Broadway Q&A: Fantasia Barrino on sexy jazz and learning to tap dance in 'After Midnight'

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Image Credit: Matthew Murphy

You definitely know Fantasia Barrino from her breakout days on American Idol, but the talented Grammy winner is now far beyond the reach of reality TV — instead, she’s tearing up the stage and delivering a truly show-stopping performance in her second endeavor on Broadway in the new musical After Midnight, celebrating the world of the Harlem jazz clubs of old.

Barrino is the first in a rotating guest star roster, meaning that she’ll only be dazzling audiences for a few months before k.d. lang joins the show (Feb. 11 – Mar. 9) followed by Babyface and Toni Braxton (Mar. 18 – 30). There’s no doubt that the revue is a fun ride for the audience, but we wanted to know whether Barrino was having as much fun onstage as it looks. And the answer, unsurprisingly, is yes.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you love about this show and what gets you excited when you think about what you’re a part of?
FANTASIA BARRINO: I love everything about this show, let me say that. Everything! The dancers, Dormeshia [Sumbry-Edwards] and Jared [Grimes]; the simple things like “Creole Love Call,” how beautiful that is. It has no words but just hearing [Carmen Ruby Floyd] sing it gave me so many different emotions. I was like that the entire play!

Do you have a particular affinity for jazz?
Jazz music, the fact that we are doing something like this on Broadway, I feel is much needed and long overdue. Jazz music is a different language—it’s not the same as R&B, it’s not the same as most music that a lot of us listen to, especially our young people, but I feel like it’s what people need to see because it’s where it all started. It’s so elegant, it’s so classy, it’s so sexy, and most of all, it stands for those people who came before us and who went through so much. Music was their way of feeling like they could make it through.

You get to sing four amazing songs in the show. Did you have a previous connection to any of them?
Actually, on one of my tours, we did the Cab Calloway “Hi-De-Ho” to open the show. But some of the songs were new to me. Coming into this play is when I really got to listen to “Stormy Weather,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz”… I listened to a lot of Billie Holliday, a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, but these songs I had never heard. I had to think, “Can I pull it off as well as keep it authentic and not make it 2013?” I wanted to really represent those great people who came before me and sang those songs. Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, Etta James. I looked at the history of these talented, amazing women, and I got so tickled because a lot of things that they went through and the ways that they felt, I kind of feel like I’ve been there and felt that, too.

What’s it like for you to feel the energy in the audience?
Sometimes — well, most of the time — since I was a little girl, I kind of zone out and black out when I’m on the stage. A lot of the songs that I sing, I relate myself to. My very first song is “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and in the beginning when I come out, the song says, “Gee, but it’s tough to be broke kid, it’s not a joke kid, it’s a curse. My luck is changing, it’s gotten from simply rotten to something worse.” And so I relate myself years back, when times were hard and things were tough for me in regards to the industry, relationships, family… so I’m almost ministering to myself, and I do pick up that a lot of people in the audience may feel the same way, so I zone out!

Do you zone back in during the finale?
Yes! When we get to the last song and we do “Freeze and Melt,” it’s where I’m like “Oh, okay, I’m here!” And I see everybody in the audience. For me, [zoning out] is a good thing because sometimes you may not want to see somebody making a certain face. The black out is me going away with the music and being in that moment.

This is a stupid question, so brace yourself: would you rather live in the 1920s, when After Midnight is set, or in good old 2013?
Honestly, I always tell people I feel like I was born in the wrong time. I have such an old soul. I was watching Billie Holiday’s documentary the other day and I was so blown away and amazed, and I felt like I was so much like these women, like Billie or Josephine Baker. And I want to be so much like these women and follow their footsteps in all the great ways that were never shown.

Do you think about that a lot?
I’ve stood through a lot of things, and some people look at me and go, how the hell did you make it through that? How the hell are you still here, at age 29, after all that you’ve been through? But now I feel like I have some great people in my life and I can now look at myself in the mirror and say, this is who I am, you can love it, you can take it or you can leave it.

How has Broadway been to you the second time around? Did you learn anything the first time, when you played Celie in The Color Purple, that helped guide you?
Honestly, because Fantasia was going through so much in her world and trying to carry everything that Celie was going through in hers, it was just a lot for me, so much that I couldn’t even enjoy the moment. Yesterday I hung out with NaTasha [Yvette Williams], who played Sofia when I was in The Color Purple, and she just kept looking at me, saying things like, “Wow, you just seem so different.” Coming back to Broadway, I’m going to enjoy this. I have so, so much respect for every last person that hits the Broadway stage. No matter what show it is, a person is giving up their life with their family and their kids and putting it all on the stage through their bodies. The dancers, the musicians, even the ushers in the building! When we play together, we play for our ushers, we play for our musicians. It’s not easy, but it’s a passion and something that we all love to do.

It sounds like you’ve definitely developed a real camaraderie with your cast.
I’m going to support them and we’re going to all go out there as one. It’s not just about me, it’s not just about Adriane [Lenox], it’s not just about Dule [Hill], but it’s about every last person that’s on that stage: Dormeshia, Jared, Daniel, Philip, Carmen, Briana, Rosena, T. Oliver, Cedric…oh God, I’ve missed a lot of people, but all of us that hit that stage are stars. All of us are one accord, and I’m going to make sure I make them proud.

Being surrounded by dancers, have you started learning any dance steps backstage?
Honestly, I really want to start working with Dormeshia and Jared because I would like to learn how to tap. When they tap, it’s not singing but they are saying something in a different way. I watch Jared every night, and I watch him when he’s prepping.  Whatever he’s feeling, he’s putting it out there through his feet. I do think it’s amazing. I think it’s a very sexy, elegant dance, and so Dormeshia’s actually going to start working with me. I know, crazy, right? Pray for me.

What’s the pre-show ritual like with the cast?
We started this from day one. When we all get to the theater, we all gather around in a circle and somebody will sing a song and we’ll all join, and then one of the dancers will start doing exercises with our breath, bending our knees, coming up and letting that air out, and letting out whatever we’re feeling. Daniel [J. Watts], he’ll do a poem and oh my God, this young man! His poetry is just amazing. And after that, we all pray together. My mother and my grandmother always say that a family that prays together stays together, and it’s a way for us to keep out bad thoughts, bad energy.

What do you pray for?
We pray for the dancers because they are doing a lot out there. We pray that they’re protected, that they don’t go through any hurt, harm or danger. And it just makes us all feel like we’re one. We’re one before the show starts, and after we’ve prayed all the tap dancers go off stage and battle each other. I guess that’s their little warm up. Sometimes Desmond, who’s an amazing dancer, takes me and Dule upstairs and we’ll all do a warm-up. We try to keep it fun and free-spirited because it’s easy for somebody to come in in a bad mood, and then the next person is in a bad mood. We just have to uplift each other in this time. We’re out here blessing people through everything in After Midnight.

One of the most exciting parts of After Midnight is the rotating roster of guest stars, starting with you. k.d. lang is coming next — what advice would you give her for stepping into the featured soloist role?
When it comes to singing, I can’t give her any advice because she is the bomb! She is a beast! I was able to be in her presence when we did the Vanity Fair shoot, and she’s a very sweet, down to earth woman. I feel like she’s from North Carolina sometimes because she’s just straight cool. I don’t think that I could give advice to somebody who, in my book, is a legend and has been around and done so many things. But when it comes to theater, since this is my second time around on Broadway, I‘d just tell her to enjoy the moment. Sometimes it’ll be a little tough, it’ll be hard, but once you get in it and open your mind up to it, I think she’ll really, really enjoy herself.

After Midnight is currently running at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

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