There must be something in the water in the mid-Western State of Indiana, USA.
Already famous for producing the Jackson Dynasty, it also produced Indianapolis native Moya Angela, a towering musical talent, with a big heart, a dazzling smile, and an infectious, deep-felt laugh.
Her acting has been praised as capturing the emotional nuance needed to fully round out a role in musical theatre, and her vocal accomplishment allows her to switch seamlessly between growl-flecked notes and a whimsical, almost operatic head voice.
Currently co-sharing the headline role as Effie White in the West End production of Dreamgirls, we couldn’t pass up the chance to hear Angela’s fascinating story in her own words …
Before high school, was music a part of your life?
It’s kinda always been a part of my life, [part of] church. My mom always sang the morning hymn. She was always a part of the choir. I’m the third of three girls – the baby. We always sang, around the house, at church, there was always some sort of choir! I went to a really artsy high school that was like Glee on crack! But, it was absolutely the foundation to my career.
You have been competing, touring and winning awards from early beginnings. What sort of life lessons do you take away from those experiences so early on?
I’ve been a blessed girl! I think I was 21-22 when I started touring, and lucky for me, I toured with amazing shows [like] The Lion King. At that age, touring is exciting, because you get to see parts of the country you’ve never been to and other countries. I was taught very well by some very important people in The Lion King, which really helped me understand what I wanted out of life. I did get to a point after a while where I just wanted to be still, and not tour so much. But, when you’re following a passion, you sometimes put those wants and needs aside for your passion.
You also taught Broadway in the ‘hood’, in Las Vegas…
That was a school for musical education. Teaching is something I have always wanted to do, and that I try to intertwine into my career however I can.
Then you got a 4-judge standing ovation on America’s Got Talent for your first audition. It was clearly the right decision, but you’d had all this experience on Broadway, you’d been teaching kids. Was it a make or break decision for you?
I was kinda at a point in my career where I just wanted to be Moya Angela, and I was willing to do whatever it took to stand on a stage just to be myself, and not play a character. It seemed like a good opportunity to do that in front of, you know, thousands of people […and Simon Cowell] Yeah! Exactly! I didn’t take anything away from that competition, it was just simply to be in the moment and give it all you have because we never know when our peak is.
Knowing how important song choice is, why did you choose Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now?
I’m kind of obsessed with Celine Dion. As a human being, and as an artist, I look up to her because she doesn’t sing like that because she wakes up and it just happens. It’s because of the discipline behind who she is as a performer. I take a lot of my discipline from her, especially when I’m playing roles like Effie White. When it came to a song choice, there are only a few Divas [who] you just want to capture them as soon as you open your mouth. That song spoke to me. I had never sung it for any other thing before that. I chose it because I felt like it was a good bit of blasting that I could do and also show off my voice in the small amount of time that we had.
… did you know it was one of Mel B’s favourite Celine Dion song?
I had no idea!
Please, articulate that moment for us – you’d taken a break from your beloved career, you’re not sure if you’re ever going to get back in, then Simon Cowell stands up and tells you he adores you…
That was one of the most magical moments in my life. Whether I won the competition or not, if I could go back to that moment, especially when, as an artist, I didn’t have a clear path for what I wanted to do next, it was like I’m in the right place, doing the right thing. I’m on the right path. When they all stood up like that, it just touched my heart. Because I know it takes a lot for them to do that, they see so many people hear so many voices If I didn’t go past any other round and that was it for me, I would have been totally satisfied.
What happened after that level of exposure?
We expect these big moments to turn us into gold afterward, and that’s not realistic. Even though I’ve been in the business a while, I did expect a lot to come from that. But when things don’t, then I have to know that my path is different than what I thought it was. So, it’s not that things didn’t come from [it], it’s just that the things I [expected], didn’t come. As soon as I finished that show, I had to pack my things and move back to New York to star in a Broadway show! So, in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘oh yeah, I’m gonna start doing some recording, getting in the studio’. But truthfully, it continued to boost my Broadway career.
You were cast in the ensemble of The Lion King. Apart from its Disney/Elton John-Tim Rice origins, it is the first major Western musical set in the continent, celebrating African traditions…
I’ve been in five different [productions] of The Lion King, in more than five roles! When I first started, I covered seven people, seven different tracks. I’ve been in the German company, Las Vegas, Broadway and both of the US tours.
One of those roles was Rafiki, who opens with the epic ‘Circle of Life’. Do you get goose bumps when you sing that song or are you too much of a professional to get carried away?
