Joy of the Lord! Tony Nominee Keala Settle Conquered Her Fears in Hands on a Hardbody

By Michael Gioia
May 7, 2013

Keala Settle, a 2013 Tony Award nominee for her performance as big-hearted and big-voiced Texan Norma Valverde, confessed that bringing down the house at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre this season — with her show-stopping ballad "Joy of the Lord" — went far beyond an uncontrolled fit of laughter.



"It was horrifying!" Settle told Playbill.com at the May 1 Tony Award nominees press junket. "I mean, I am one of those people who actually likes to hide… So this is probably not a good business for me!"

Settle, a Hawaiian native who claims her strongest suit falls in the world of R&B — her mother was an R&B singer in New Zealand — began to battle stage fright when she was thrust into the limelight during the national tour of Hairspray. As actress Carly Jibson prepped for her Broadway bow, Settle, the Tracy Turnblad standby, settled into her starring turn.

Years later, the actress — now a nominee for the 2013 Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Tony Award — would take her career to new heights, delivering a breakout performance in the short-lived new Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody — about doing what it takes to get what one wants — and becoming a favorite among the show's fans.

"I'll never forget when we did the invited dress before our first preview, and I walked out [of] the [stage] door, and there were screaming people, and I tried to run away," she admitted. "And, one of my cast members was behind me and said, 'Keala, you don't understand… A lot of them want to see you!' And, I [said], 'There's just no way. There's nobody out here. That's a lie!' … I couldn't handle it. Sometimes I still can't handle it because it's embarrassing to me for some reason, but I manage to stand there and listen to these people and talk to them — to see what kind of an impact we've made on them as performers, telling the story that we were telling — and it was incredible. It opened my eyes to not be afraid. It literally was…life-changing."

Settle in Hands on a Hardbody.
Photo by Kevin Berne
In Hands on a Hardbody, Settle's character, devout Christian Norma Valverde, maintained her focus in the high-endurance competition for a brand-new Nissan pickup truck with the help of God…and a handheld CD player. In the midst of the competition, Norma used what she had — God and music — for that extra push and delivered the arresting musical number "Joy of the Lord."

"This show, by default, forced me to step out," she said. "I mean, I had to laugh out of nowhere every show [before 'Joy of the Lord'], and I had to pull that from somewhere — anywhere. I pulled from every single person on that truck, and it became a realization for me that I can move through life with that [encouragement] — not just on the truck. It changed who I am."

What changed Settle, exactly? "Well, not to be cheeky or cheesy or anything," she confessed, "but the show… It actually altered who I am as a person in a very, very positive way. I've always been afraid of who I am and not knowing what I can do… There's always doubt and fear. If you're a human being, everybody's got it. If anybody says they're not afraid of themselves, they're lying!"

Following closing night of Hands on a Hardbody, Settle took the stage at (le) Poisson Rouge in Broadway Sings Stevie Wonder to perform "Knocks Me Off My Feet" alongside Hardbody co-star Jay Armstrong Johnson. Johnson and Settle, the show's closing act, brought down the house, but, yet again, Settle's nerves struck.

"It was overwhelming for me," claimed Settle, "but it was actually great closure because I was still singing with someone in the company, and it was the first time that I had ever sung in New York City as just me. I'd never done it, and I was petrified to do it because I have fears… We all have fears! Don't lie! We all have fears. But I pulled through, and it stuck. It's something that I know that I want to do and love to do."

Settle, beaming from her Tony nomination, could not help but boast about her Hardbody family, explaining, "We know that nothing like this will ever happen to any of us, individually, again. And, that's okay because now we have each other…as a family."

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)