Heather Headley laughs easily and often while chatting about her career and her upcoming McAninch Arts Center debut, which marks her first Chicago area performance before an audience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve missed (the audience) so much … I want to see their faces,” said the Trinidad-born, Northwestern University-educated singer/actor.
Recognizing theater would be among the last industries to “come back,” she wondered: Have I sung the last song? Have I done the last show on Broadway?
Happily, that’s not the case for Headley, a Wheaton resident who made her professional debut as an undergraduate in Marriott Lincolnshire’s 1995 revival of “Dreamgirls.” On Broadway, she originated the role of Nala in “The Lion King” and the titular Aida in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical. The latter earned her a 2000 Tony Award for best actress in a musical.
After 27 years on stage, she still contends with preperformance butterflies.
“There is a nest of eagles in my stomach and they fly around for everything,” Headley jokes. “The older I get, the longer I’ve been in the business, the more butterflies I get.”
“I will always welcome them because it means this is important to me,” she said. To quiet those preshow nerves, she relies on meticulous preparation and an appeal to God.
She references her faith several times. It’s as important to her as music, which has been part of her life practically since birth.
Her father was a pastor in Trinidad, and her earliest memories are of singing in his church, a safe place spiritually and musically for Headley. Even now, she says, she gets as much joy singing in church as she does on a Broadway stage or in a concert hall.
As for the latter, Sunday’s concert with pianist Jason Webb will be an intimate evening, showcasing her Broadway, jazz, pop and gospel roots.
“My parents introduced me to every kind of music,” said Headley, who received a 2010 Grammy for her R&B gospel album “Audience of One.”
As for her eclectic songbook, Headley explains, “I just love beautiful songs.”
She compares them to dresses.
“I like to try them on. Some fit perfectly. And some dresses I only wear for certain occasions,” said Headley, who plays The Witch in New York City Center’s upcoming Encores! production of “Into the Woods.”
Having spent much of her career performing in scripted shows on stage and on screen (she appears in Netflix’s “Sweet Magnolias” and NBC’s “Chicago Med” among others), Headley relishes the opportunity concerts afford her to simply be herself.
“This is who I,” she says. “This is me you’re going to see.”
Asked whether she prefers musicals, drama or concerts, she declines to choose, explaining each is like a child.
“I love them all, but some days I like one more than the other,” she laughs.
More than anything, Headley loves connecting with an audience. After a two-year, pandemic-imposed absence, she’s eager to reestablish that bond.
“I will never, ever take the opportunity and honor of performing live for granted,” she said.
• • •
Heather Headley in concert
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, April 3
Where: McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn (630) 942-4000 or atthemac.org
COVID-19 precautions: Masking is optional but recommended