Heather Headley: Trinidad’s Aida

Glenda Cadogan and Sean Drakes meet the Trinidad-born singer who’s taken Broadway by storm

  • With Adam Pascal. Photograph by Joan Marcus/ Courtesy Heather Headley
  • Performing in Aïda. Photograph by Joan Marcus/ Courtesy Heather Headley
  • Heather Headley. Photograph by Sean Drakes

It was minutes before the curtain went up on the Broadway musical, Aida. Unless you count the three grapes and two strawberries she had around noon, Heather Headley, the star of the show, had not eaten all day. She was scared to death. “The reviews were in but I had purposely not read any of them,” she recalls. “I knew that in a matter of hours my career would either be dead or okay. I never expected what happened.”

What happened was that Heather delivered her title role as Aida with such riveting star power that Broadway was electrified (later, she was to receive a Tony Award for her performance — Best Actress in a Musical). But on that opening night, ten minutes before opening curtain, Heather retreated to her dressing room for what she calls “a private conversation with the Master.”

Even that was a scary thing, she says. “I asked God to make me stronger than I am, help me not to faint from dehydration, exhaustion or nerves. But then came the scary part, which is the absolute surrender — not my will but thy will be done, Lord. Fortunately, his will exceeded mine, beyond measure.”

By curtain call, Heather had regained control of her nervous body and Aida, the enslaved Nubian princess who falls in love with her Egyptian captor, was born.

So too was a new Queen of Broadway. The audience was ecstatic. Heather was in tears. “It’s an awesome feeling, the first time people start accepting you like that. I stood on stage and with every applause my life passed before me like a movie. I thought about growing up in this little island of Trinidad where everything is blessing. I thought about drinking bush tea in the morning and walking from school at First Barataria Anglican in the evening. I never realised then that it was all part of a plan.”

Heather, 25, was born in Barataria, near the Trinidad and Tobago capital Port of Spain; she spent the first 15 years of her life there, before her church-pastor parents migrated to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

It was a childhood she would not trade for anything in the world. “I’m an example of what it’s like to be raised by an entire village,” she says. “The lessons I learned from that experience were life lessons. Trinidad taught me about God, family and culture. What I learned there helped to keep my head straight through this journey.”

Trophies for her solo performances during her junior high school choir years still line her parents’ home like wallpaper. In Trinidad, she was around artistic people through her involvement with the Barataria Church of God Drama Group, “and I would sing on the side.” Fort Wayne was “culture shock beyond belief — if we had come straight to New York I would have walked back to Trinidad if need be. Part of the shock, of course, had to do with race and learning this whole minority thing.”

Heather won a partial scholarship to Northwestern University, and majored in musical theatre. For her thesis, she prepared four arias, in three different languages. She listened to opera recordings and sculpted her voice after opera stars. By her sophomore year, she had landed a leading role in a production of Dreamgirls at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater in the suburbs of Chicago. In her third year she was discovered by Broadway scouts, who offered her a part in the Toronto tryout of the musical Ragtime.

“I cried, I said no, I can’t go. I cried as each of my professors suggested I go. Anyway, I ended up going. We did a year in Toronto, but I only spent six months on that show because Disney bought me out of that contract and cast me in The Lion King on Broadway.” After only one year as Nala in Julie Taymar’s innovative production, she landed the part of Aida. “We auditioned lots of people,” Peter Schneider, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios and a producer of Aida, said in a New York Times interview. “And when she sang it came, and when she acted it, you felt the chemistry in the room. You felt the star power.”

“I didn’t plan on getting this or that part,” Heather says. “I just aimed for whatever the best is or whatever the top is. Growing up in the Caribbean, I didn’t know anything about Broadway, it was just another part of downtown where we could go to shop.” Now, Broadway is a demanding taskmaster. “I have to be on time, I have to be warmed up, I have to be well. I have to make myself healthy. Before, I didn’t think about things like that, I just went through life thinking, oh well, I got the cold. I can’t get the cold. I have to know where I cannot go, so no clubbing, the smoke isn’t good for me, and no yelling — things like that.”

