] the road and thought, This is it. This is the perfect time, this is the perfect role — because it's a show that is already established on its own, so for me to come in and get my feet wet in this very stable environment feels very smart in comparison to saying, like, maybe I should just try to get my feet wet in an originating role in a completely new musical that no one has ever seen and take that on my shoulders. [laughs] We'll build to that.

Has Broadway always been a goal of yours?
Oh yes. [It's] a dream that I've held since I was a young girl. I did theater growing up and really came to a point in my college career where I looked at it and thought, OK, what do I want to pursue here? Do I want to do musical theater? Do I want to pursue popular music? I went the singer/songwriter route, and I'm of course thrilled that I did, but at the same time have held this flame for the theater for all of these years.

Do you remember the first musical you ever performed in?
I grew up doing little skits and plays in church but the first musical on a theater stage that I can recall was Oliver! I was Charlotte, the undertaker's whore daughter. I think I was about fourteen at the time. I got to have a little cockney accent and I got to throw water in the face of somebody onstage. It was a great time.

How was the quick rehearsal process for Chicago?
I had a month to rehearse, and thank God that I did. While I love to dance, I am not a trained dancer, and this being a Fosse show, the dance is super important. So I was glad that I had that month to incorporate that vocabulary into my body. I'm such a crazy Virgo oldest child. Poor David and Gary who were teaching me all the choreography — I'd be like, "All right let's do it again! All right let's do it again!" Because I wanted to get it right. I wanted to do what it's supposed to do, which is tell its own story. But I loved the rehearsal process. Are you kidding? I got to sing and dance for four hours a day, six days a week. It was amazing. And super fun to get to push myself in a new way.

How does it feel taking your own identity out of your performance and going in front of an audience as a character?
It feels so liberating. As a singer, if you get branded with a certain sound, especially where radio is concerned, it's very hard for people to hear you sound differently. And yet there are a lot of colors that I like to paint with. I have always said I am a singer/songwriter in that order. I love to write songs and write all kinds of songs because I enjoy singing all kinds of things. I've been lucky enough to find a home within country music, but at the same time as a vocalist I enjoy painting with a lot of different colors, and this allows me to at least paint with a few different colors that people may not have expected.

Of all the Roxie Harts that have come through Chicago over the past eighteen years, how do you want yours to be remembered?
As the best.

Jennifer Nettles and Carly Hughes take their first bows at the Ambassador Theatre.
(© David Gordon)