Born in a small town in the Caribbean, Heather Headley began singing at a very young age. She left college to perform full-time at the age of 22, and received her first role on Broadway the following year. After taking center stage in the title role of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, she won a Tony Award for the role in 2000. From there, she decided to embark on a parallel path as a recording artist.
Headley was born into a music-loving family in Barataria, Trinidad. When she was just two years old, she entered a radio talent show for children and took second place. Two years later, she began taking piano lessons and began to dream of a career as a singer. Standing in the empty church at which her father, Iric Headley, was pastor, she gave solo performances for an audience of one—herself—using a hairbrush as a microphone. She pretended to sing for a large crowd, yet at the same time hoped nobody would see her.
Headley, however, did have the opportunity to sing in front of an audience. The church had a drama group in which she performed and for which she later helped write and direct productions. She also sang in the church’s choir. These activities allowed her to develop her love of music and singing. Then one week before her fifteenth birthday, the Headley family—Iric, his wife Hannah, Heather, and her brother, Iric Jr.—moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
It didn’t take Headley long to find a musical niche in her new country. The years of performing in Trinidad proved solid training when she replanted her roots in Indiana. At Northrup High School she became the featured soloist in the show choir and performed the female lead in two musicals—Man of La Mancha and Funny Girl; in 1991 she won the Miss Indiana Black Expo contest.
After she graduated from high school, Headley attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she studied communications and musical theater. Her heart, however, led her to the stage. While performing at a gala in Chicago, Illinois, the musical director of Dreamgirls asked her to audition. She won the role of Michele and began performing at the Mariott Lincolnshire Theatre in Chicago. Following that production, she went on to perform in The World Goes ‘Round at the same venue.
In 1996 Headley left Northwestern University at the end of her junior year when she was chosen to understudy Audra McDonald in Ragtime. In her three years at Northwestern, however, she had made quite an impression. Dominic Missimi, associate professor and Music Theatre Program director at Northwestern University, told the Chicago Tribune, as quoted in Northwestern Magazine : “Of all the people I’ve encountered in my career as a teacher at Northwestern University for the last 20 years, there is little doubt I would put her at the top of my list of people most likely to have a major, major career.”
Born on October 5, 1974, in Barataria, Trinidad; moved to Fort Wayne, IN, 1989. Education : Attended Northwestern University, 1993-96.
erformed in Dreamgirls, The World Goes ‘Round and Ragtime at the Mariott Lincolnshire Theatre in Chicago, IL, 1993-97; played the role of Nala in The Lion King on Broadway, 1997-99; performed in Encores! Production of Do Re Mi, 1999; starred in Disney’s production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida on Broadway, 2000-01; released self-titled album on RCA Records, 2002.
Awards: Tony Award, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Aida, 2000; Drama League Award for Aida, 2000; Drama Desk Award for Aida, 2000.
After Ragtime, Disney hired Headley to play the role of Nala in their Broadway production of the Lion King in 1997. When Disney held auditions for the title role in their Broadway production of Tim Rice and Elton John’s Aida a year later, they were looking at R&B singers rather than theater actresses. Headley auditioned anyway, but before she received the role she had to be approved by the chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner. In 1999, before Aida opened, Headley starred in the Encores! Production of Do Re Mi, alongside Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Randy Graff.
Aida opened officially in March of 2000. The play tells the story of a Nubian princess, Aida, who is captured and forced into slavery. She ends up falling in love with Radames, the soldier who captured her. But Radames is engaged to marry Amneris, the Egyptian princess for whom Aida works. “I believe that [Aida] is undoubtedly one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given,” said Headley in her official website biography. “I love the role, and I adore the show.”
In that same year Headley was listed as one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People for 2000 and Essence magazine’s 30 Women to Watch in 2000. When she was nominated for a Tony Award, Headley was stunned. “I can’t believe that at 25 I’m up for a Tony Award,” she told Angela Martin-Hinds in the Trinidad Sunday Express. “Imagine, I am competing against Audra McDonald, a woman I once understudied when I did Ragtime…. I never believed that I would be such a huge star on Broadway.” She received the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in June of 2000; she won Drama League and Drama Desk awards for Aida as well.
In 2002 Headley embarked on a parallel musical path as a recording artist, releasing her self-titled debut on RCA Records. She used the CD to take a break from the stage and grow in a more R&B direction. “It’s not a Broadway CD,” Headley told Tracy Hopkins in Essence. “It’s more like Whitney Houston meets Lauryn Hill…. I want to be that link between Broadway and the pop world.”
Headley played a few concert dates before the album’s release and planned to follow with a tour. She quickly realized, however, the differences between Broadway and an R&B concert. “I’m heading into this ‘world’ that’s new to me…. When you play a character, you represent someone else to some extent,” Headley wrote in her online journal on her official website. “This is all me! I want it to be perfect. I want people to accept my gift to them.”
From Trinidad to Broadway to concert stages around the world, Headley followed her heart and her dream every step of the way. “When I was growing up, I heard an adage that I have clung to throughout my life,” Headley said in her official website biography. “It says: Reach for the moon so that even if you miss you’ll be among the stars.”
Heather Headley, RCA, 2002.
The Lion King (original Broadway cast recording), Disney, 1997.
Do Re Mi (original cast recording), DRG, 1999.
Aida (original Broadway cast recording), Disney, 2000.
Dreamgirls in Concert: The First Complete Recording (soundtrack), Nonesuch, 2002.
Disney on Broadway, Disney, 2002.
Essence, January 2002.
Jet, June 19, 2000.
Newsday, June 6, 2000.
Newsweek, August 30, 1999; April 3, 2000.
Northwestern Magazine, Summer 2000.
People, May 8, 2000.
Sunday Express (Trinidad), May 14, 2000.
“Heather Headley,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 13, 2002).
“Heather Headley,” Broadway.com, http://www.broadway.com (January 26, 2002).
“Heather Headley,” Centerstage Chicago, http://centerstage.net (January 26, 2002).
“Heather Headley: Biography,” Caribbean Hall of Fame, http://caribbean.halloffame.tripod.com (January 26, 2002).
Heather Headley Official Website, http://caribbean.halloffame.tripod.com (January 26, 2002).
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