About five years ago, Fela! fell into Michelle Williams’ orbit.
She saw the show opening night in London and then again later during its Tony Award-winning Broadway run. It was then she thought, “You know, I could have done this role,” of Sandra Isadore, the love interest of Afrobeat star and political activist Fela Kuti.
A few months ago, in the midst of prepping a Destiny’s Child mini-reunion and her own new solo album, Williams received a call to gauge her interest in portraying Isadore in the national tour of Fela! The Musical.
“This was a legendary man who I learned to love,” she said recently from a tour stop in Detroit. “How could I say no?”
While Williams is no stranger to collaboration — she spent a few years tucked between Beyonce and Kelly Rowland in Destiny’s Child, a trio whose potency was proven again during January’s Super Bowl halftime show — she gushes at any mention of her Fela! comrades.
“I love the songs that I sing. I love this cast. It’s just absolutely brilliant,” Williams, 32, said.
She joked that even the rehearsal process, a grueling two-week boot camp, invigorated her rather than sent her scurrying for Advil and a dark room.
“When I do theater, I usually have at least one nervous breakdown during rehearsals. There’s just so much to absorb that your brain just wants to blow up,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t have that this time. But I think because we had only two weeks to rehearse, there wasn’t time for a breakdown!”
Although she’s tagged as a pop star, Williams has established herself as a credible musical theater player, having starred on Broadway in Chicago (as Roxie Hart) and The Color Purple (as Shug Avery).
Though she enjoys the permanence of a Broadway show — no tour buses, no changing hotels every few nights — she quickly re-adapted to her old touring habits with Fela!
“I have a boring life doing theater. I want to be in the best shape vocally and physically, so I don’t do much during the day,” she said. “But say I’m in Detroit, then I’d like to go to [Motown museum] Hitsville [U.S.A.]. I’ve been up since 6 a.m. today, so after this interview, I’m going to take a nap.”
Williams committed to Fela! for 15 weeks and isn’t sure if she’ll travel with the cast to Moscow. She has other obligations, such as a just-announced reality TV show, My Sister’s Keeper, produced by Entertainment One Television. It’s slated to air this summer in conjunction with the release of her fourth solo album.
“It’s absolutely fresh and upbeat music that I believe inspires and gives hope and lets people know that you can hang on,” she said. “By accident I shared with the world my battle with depression and I chose to be happy and I chose life. Life is beautiful.
“Yes, there come problems, but it’s all in how we handle it, how can we turn it around. I’m not saying everything is hunky dory. I still wake up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes, but if I can encourage everyone to do 15 minutes of cardio every day, it makes a difference. You’ll feel better.”
She does not foresee any immediate Destiny’s Child plans, since Beyonce is headed out for a world tour and Rowland is readying her album release.
“But who knows?” she said. “Everything always happens last minute for us. And every time we get together, we pick up right where we left off.”