As blues singer Shug Avery in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, Heather Headley often sings through clenched teeth. Her body is tense with anger and need; like Lena Horne in her later years, she stalks the stage like a tiger on the hunt. It is Headley’s first role on Broadway since her Tony-winning turn in 2000's Aida, and she doesn’t waste a moment of her stage time. She plays Shug, and works the audience, with a royal sense of entitlement; she commands attention, backed up by a sense of threat.
Headley’s performance could hardly be more different from that of Jennifer Hudson, whom she is replacing in the production. The big story about the The Color Purple was supposed to be Hudson; in January 2015, when it was announced that she would star in John Doyle’s revival of the 2005 musical, it was widely assumed—and initially misreported—that Hudson would play the central role of Miss Celie. Instead, that part went to the magnetic Cynthia Erivo, who had played it in London in 2013.
Although she received respectful reviews, Hudson seemed to know that the role was not a good fit. In a candid tweet (later deleted) on the day the 2016 Tony nominations were announced, she wrote that she was “not surprised” that she did not receive a nomination, because “my presence was used for my celebrity, not my talent.” She wasn’t wrong. A Broadway novice, Hudson gave a game performance as Shug, and sang very well. But she was essentially miscast; playing a character defined by outrageous sexual charisma, Hudson never seemed comfortable in her body. She was solid and sympathetic, but forgettable: modest to a fault, less Shug than Shrug.
By contrast, Headley’s performance slaps the show sideways. Most productions lose steam when major cast changes occur, but The Color Purple has been a notable exception to that rule. When Fantasia Barrino, another Idol alum, took over as Celie in the original Broadway production, she pulled the entire show into her orbit, and restored her character to the center of the story in ways that the writing and staging had not accomplished on their own. In Doyle’s production, Celie has always been center stage, and Headley’s strength as Shug doesn’t change that that; if anything, it gives Celie more power in the middle. (Celie and Shug's song at the end of Act I has never seemed more convincing as a same-sex love duet.)
Sexy and cruel, loving but resentful, this Shug is a force to be acted with. Headley's performance is very much a diva turn, and at times it verges (deliciously) on overripe; she chews the heck out of what little scenery there is in Doyle's production. Paradoxically, however, Headley's version of Shug serves the show precisely by seeming to try to take it over. The real "diva" role in The Color Purple is Celie, and Erivo builds it with enormous patience; she underplays the pathos of the first act so effectively that her second-act self-discovery is like the breaking of a dam. (Her climactic number, "I'm Here," earns a midshow standing ovation every night.) Shug's divahood is right on the surface, but it's also brittle, and by the end it is supplanted by Celie's. The musical's true colors shine through, now more clearly than ever.