Northwestern alumna Heather Headley replaces Jennifer Hudson in Broadway’s ‘The Color Purple’

Heather Headley

Source: Ruven Afanador

Heather Headley

Rachel Yang, Assistant A&E Editor


After more than a decade away from Broadway, Heather Headley is back. But rather than being calm and collected about replacing Oscar-winning singer Jennifer Hudson in the musical “The Color Purple,” Headley said her nerves are “wrecked.”

“I’m very honored,” she said. “I’m very humbled, but nervous. It’s great to be back in the city and be on the street and walking and reliving the stomping grounds. I have this feeling of, ‘Oh my goodness.’ … It’s kind of fun to walk back into those footsteps.”

After leaving Northwestern before her senior year to join a production of “Ragtime,” Headley starred on Broadway as Nala in “The Lion King” and as the title role in “Aida,” for which she won a Tony Award. She has performed in London’s West End and made her return to Broadway as Shug Avery in the musical “The Color Purple” on Tuesday.

Headley, who attended NU from 1993 to 1996, said she attended a showing of the production before accepting the role this year, and it was watching her husband’s reaction that helped persuade her to join the cast. She said although he’s not the type of person to openly bawl, by the end of the musical they were both in tears, which convinced her the show was something special.

Aside from her husband’s reaction, Headley added she was drawn to the themes of the story, which is based on Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name about the struggles of blacks in the South during the early 20th century.

Her character in the show, Shug Avery, is very different from the roles she usually plays in that Avery is much more “sassy” and more of a “rebel,” Headley said. Avery, a blues singer, helps the main character, Celie, become more independent and heal from her husband’s abuse.

“It’s a really beautiful story of redemption, abuse of brokenness, and being filled by the fact that somebody is in the worst situation of their lives and, because of friendship and God and love, see the beauty in themselves and come out of that,” Headley said.

Dominic Missimi, who started the Music Theatre Program at NU and taught Headley when she was in his program, said he is confident she will excel in “The Color Purple” and bring distinctive strengths to the role of Avery.

“(Hudson) did ‘Dreamgirls’ and a lot of things on Broadway, but I think (Headley) is a deeper actress,” he said. “Her experiences and her ability to reach really deep inside her, to give a really truthful and honest performance will make her performance very exceptional.”

Missimi added Headley, a Grammy Award winner, is an exceptional actress while she’s singing. He said when she auditioned for him in the Waa-Mu Show her freshman year, he knew right away she was naturally talented as a singer.

Headley is especially enthusiastic about NU, where she said she was pushed to grow as a performer with the help of her teachers and fellow students. It was also where she met her now-husband, who Missimi cast alongside her in a Waa-Mu production.

When she received the call to join “Ragtime” in Canada and work with Tony winners like Audra McDonald and Frank Galati (Communication ‘65, ‘67, ‘71) while she was still a student, Headley was reluctant to leave the university and the connections she had made. However, with the encouragement from those like Missimi, she realized she couldn’t let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity go to waste.

Headley said she is especially excited to perform in “The Color Purple” given her NU connection.

One of the best reasons for me, going into ‘The Color Purple,’ is that I get to wear the colors of the alma mater,” she said. “Why not? It’s natural that a girl like me goes into ‘The Color Purple.’ I’m really proud of the school, and everything that’s happening there.”

What is most distinct about Headley is that though she is a natural performer, she always remains humble, said Sheila Sabrey-Saperstein, who also taught Headley at NU.

“When (they announced) she got the Tony, she pulled her dress up and then ran down (the aisle),” she said. “That’s typical. She’s always completely genuine and totally authentic.”

Sabrey-Saperstein said she was also impressed by Headley’s generous spirit toward other students, especially because competitiveness is common in the performing arts.

For Headley, her ultimate hope for the show is to be able to uplift the audience in the same way the show first moved her.

“Somebody at the end of the night, I hope, will go away, going, ‘I am beautiful. I’m beautiful on the inside, I’m beautiful on the outside, because of my family, because of God, because somebody loves me,’” she said.

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