Every night now, Heather delivers 12 of the show’s 17 musical numbers with a power that belies her physical frame. And as she breathes new life into the Nubian princess Aida, becoming a slave, a princess and a lover, she generates the intensity she needs by thinking of Nubia as Trinidad. To help maintain this illusion, she keeps three precious items on her dressing-room table at the Palace Theater in the heart of Times Square: a photo of herself at Maracas Beach, a bottle of sand she collected while visiting her homeland last January, and a replica of a steelpan player. “Pretty much every night before I go on stage I look at that picture and think that this is what Nubia would look like,” she says. “That’s the image in my head when I’m on stage.”

After six years in the making, Aida opened in Chicago in December 1999. But as composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice tightened the musical score for the show’s Broadway debut, Heather felt she was at a crossroads. She turned to her island for help. “When I returned home in January it was to gather myself,” she says. “I needed to remember Heather, as well as in some ways to introduce Aida to Trinidad. It was a spiritual experience. I remember walking the streets where I walked as a child and in some ways trying to gather the dust of that childhood. I looked at Aida and my whole spirit said, Heather, this is where we are now and it’s beautiful. But this is how we got there! This is your island!’”

The Tony was “the scariest and most exhilarating moment in my life,” Heather says. “There was a long list of reasons why I wished for that Tony. I wanted it for the show, and for Trinidad and for my High School. Somewhere about 20th on the list was, oh yes, it might be nice for my house.” She got them all. “I’m still in awe that it sits in my house. As a performer, journalist, anybody, you know what is the highest honor in your field, you know there are people twice or four times your age who have been in the business twice or four times as long, and who haven’t gotten it yet. Then all of a sudden you show up and God blesses you with the right part and the right environment, and they hand you a Tony. There are only 200 Tonys on the face of the earth, roughly 50 have been awarded to leading actresses; to be a person from the Caribbean and on that list is beyond me.”

Whenever Heather needs relief from her alter ego, she flies from her Washington Heights base to her parents’ home in Fort Wayne. “I go there and just sit around for three days. Mummy cooks, we go to the mall and spend time together. My mother was the quintessential pastor’s wife, she did everything but play the piano — that was my job.”

In spite of the accolades, the TV appearances, the magazine shoots and interviews, not to mention the pile of proposals draping her manager’s desk, Heather insists her head is still on straight because of the faith she embraces. “I’ve found that staying true to myself and my beliefs works for me. I do whatever is in my power to make myself better. That’s it, be true to yourself, know what your passion is and feed it in whatever way you can until you think it’s at the point that you can present your beautiful gift to the world.”

“Places, Radames, soldiers . . .” says a voice over the intercom. Her makeup is done. She must make sure her voice is okay, make sure her body feels all right, check out what’s going on around her. Every night she says a prayer two minutes before the music starts. To avoid nervousness, she makes herself as late as possible. “Sometimes they call ‘places’ and I’m still in the bathroom or the end of my makeup is just going on. If I had any time to think about it [the show] I would shoot myself before I got on stage.”

Next, Heather set her eye on an album. “I’ve told the recording company that I’d like to do the album in my island and they’ve agreed. I’m so excited to return home. I wish that my children could grow in Trinidad. I would like them to learn marbles, climb mango trees and play cricket in the streets. That was my experience at a time when the only worry in the world was if Mommy would buy me a Bata [sneakers] and embarrass me.”

Heather has come a long way since then. Now her walks in the street are punctuated by eager autograph seekers. Fellow Trinis spice up the Broadway theatre by waving their national colours in the balcony (“I love it when people come to the theatre, especially Trinis, to see what goes on here, visit me backstage and bring me some ‘doubles’!”). She has shamelessly added her touch of pepper to the Broadway brew by teaching her orchestra conductor her favorite calypso, Nine Inch Banana.

Many years ago, back in Trinidad, Heather entered a talent contest. She was 11 years old. The first prize was a $50 voucher and a trip to Disney World. She was a popular pick to win. But she didn’t. Instead, she was given a “special prize” by the show’s host. “I’m still bitter about not winning 12 and Under,” she laughs. “When I return home, I’m going to tell them that I want my $50 voucher. And oh yeah . . . now I work for Disney.”

For more on Heather Headley:

Heather Headley: a star with her feet on the ground (May/June 2012)