Michelle Williams in 'Fela!' (Carol Rosegg )
She's a survivor—a difficult feat in show business, even if you did leap to fame at age 19 as Beyonce's sidekick.
In just a few short years, Rockford native Michelle Williams went from directing church and community choirs to winning a Grammy as part of pop trio Destiny's Child. Since then, in addition to her work as a solo gospel and R&B artist, Williams has spent some serious time on stage--in the title role of Broadway's "Aida," as Roxie Hart in the London production of "Chicago" and as Shug Avery in the national tour of "The Color Purple."
Now she's co-starring as love interest Sandra Izsadore in the national tour of "Fela!," the Tony Award-winning tale of Afrobeat legend and political activist Fela Kuti. We talked to Williams by phone about visiting Chicago, shaking it with Beyonce at the Super Bowl and why "Fela!" will make you want to get up and dance.
Go: Wednesday through Saturday at the Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: $20-$85, 800-745-3000; ticketmaster.com
On her roots as an artist: "I grew up in church where the music just was in my soul. My mother, she raised us on gospel music. And then, my dad was the one who raised us on jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B, soul—from, shucks, Iron Maiden to Sting to Chaka Khan to The Winans."
Her must-visit spots in Chicago: The Original Pancake House, Garrett Popcorn Shop, the Lakefront Trail, The Underground ("I'm great friends with Billy Dec here, so of course I get spoiled at all his establishments") and the Viagra Triangle for people-watching. "You see the most interesting combinations of people, like 80-year-old men with 18-year-olds."
On the reported magical powers of "Fela!": "There are times where I'm standing on the side of the stage watching and I'm always almost in tears because the dancing and music are so powerful and moving—the drums and how people just let go of themselves. They told us of a lady in Los Angeles who saw the show. She had cancer. The music moved her so much, she got on the stage and started dancing with the cast! And they were all, 'Who is this woman?,' but it makes you just want to get up with them and dance. She goes to the doctor the next day for a check-up and when she gets the results, she has no cancer. So she feels like that dancing or whatever spirit was there during 'Fela!' healed her of her cancer. I'm telling you, there is something magical about this show."
The most challenging part of playing Sandra: "Just staying aggressive, because there is a soft side of me and I could see how I could go easy on Fela. But I've gotta stand my ground with him."
On concerts vs. musicals: "Well, performing in a musical, obviously, you've got to know what you're doing. You can't put your mic in the audience and say, 'Hey, sing along.' Although, this show, 'Fela!,' is different, 'cause it's based off of his last concert at The Shrine in Lagos, so it's kind of like a concert. But to me, normally, in a Broadway show, it's just, stick to the script, literally."
How she got her big break: "A friend of mine—he's actually from Chicago—was [Monica's] keyboardist and he found my number, he said, in the bottom of a moving box somewhere and he said, 'Let me call this number and see if it's still hers.' Once we connected and caught up, he was like, 'I'm on tour with Monica.' I said, 'Oh, really? If she needs a background singer, let me know,' not thinking that he's going to call me back days later saying, 'Look, you gotta get to Atlanta tomorrow because she's having auditions.' His cousin—her name was Gladys—happened to work for United Airlines and she got me a buddy pass for Atlanta. I auditioned and I got the gig. One of the dancers for Monica was Destiny's Child's choreographer, so when Destiny's Child went looking for new members, she recommended me."
On the pros and cons of being linked to Beyonce: "[People] think wherever I am, she must be. Like, am I going to pick her up out of my back pocket somewhere? We all have individual lives. But the benefit for me is just great friendship, outside of anything. We are truly, truly friends."
On performing at the Super Bowl: "We could not wait because [Beyonce] really wanted it to be a surprise! ... It's the biggest thing that you could ever do, career-wise, because there are millions and millions and millions of people watching the show. ...There was no nerves—at least, I wasn't nervous. [Laughs.] It was great."
On those rumors of Destiny's Child performing on Beyonce's "Mrs. Carter" tour: "We haven't had that talk yet, but I'm sure if that's what she wants—and literally, if our schedules work, because for me to even do the Super Bowl, I was in rehearsals for 'Fela!' at the same time as flying for her to the Super Bowl. But I'm sure that if she wants us out there for something, we'll make it work."