Ladies Night — Carole King, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin Take the Stage in a New Kind of Spotlight
By Karu F. Daniels
Playbill.com chats with Valisia LeKae, Jessie Mueller and NaTasha Yvette Williams about taking on the roles of iconic women on the Broadway stage.
Hearty renditions of pop music anthems and signature songs popularized by legendary chart-toppers won't just be heard on televised singing competitions, oldie radio stations or in karaoke halls anymore. They're being played all over stages this season — via musicals featuring the likenesses of some of the greatest ladies the music industry has ever known.
Playbill.com offers a look at some of the women bringing the hit parade to the Great White Way.
Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross
Although the Memphis native once starred as Deena in a regional production of Dreamgirls, taking on the role of the real Motown queen was different than the caricaturized composite many have associated with her in the theatre world. "Those two things don't compare," the 2013 Tony nominee shared. "I don't even remember how I played [Deena] but it's not like what happens on the stage when I do Miss Diana Ross." Handpicked by director Charles Randolph-Wright after her very first audition, the former Dollywood amusement park performer admits the role wasn't very difficult to capture. "They asked me if I was doing something with my voice because I sounded so much like her," she revealed. "Luckily the timbre is similar so I don't have to run too far to find that."
LeKae's dream of meeting her idol came true on opening night last spring. "I remember her running over to me and saying some things, but it was blurred because I was so enamored with her." Ross has seen the show on more than one occasion but they still have yet to have a tête-à-tête. The ambitious LeKae is optimistic that when they do, it should lead to much more. "If she ever decides to do her movie, then I'll get to have a sit-down with her because I would hope that she would allow me to bring her life to the big screen one day." LeKae's original plans to come to New York to be a singer didn't pan out, but there is a bright side. "I never became a recording artist but I do get to play one onstage eight shows a week."
Beautiful, Stephen Sondheim Theatre
Taking on the title role of the revered singer-songwriter of timeless '60s and '70s songs like "A Natural Woman," "You've Got a Friend," and "I Feel the Earth Move" was no small task for Evanston, IL, native Jessie Mueller, since so much isn't known about the six-time Grammy Award–winning music legend — outside of her discography. "It's not like now where everybody's out there in Us Weekly, and have a Facebook and a Twitter page, and you know every thing about every artist, and you can just Google them," Mueller quipped. "We knew her music but we didn't know that much about her. So there's a lot of stuff that surprised me greatly about her personal story." A wave of emotion came over the Tony-nominated scene-stealer (of 2011's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) when she learned she won the coveted spot playing King. "It was that thing of, 'Oh my gosh, this is great,' and 'Oh my gosh, this is terrifying' and 'What a great opportunity' and 'I don't want to screw this up,' all that kind of stuff."
An alumna of Syracuse University, Mueller hails from a family of theatre actors. Her parents worked for years in Chicago, while her siblings are all professional thespians too. Her sister recently starred in a regional production of 1776, and her younger brother is in Peter and the Starcatcher. "I think that's how I came to this, I was kind of immersed in it at a young age." The former star of Broadway's The Mystery of Edwin Drood said she first knew of King's iconic music from her mother, who was a huge fan during her college years. "'So Far Away' is one of my favorites... but there's a lot of stuff post-Tapestry that I'm really loving." At the time of publishing, Mueller hasn't yet met the woman she's portraying, but she's looking forward to doing so. "I feel very, very blessed to be a part of something like this... We believe so much in the story and have so much respect for the material."
A Night with Janis Joplin, Lyceum Theatre
Ask the Fayetteville, North Carolina, native about her earliest recollections of being exposed to the Queen of Soul's music and she'll launch into stories of her teenage years when she was bequeathed her parents' vinyl collection. "My schoolmates thought I was crazy," she recalled. "'Why are you listening to this old music?' they would ask. And I would tell them it was all I had... these real songs about real things." Listening to Franklin as a teenager and meeting her as an adult were two very different things for Williams, who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple in 2007. The day following a backstage visit of Porgy and Bess, the 18-time Grammy Award recipient sent flowers to the cast. "She sent me some yellow roses and I just collapsed when I saw them and opened the card and realized that [they were from] this woman I had been idolizing my whole life."
A year later, she is to portray Franklin on Broadway. (A foot injury delayed Williams's start, but she is expected to re-join the show this month.) "It's absolutely crazy," she gushed. But it almost didn't happen. As much of a die-hard fan as she thought she was, she admitted she never heard "Spirit in the Dark," the show's signature Franklin song. During the audition, she dropped the pages and started ad-libbing. Williams headed home to her newborn twins thinking she didn't make the cut. An hour later, she got the call. "If you want to know the truth, I had to borrow money to buy milk for my kids the week before my audition." She said the uplifting show has affirmed she's on the rightful path. "It's about Janis but it allows the people she says influenced her to be featured... It gives each one of the young ladies — it's four of us — the opportunity to step out and play these icons in music."
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