A Role She Knows Almost Too Well
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009
You could write a Broadway musical about how Fantasia became the star of a Broadway musical. Invited by a producer of "The Color Purple" to see the show, she had no inkling that the evening would end at a dinner, at which he would offer her the leading role.
There would have to be a song about the preposterousness of her casting: Before that January night in 2007, she'd never even seen a Broadway musical. Another song might be devoted to producer Scott Sanders's brazen table-side pitch: He suddenly pulled out a little mock-up of a Broadway marquee, with Fantasia's name emblazoned across it. And, of course, yet another number could take place here, not far from her home town, where she went to agonize over the question of whether to attempt a career leap that figured absolutely nowhere in her plans.
"I didn't sleep for about a month straight," Fantasia is saying in that raspy squeak of a speaking voice that belies the guns-blazing vocals that won her the third-season "American Idol" crown. "I kept telling myself: 'No!' But I kept waking up at night going, 'What is this?' And I remember Mama coming downstairs -- I'll tell you right now, to this day I don't know what brought her down -- and she says, ' 'Tasia, it's yours.' And after that, I knew: Ain't no need for me to try to prolong it any more. I called them and said, 'I guess I'm your Celie.' "
Some aspect of her stepping into the role -- a part she inherited from Tony winner LaChanze and which she is reprising for the Kennedy Center engagement of "The Color Purple" starting tomorrow -- does feel as though it were written in the stars. For in uncanny ways, Fantasia's essence is entwined with Celie's. The bighearted soul of both Alice Walker's novel and the musical adaptation is an unschooled young woman from the South, low on self-esteem and subjected to a surfeit of life's harshness, who manages through grit and talent to soar above her trying circumstances.
Fantasia chronicled her own hard-knock path -- no doubt made a bit more challenging by the mix of brass and naivete in her nature -- in a 2005 book, "Life Is Not a Fairy Tale." (It takes a certain moxie, publishing your memoirs at 21 -- and then starring in a TV movie based on them.) Still, the psychic connection between the character and the fledgling actress was so profound that after assuming the role in "The Color Purple," she couldn't do what most actors do and detach herself. She lacked the ability, she says, to see where Celie ended and Fantasia began.
"I didn't know how to come out of the role," she explains, adding that the issue prompted her to seek advice from LaChanze. "Because I wanted to ask, 'Can you tell me how after the show's over, what I should do to not be Celie anymore?' "
Actually, just being Fantasia is a challenge sometimes. The limelight has put a variety of strains on the singer, who turns 25 tomorrow, that Celie could never have dreamed of. Her nearly year-long stay in "The Color Purple" (for which she earned adoring notices) took a physical and emotional toll. Never completely at peace with the eight-shows-a-week life of a Broadway actor, she missed a fairly large number of performances (about 50), a statistic she and her manager, Brian Dickens, attribute in part to the eventual discovery of a tumor on her vocal cords that at times had bled into her mouth.
Still, whatever the cause, her attendance record became fodder for some snarky press and, Dickens says, continues to dog her reputation for dependability. And though her first album went platinum and she remains a hallmark "Idol" star -- several of this year's "Idol" finalists named her as their favorite past winner -- she's had financial setbacks. Several months ago, she says, she came within days of losing her McMansion in a tony Charlotte neighborhood -- a home she shares with her daughter, mother, stepfather, brothers and cousins.
Dickens, who is based in Upper Marlboro and came aboard after a year in which Fantasia was between managers and at loose ends career-wise, says there is a cushion to winning the singing contest but an expiration date on the advantages, too. " 'American Idol,' in my professional opinion, is only designed for a winner to be successful for 11 months," he says, adding that by the time the new Idol is voted in, the previous one has to have the next phase of a post-"Idol" plan in place.
He believes that a comprehensive strategy to get Fantasia to a higher plane in the entertainment industry is now in the works. Crews from VH1 are ensconced in Charlotte, filming an as-yet-untitled reality series about Fantasia's daily life, scheduled to premiere early next year. She has also recorded about 75 percent of the songs for her third album, also to debut in 2010; the first single from the endeavor is set to be released this fall.
