On cementing the life of music icon Whitney Houston, producers working on Broadway and national theatre may have an unprecedented battle royale on their hands in the casting room
By Marcus Scott (Playwright /Musical Theatre Writer/Blogger/Reporter)
Known around the world as “The Voice,” soul-pop icon Whitney Houston’s birthday was on Tuesday, August 9, and the legendary singer would have been 53 years old. Multiple music journalists and social media luminaries celebrated by compiling lists of her most memorable songs or iconographic promotional music videos. In 2009, Guinness World Records cited her as the most awarded female act of all time. So, it’s no surprise that seven years later—four years after her tragic death—the public still grieve her death and showbiz insiders are trying to make bank. That may include a Broadway musical revue of, arguably, the singer’s masterpiece. It may also include a Hunger Games style casting battle royale between divas.
The day prior of what would’ve been Whitney Houston's 53rd birthday, various mainstream news outlets announced the musical adaptation of the vocal titan’s first major film project, The Bodyguard, gearing up for its first U.S. national tour, with Deborah Cox cast in the revamped role of Rachel Marron. Cox, 42, the chart-topping Canadian R&B singer-songwriter and actress who recently ended her celebrated stint as international dance legend Josephine Baker in a Broadway bound musical at Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre in May, isn’t estranged to Houston or her body of work. In 2000, Cox recorded the 2000 single “Same Script, Different Cast” with Houston. In 2014, Cox re-created several tracks of Houston’s commended discography for a controversial and commercially panned 2015 Lifetime biopic, Whitney, though the new vocals received raves by top critics. Now set to perform the musical theatre adaptation of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1992 Oscar-nominated film when it premieres at Paper Mill Playhouse, not only does Cox have big shoes to fill in playing the role that Houston made emblematic, but Cox is also having to compete with the popularity of other singers who have played the role across the pond. One in particular being Tony winner Heather Headley.
In 2012, Headley made her London stage debut in the West End production of The Bodyguard, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Written by Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman), when the show began previews at the London’s Adelphi Theatre, Headley was one of the best things about it. Sound familiar? Headley replaced award-winning actress-singer Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple to critical acclaim and a prolonged standing ovation, with many noting the diva’s stage presence and theatrical complexity. Headley, 41, who earned a Tony Award in 2000 for her performance in Aida, was presented with a Sardi’s portrait on the day before Houston’s birthday. Prior to that, Headley originated the role of Nala in Broadway's The Lion King — her Broadway debut in 1997. Headley also appeared with Il Divo on Broadway for a limited concert run in 2014, where she sang various numbers from The Bodyguard soundtrack to audience applause.
When Headley left the West End production of The Bodyguard, British soul diva Beverley Knight replaced her and was nominated for Best Takeover in a Role at the Whatsonstage.com Awards as a result. In July, Knight, 43, returned in a limited six-month run of The Bodyguard on the West End. Alexandra Burke, who won the fifth season of “The X Factor” in the U.K., would replace Knight in the original production before it shuttered and she embarked on a nationwide tour; Burke, 27, became the longest leading cast member to play the part. Which means, the Grammy Award-nominated Cox may have to finesse her acting prowess if producers intend for a Broadway run.
The tour for the jukebox musical kicks offs at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse this November before making stops in more than 20 U.S. cities. This is apopos considering Houston is a native of New Jersey. But what does it mean of the multigenerational, cross-cultural sisters eager to play the role on Broadway?
While Cox may transfer to Broadway after a few workshops of the Broadway bound Josephine musical in the future, it is unknown when that could be. Of all of the actresses who have played the role of Rachel, her opulent mezzo soprano ringers truer to Houston’s velvety and plush vocals. Headley, however, is a Broadway diva, one who has finally returned to Broadway and is giving a performance of a lifetime in a what many assumed to be a thankless part. Knight, outside of music fans, is largely unknown in the states, but has the grit and the experience that coincides with the level of stardom that Rachel has. And Burke, who is seen in many ways as a “Beyoncé of Britainia” by the press, has the youth and the fiery energy needed to play the part.
Who do you think should play the role? Let us know in the comments.