No one’s that much of a professional. That show is really special. I’ve been in and out of it for the last ten to twelve years (I count myself as completely out of it now). But every single time I would go back, the magic of that show, I can’t even explain how crazy the direction of that show is, and the costumes, and the languages. For 10-12 years, I would still see things in it I had never seen before! There’s nothing like that curtain opening playing Rafiki. They give you a pitch pipe before you go out there but, there’s a good minute or two between the pitch pipe and the moment you have to hit that first note. So you have to keep singing the note over and over again, and also concentrate on everything else that you have to get as soon as that curtain opens. It’s mind-boggling, and I could never be as professional as to ever overlook how special that moment is in the show. I’m curious to see how they’re going to pull [the pending live-action film] off!
Dreamgirls has, shamefully, taken 35 years after its world premiere on Broadway in 1981 to premiere in London in November 2016. You’ve played the iconic Effie White several times over the years, tell us about your relationship with her…
This will be my third time. When I first started playing this role, I had trouble not bringing it home. That’s why it’s really important to have very honest people around you when you’re in a business like this. I struggled because I was as heartbroken as Effie is by the end of Act [one]. I think I had just broken up with someone or got dumped, it was just such a shattering moment in my whole life. I’m very much a method actress, so I was able to take those exact same feelings of what I was already going through and put them into the role. I can relate almost every moment of this character to my life. That’s why I feel that I’m able to portray her very realistically. I’ve played the role enough to know how to find those moments, even when it seems like there’s not much space for them in the script because it’s such a fast-paced show. I like the audience to go through everything with me, they deserve those moments. It’s fulfilling when you finish the show and you look out and see people crying. What you sent through, they went through with you.
Many of us in the UK will have learned of Dreamgirls and the big heartbreak number ‘And I Am Telling You’ from Everybody Hates Chris – when Mum Rochelle (Tichina Arnold) delivers her rendition, or, of course, Jennifer Hudson’s award-winning performance in the 2006 film adaption. How do you prepare for the song, knowing it’s coming, with its requirement for vocal stamina, power, and control, physically conveying Effie’s roller coaster of emotions?
Henry Krieger has written a score that I call a ‘Soul Opera’. Because, once you start that song Dreamgirls, it snowballs, with the speed and the emotions of the show. From Dreamgirls, going into Heavy, going into It’s All Over – all of those songs actually prepare you for [And I Am Telling You]. Without them, you’d be nothing. Whenever they’re like, ‘Oh, come sing it!’ I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. I need those other songs to get to this one.’ I just can’t belt that out anywhere. I have to have a build-up, because the way it’s written is other-worldly. Literally, at the very moment, you’re about to sing that song – it’s the weirdest thing, all those emotions you gave for the It’s All Over argument right before, you have to put them somewhere and spread them out throughout the whole song. I have to tell myself, ‘breathe, take a breath. Alright, here we go’. It’s like getting on a roller coaster. You’re going up that long main bit and once you go down, it’s all over, you’ve lost your mind and nothing makes sense. You can’t breathe.
You share the role with two other actresses – Marisha Wallace and Karen Mav. Each of you have your own musical journeys – Marisha has also portrayed her before. How does Effie differ between you?
This is Karen’s first major musical theatre [role]. We all follow the same direction. We’ve not been asked ‘Marisha or Karen, or Moya does it this way, can you do it that way?’ I think they think, let’s not get in the way of how they would portray the story. Let’s put the foundation of the direction and vocals down, and let them colour it as they would. It’s really good, because if you wanted three of the same girls, it’s a really tough thing, especially when you have to sing the way [we do]. I cannot sing it like anybody else. I can only sing it like me. If I was asked to sing it like someone else, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it, because it’s one of those roles you have to tackle it the way only you know how. So, I’m grateful that they’re not asking us to emulate one another. We’re three individual Effies that give a great show in our own way.
Musical theatre appears to be opening up for black performers in major roles, for black actresses in particular. Are you optimistic about the potential for actually headlining more shows now?
Yes, I am. It has felt like we were doing the same three shows, this, The Wiz and The Lion King. It’s also exciting to watch it not be a ‘black’ story, like just black people. It’s just a story and then, she’s black. That’s a good feeling too. There’s so much more that’s coming out and it’s really exciting to watch, because then you have all your friends who are booking jobs, and you’re able to congratulate them and support them as they’re supporting you.
With Dreamgirls currently booking until [September] 2018, what would you like to do next – have you fallen in love with the West End or is Broadway calling?
I’m falling in love with the West End. The more I’m here, the more I’m finding my place. Not even [just] with Dreamgirls, but in general. I could totally see myself being here for a while outside of this particular show and doing another show or my own thing. I definitely am excited about whatever the future might hold. I’m grateful that this was my début. You couldn’t ask for better.
London welcomes Moya Angela and loves her right back!
Dreamgirls runs for approximately 2 hours 20 minutes with one 20 minute interval and is currently booking until 22nd September 2018 at the Savoy Theatre, Strand, nightly at 7.30pm and Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Find out more and book here.