First, however, comes the return to "The Color Purple" for the six-week run at the Kennedy Center. It was Sanders who pursued her for the job yet again; in addition to the exemplary reviews, she invigorated the box office. And as far as the producer is concerned, the absences have been dealt with: "Unfortunately, Fantasia was experiencing some personal medical issues that my co-producers and I weren't aware of," he says, "and it did cause her to miss some shows in her nine-month run on Broadway. We understand that her medical issues have been take care of."
This time around, Fantasia didn't lose sleep making up her mind. Although she says she'll miss being with her 7-year-old daughter, Zion, who will remain in Charlotte, she welcomed the chance to take another crack at Celie.
Asked how she views the role differently, she replies quietly: "She's a friend of mine now."
You get the sense that in reacquainting herself with Celie, Fantasia has something to prove. She's talking about her unlikely metamorphosis as Broadway star as she sits on the carpet, barefoot -- she disdains shoes -- in the living room of the house she almost lost. The vista out the back window is a large swimming pool; over the living-room mantel hangs another celebrity accessory, a stylish painting of herself.
It's mid-May, the VH1 cameramen and sound guys are elsewhere in the house, and Diva, her Shih Tzu, is yapping away in the hallway. In a few weeks, she would be leaving North Carolina for Boston and a round of pre-Kennedy Center rehearsals with director Gary Griffin, whom she credits with helping her acquire the confidence to become Celie.
She's a hugger and a confider -- an associate calls her "a pleaser" -- and she seems genuinely delighted when you kick off your shoes and join her on the carpet. She prides herself on openness: "I'm going to be honest with you, because that's all I know to be," she says, before launching into a discussion about her casual attitude toward money. Some of what has been written about her is not true, she says, and at times it has hurt. She's not, for instance, illiterate, though the rumors of it helped her make the decision to pursue a high school equivalency diploma. (She dropped out in ninth grade.)
Oddly enough, for a young woman who didn't know a Rodgers from a Hammerstein, it was a show tune that figured centrally in how she evolved into a singer who could go by first name only. The song that perhaps made her season on "Idol" was "Summertime," from the Gershwins' 1930s musical "Porgy and Bess."
And before she rehearsed it, she'd never heard of "Summertime," either.
For the broadcast, however, she had a clear sense that the delivery had to be pure, from the gut. "It's a tough song. If you sing it, you gotta sing it," she says, laughing. She recalls telling the "Idol" producers: "When I sing that song, y'all, I wanna take my shoes off, sit on the stage and I really want the people out there -- I don't want much makeup, I don't want much of anything -- I want them to see me.
"When I got through singing, I remember a tear came down my eyes and I looked out and the other people were crying, too. . . . And yeah, I knew then. I said: 'Okay, God, now they see who I am. They see Fantasia now.' "
They saw her on Broadway, too. From the very first time she stepped on the stage, it was apparent that something unusual was going on.
"I can't tell you that I knew she was going to be brilliant," Sanders says, by phone from New York. "It was a gamble on all of our parts. And then when she told me that she had never been to the theater before, I thought, 'Oh, Lord.' "
Any doubt faded. In the New York Times, critic Charles Isherwood called her "pretty terrific" and added that she exuded a "sweetness, simplicity and honesty." And though he hadn't liked the musical much, Fantasia gave it "a core of authentic feeling."
To Sanders, her stage presence was "sort of remarkable considering that she had never done that before. But there's some sort of intangible piece that's there when someone like, say, Lena Horne walks out on a stage. Before she even says a word you say, 'Okay, something's going on here.' And Fantasia has that."
For all her vivaciousness, Fantasia seems to grow less effusive when it comes to her time on Broadway. "I'm not going to say I really, really enjoyed it. I'm just going to say that it was something that I had to do."
She mentions the photos that fans took of her at the stage door and sent on to her, which she's collected in scrapbooks. "I'm crying in all the pictures when I come outside, because the people were saying to me -- I wasn't even Fantasia anymore -- they would say: 'Celie, Celie, you did this to me, you made me feel.'
"... That meant more to me than anything in the world. I played this role, by giving my all, by coming in here when I was tired, and not knowing who Fantasia was anymore -- that's okay, for a year."