April 11, 2013
By MARK KENNEDY
NEW YORK (AP) — Every performer has a special routine before hitting the stage. For the last few months, you may have found Deborah Cox singing into a computer.
The actress and singer was on a 25-week national tour with “Jekyll & Hyde,” which meant being apart from her husband and three young children back in Florida.
So before the curtain went up in places like Philadelphia or Dallas, Cox would sing lullabies to her oldest, 9-year-old Isaiah, who would take a computer to bed to hear mommy.
“That was the hardest thing when I made the decision to go out on the road: It would mean not being with them the way I want to,” she says, tearing up. “It was a tough time. Tough time. Tough time. Oh, I’m getting emotional.”
Those pre-curtain check-ins are still necessary, but the grueling road trip is thankfully over. A battle-tested “Jekyll & Hyde” has rolled into Broadway and opens this month at the Marquis Theatre.
“It’s the end of the road and the beginning of a new chapter,” Cox says in her new dressing room, a lit candle flickering on a coffee table and two newly delivered trunks with clothes and “lots of shoes” awaiting unpacking.
“It really tests your faith and your decision-making. But it makes you better. I’m a better performer because of it. I can handle anything now, I think,” she says. “We thugged it out, and grinded it out. And now we’re here.”
Cox seems the opposite of a diva, even though she has every right to be one. A slender beauty with a powerful voice, she is a Grammy Award nominee with six top 20 Billboard R&B singles.
She’s also a self-confessed introvert who adores foot massages and cheers with delight when drag queens sing her songs back to her. Cox, who turns 40 in July, has paid her dues and works hard. When it’s pointed out that her dressing room is labeled No. 2, she replies: “It has hardwood floors, so it’s No. 1 to me.”
In the musical, Cox plays Lucy, a brothel worker who is a love interest for both Jekyll and Hyde — the dual title role played by Constantine Maroulis — and belts out several songs including a sassy “Bring on the Men” and the torch song “Someone Like You.”
“It’s one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever done. She’s such an extrovert and so uninhibited and so sexy and such a vampy woman. It’s just a totally different character from who I am,” she says.
“I’m more introverted. I’m more a hopeless romantic. I’m much more positive and easygoing and non-confrontational. And Lucy is the complete opposite. I’m much more laid-back.”
A knack for music came early for the Toronto-raised Cox, who recalls adoring Disney movies like “Snow White” and listening to her mom's favorite singers, from Dinah Washington to Billie Holiday.
“Billie Holiday’s voice to me was like the first character voice. She was like this woman who was wounded. Her voice just sounded exactly like how she looked. That’s where it all started.”
Cox sang commercials, did studio work and joined every band she could, from jazz to calypso. She landed a spot as a backup singer for Celine Dion, and when Dion’s tour pulled into Los Angeles for a “Tonight Show” appearance, Cox and her manager (and soon-to-be husband, Lascelles Stephens) managed to get a demo cassette to record producer Clive Davis.
Weeks later, they all met at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Cox was soon signed to Arista Records, which also was home to Whitney Houston, one of her idols.
“People always ask me, ‘How was it being on the same label as Whitney? What were the expectations?’ It’s kind of hard to come out expecting to sell 10 million records on your first album,” she says, laughing. “Can we just get the record out?”
Cox has released six albums since 1995, with perhaps her most famous single being “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here.” She’s sung for President Barack Obama, and she made her Broadway debut in the lead role in Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical “Aida.”
But lately Cox has grown disillusioned with the singles-driven, fragmented music business. She thinks audiences aren’t getting a chance to know artists.
“It’s less about artistic development and the music and what an artist brings to the table and it’s more about celebrity. That’s a completely different journey now,” she says. “You can become a celebrity just by merely doing a sex tape or walking around naked.”
The opportunity to return to Broadway came via the Frank Wildhorn-composed musical “Jekyll & Hyde.” Though she hadn’t seen any of his shows, Cox was very familiar with his pop songs, including Houston’s recording of “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”
“Here I am sort of in transition myself, looking for a great project to sink my teeth into and here comes ‘Jekyll & Hyde,’” she says. How often does a role like this come up? For a black woman that doesn’t deal with race? That just deals with a woman falling in love? That gets to sing incredible songs every night? It’s a dream come true.”
For his part, Wildhorn is happy he landed such a bona fide star to sing his songs on Broadway. “She’s so soulful. She’s got a real sadness in her voice,” he says.
Cox is settling into her New York routine and is already cooking up new music. Her single “Higher” was just released, and she’s planning a dance version of “Someone Like You” soon. She even has a project waiting in the wings: starring in a musical about Josephine Baker.
“I think I found my rhythm now,” she says with a big smile.