Michelle Williams: Heart to Hart
Pete Lewis speaks to one-time Destiny’s Child songstress Michelle Williams about her current, groundbreaking lead-role as Roxie Hart in the popular London West End production of ‘Chicago’
The first African-American actress to play murderous chorus-girl Roxie Hart in ‘Chicago’’s current 12-year West End run (making it the longest-running Broadway musical to ever play in London), Michelle Williams first shot to global musical fame after joining Destiny’s Child - officially the top-selling female group in history - in February 2000.
While her time with the super-group trio found her receiving three Grammy Awards while performing on Destiny’s Child world-conquering anthems like ‘Independent Women’ (2000) and ‘Survivor’ (2001), the later launch of Michelle’s solo career meanwhile additionally produced two successful gospel albums (2002’s Grammy-winning ‘Heart To Yours’; 2004’s ‘Do You Know’); plus her 2008-released third LP ‘Unexpected’, which introduced a bold new pop/dance sound that spawned the US Dance Number One ‘We Break The Dawn’.
Meanwhile, Williams’ parallel career as an acclaimed theatre actress has at the same time prestigiously seen her starring in the title role of the Elton John/Tim Rice musical ‘Aida’ on Broadway in 2003; plus joining the national touring company of the hit musical ‘The Color Purple’ in 2007 - performing extended runs in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix with members of the original Broadway cast.
Having initially started out singing in the church choir at her hometown of Rockford, Illinois at the age of seven, Michelle’s ongoing career as a recording artist meanwhile continues alongside her West End stage debut this month via the soon-come release of the stomping, electro-dance-flavoured single ‘Hello Heartbreak’ reportedly preceding a re-released edition of last year’s aforementioned ‘Unexpected’ - a two-disc set with both new songs and remixes added to its original 13 tracks.
A personable, now-28-year-old Michelle reacquaints herself with Pete Lewis to discuss her current, coveted West End role plus her illustrious all-round success as an actress, singer, songwriter and dancer.
PETE: Does playing the role of Roxie Hart have any personal significance to you?
MICHELLE: “Well, it’s just great, period, to be part of one of the longest-running musicals in the history of both Broadway and the West End. And the fact that I’m the first African-American woman to play this role over here in London makes it extra-special. Plus, with me being from Chicago, I can definitely identify with some of the stuff they’re talking about! You know, there are some things about Roxie Hart’s character that also parallel my own life! While I definitely haven’t murdered anybody - I doubt I’d have gotten away as easy as Roxie did if I had! - I do love the way she’s always on her toes, that she knows how to get out of stuff… Plus the fact that she always just seems to know exactly what to do, and WHEN! You know, her timing is GREAT!”
PETE: What do you feel you, as Michelle Williams, are bringing to the role?
MICHELLE: “I’m definitely bringing a lot of myself into it, while at the same time keeping it within the spirit of the story. You know, I can’t be as contemporary as when I’m being Michelle Williams the pop/R&B singer, because it’s set in the TWENTIES! So there’s actually some things I have had to strip down. Like, even with my dance movements, I was originally putting a little too much INTO it! To where the choreographer was like ‘That’s great, but I just need you to isolate this movement a little more’. You know, while in contemporary R&B/pop it’s all about putting everything you have into it, with Roxie’s movements everything is small and simple. There’s less detail there.”
PETE: Have you encountered any criticism from the theatre world for seemingly crossing over almost overnight from chart-topping recording artist to high-profile acting roles on Broadway and West End stages?
MICHELLE: “Well, this is now my third theatre show. So, after ‘Chicago’, I do believe I will have become a bona fide theatre actress. I mean, I do know some people are leery of pop stars coming in to do this. But the fact is, I have studied and I have worked hard to BE here! You know, I didn’t just get on a plane and say ‘Hey, I wanna be in theatre!’… NO! I’ve taken the acting classes, I’ve taken the vocal coaching… You know, I do take all this very seriously, because I do understand how people who’ve spent years training for roles like this must feel. You know, there is an ART to acting. Even if you’re a born natural, acting is still something you have to study and train for.”
PETE: You’ve also enjoyed success as a television actress on the popular US comedy series ‘Half & Half’. What was that experience like?
MICHELLE: “Doing ‘Half & Half’ was a great experience. I played a record company executive who was infected with the HIV virus. So basically it was just a way of demonstrating awareness of HIV and letting people know that hey, if you ARE infected, you can still live and have a great life! You know, a lotta people are walking around with this disease and do not know that they HAVE it. And my thing on that is - especially at times like National HIV Testing Day - to encourage everybody to get tested. Because it is OK to just know your status, especially those people who are entering new relationships. So yeah, I was very happy to play that role because I felt it showed a different side to somebody LIVING with the disease. You know, you don’t always have to be depressed; you CAN still live; you CAN still work… And it’s not over until God SAYS it’s over.”
PETE: So what’s currently happening as regards your recording career?
MICHELLE: “Well, I’m very pleased to have the kinda balance in my career where - while I’m over here in London - not only can I perform in ‘Chicago The Musical’ but I’m also able to go into the studio to record new songs. So yeah - while am here - I am planning to do some recording for my next solo album. Which I think will have a similar vibe to ‘Unexpected’. Though, while it will still have that Euro-dance feel - which, after all, is the biggest lane here in Europe - I probably will somehow make it more live-sounding this time around. Then - as regards Destiny’s Child - I think the fact that, five years on, people are still talking about us definitely proves we did leave something to be desired. So - as we do still love each other tremendously and we always had fun together recording and touring - yeah, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do something together again one day in the near future.”
Michelle currently plays Roxie Hart in the West End production of ‘Chicago The Musical’ at the Cambridge Theatre, London through to August 23. Ticket information from HYPERLINK “http://www.chicagothemusical.com/uk_site/” www.chicagothemusical.co.uk
The digital single ‘Hello Heartbreak’ is released August 23 through Sony
Words PETE LEWIS