Michelle Williams settles into 'Fela' role
Singer Michelle Williams had to repeatedly deny media rumors that the hit R&B trio Destiny's Child was reuniting for a special Super Bowl performance. But there was a glaring clue for musical theater fans that the Rockford native was indeed going to perform with Kelly Rowland and the previously announced Beyoncé Knowles for the high-profile New Orleans half-time gig.
Williams -- who is starring in the award-winning musical "Fela!" at McCormick Place's Arie Crown Theater from Tuesday, Feb. 19, to Saturday, Feb. 23 -- had just joined the show's international tour on Jan. 29 for a return stint at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. In glaring red letters on that theater's website, ticket buyers were warned that Williams was going to be out of "Fela!" the same weekend of the Super Bowl -- all but giving away the reunion "secret."
"Some people were on the website and went, 'Hey, she's not going to be performing, so that must mean ...,'" said Williams during a telephone interview two days after the Super Bowl. Yet Williams still had to deflect questions about the reunion, even though reporters like Jessica Goldstein of The Washington Post called her out in print as a liar.
The half-time portion of the Super Bowl went off without a hitch, and Williams has been able to let up from the weeks of intense double-duty rehearsals for both "Fela!" and Destiny's Child.
"From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, I'd have rehearsals for 'Fela!' and then around 8 o'clock to whenever, Destiny's Child rehearsals," Williams said, grateful to be getting back to a touring routine of around eight shows a week.
In "Fela!," Williams plays American musician and activist Sandra Isadore, a friend and lover who was key to the political and musical awakening of the late and defiant Nigerian Afrobeat music pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
"What I like about (Isadore) is that she saw something amazing in Fela." Williams said. "She knew that through his music he could really change his world."
To prepare for the role, Williams telephoned and emailed the real-life Isadore, who lives in Los Angeles, for tips on how to portray her.
"She said, 'You have to be strong,'" Williams said. "And that's basically what I've been doing because she was a teacher."
As Sandra Isadore, Williams doesn't have to carry the show the same way she did with her previous musical theater roles like the title role of "Aida" on Broadway or as Roxie Hart in "Chicago" in London. But like Williams' turn as Shug Avery in the tour of "The Color Purple," Isadore adds prominent show support.
And though Beyoncé's husband Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter is prominently listed as a "Fela!" producer along with other Hollywood A-listers like Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Williams is quick to point out that she was not cast because of her personal connections.
"I had auditioned for something else that ('Fela!' director and choreographer) Bill T. Jones was directing this year," Williams said. "And then his people called me and asked if I wanted to go on the road with 'Fela!'"
While Williams tours with "Fela!" through June, she'll also be working on an as-yet-untitled solo album that she says is about 80 percent finished. And since Knowles and Rowland are busy with their own respective solo tours and album releases, Williams doesn't see another Destiny's Child reunion in the cards, even with their recent EP release of the song "Nuclear."
Yet never say never. Just seconds after the Destiny's Child Super Bowl reunion, Williams said they all walked off the field together "as a group and went, 'Hey! We did it again!' and picked up right where we left off."
"Fela!"Location: Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place, 2301 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, (800) 745-3000 or ariecrown.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, Feb. 19-21; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23
Parking: Pay garage