To say there might be a weight of expectation on Grammy Award-winning, multiplatinum-selling R&B singer Deborah Cox in the musical adaptation of “The Bodyguard” might be an understatement.
Not only is Cox charged with portraying iconic Whitney Houston’s iconic movie role, she also performs some of the most beloved tunes ever created (from one of the most popular albums of all time).
Still, the Canadian R&B songstress responsible for a few classics in her own right (see “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” “We Can’t Be Friends”) and a growing résumé as a Broadway leading lady (she has had star turns in “Jekyll & Hyde” and “Aida”) remains calm as she prepares to offer her take on the well-known role to Kansas City audiences, starting Tuesday, Aug. 8, at Starlight Theatre.
Cox plays pop queen Rachel Marron, who, after being threatened by a stalker, hires a bodyguard named Frank (played by Kevin Costner in the 1992 movie). This 2012 musical adaptation keeps the film’s basic plot and soundtrack but adds some of Houston’s other hits, including “So Emotional,” “One Moment in Time” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
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Recently The Star talked with Cox, who has been touring with the show since January, to see just how she deals with the expectations of playing Houston’s role, the Houston songs she enjoys singing the most, the R&B artists she has in her music rotation and whether she knows a certain, um, unofficial remix to her biggest song. (Hint: She knows.)
Q: What has the pressure been like stepping into playing such an iconic role?
A: Well it’s been really good. I think in the beginning it was a challenge just because it was a lot of incredible, iconic music that I know people want to hear a certain way, but I had to find my own way of telling my story through the songs.
And so that part was difficult in the beginning, but once we started touring and I started to do the show more and more, I found a better way to express Rachel and her different emotions. Because there’s not a lot of scenes with Rachel and Frank, so a lot of the storytelling has to be told through song.
So like with “The Greatest Love of All,” you get a sense of her maternal side. And then when she sings “One Moment in Time,” after her sister’s passing, she’s more of a defiant Rachel who’s willing to go and do whatever it takes to protect herself and her son and her team.
So I think the show gives me an opportunity to just further tell the story while singing it and gives people the opportunity to hear the songs sung in a different way.
Q: So in a way it’s like the music in the play takes on a different, heavier significance?
A: Yeah, it’s definitely close (to the film). The show has added more songs from Whitney’s catalog. The storyline itself is pretty close to the film, but with the additional songs you definitely get more, I think, more of a musical. You hear all the songs in their entirety, as opposed to just snippets like in the movie.
Q: The play adds songs to the show from Whitney’s catalog that are not a part of “The Bodyguard’s” original soundtrack. How have audiences been receptive to this change?
A: So far a lot of people have just come out of the theater just really energized and inspired and in good spirits. They’ve had a great time. Because really it’s a concert style.
You know there’s moments when you see Rachel as if she’s performing in a big stadium and then you’re sitting there as if you’re at the Oscars. And then you’re seeing this intimate side of her just at home writing songs. So I think you get this full range of who Rachel the character is.
I think people are like a fly on the wall, in a sense. They get a chance to look into her world and see what she’s going through, and as she’s trying to fight her love and her passion for Frank, you see all these emotions as well. And I think that’s what people leave the theater feeling.
Q: What for you has been the biggest challenge of starring in this particular play?
A: I think the biggest challenge has just been the expectations, and it’s a really huge role. And it’s a lot of acting, singing and dancing. So for me as an artist it’s so fulfilling because I get to do all of that, but at the same time I have to pace myself.
And I think I’ve found my pace now. I get the opportunity to rest when I need to and have my spa days when I need to, and then get back on stage and do what I need to do.
Q: Speaking of all that touring, how do you stay in shape physically, mentally and vocally?
A: Vocally I do vocal rest. I have long periods of the day where I just don’t talk at all. A lot of people think singing is just the vocal chords, but it’s your whole body.
And I make sure I get the time that I need to fully rest. So that’s part of it. Always preservation. Drinking tons of water, which is difficult at times. So just moderation and making sure to find that balance.
Q: What is your favorite song from “The Bodyguard” soundtrack ? Your favorite from the play?
A: Well right now it’s all about the musical. And for me, my experience with the movie was very different because at the time I was coming into the business, I was listening to the soundtrack a lot, so I remember hearing those songs a very specific way. And Whitney’s song “I Will Always Love You” is the blueprint of an amazing, emotionally stirring rendition of a great song.
But for me, the musical is my interpretation, so I feel like I get to breathe a different life into this role. It’s just an opportunity to tell Rachel’s story.
For me one of the triumphant moments is “One Moment in Time,” because I remember as a young girl looking in the mirror and trying to sing that song, and I emphasize the word “trying” (laughter).
It was one of those songs where you really have to practice restraint. Just vocally it’s a demanding song. Its like a marathon, knowing how to hold back when you need to and knowing when to let go. Just technically that song is difficult to sing.
Q: What R&B artists or projects do you enjoy listening to nowadays?
A: When I listen to music it’s usually stations that my kids want to listen to. (She and manager/husband Lascelles Stephens have a son and two daughters.) I don’t really listen to music during the day, I think, because I’m always around it. And in order to be inspired, sometimes I like periods of not listening to anything.
But when I do, I listen to Emeli Sande, Maxwell, Bruno Mars. And you know, old-school stuff I love, like Luther Vandross, Whitney, Earth, Wind & Fire. And I listen to a lot of jazz when I want to chill after the show, a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Currently, I just finished recording a song called “Let the World Be Ours Tonight,” on iTunes. It’s a dance record. That’s the latest. And I’m currently working on a full album that will probably be out next year.
Q: Are you familiar with the, um, remix (a YouTube parody) to your classic “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here”?
A: (Laughter.) Yes! I heard it in Houston. “I took the bus?” Hmm hmm. Every station I go to, they always ask me that (laughter). And I can’t believe that they would take this, because that song, it’s so tender and beautiful, so I refuse to sing that version.
It tickles me, it makes me laugh, though, just how creative our young ’uns are nowadays. Everything is a moment, and they take what can be a serious moment and turn it into something else. It’s funny.
Q: What do you believe audiences will enjoy the most about this production of “The Bodyguard”?
A: I think they’ll enjoy hearing all those songs. Many people have told me like, “Thank you for giving me the concert that I’ve always wanted to go to.”
I think that’s what the audience leaves with. They leave feeling so happy and inspired, and they leave reminiscing to the times that they heard the music.
“The Bodyguard” comes to Starlight Theatre Aug. 8-13. Tickets, $14-$162, are available at kcstarlight.com or by calling 816-363-7827.