She’s backed up Céline, traded belts with Whitney and even made the mediocre musical Aida (sorry, Elton, you know I love you) sound spectacular. Canadian singer Deborah Cox has one of those instantly recognizable, spine-shivering voices that has catapulted her from her modest Canadian beginnings to worldwide stardom. Yet despite the awards, the accolades and the fabulous outfits, our girl is still over-the-moon excited about her latest role in the musical Jekyll & Hyde.
The basic story is familiar to most of us: boy meets girl, boy drinks potion, boy transforms into bodice-ripping lech on the loose in Victorian London. But this new musical adaptation features a beefed-up role for Jekyll’s long-suffering squeeze (played by Cox) and songs by Grammy-winning composer Frank Wildhorn.
“Frank’s melodies, his music, his orchestration are all so brilliant,” Cox says. “He’s one of those legendary songwriters that has written hits for many great iconic singers.”
Indeed, Wildhorn’s offerings have made multiple rounds on the top-10 music charts, including a little ditty called “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” sung by Cox’s onetime duettist Whitney Houston (for the song “Same Script, Different Cast”).
“I didn’t realize it was the same Frank Wildhorn at first!” Cox exclaims. “And you know, that style of music is just a singer’s dream to perform.”
It’s also another nice connection to Cox’s collaboration with Houston, whose loss still brings a catch to the singer’s voice.
“It’s such an amazing legacy for us, what Whitney left behind,” she says. “When I go back and listen to early stuff on YouTube, I remember what a revelation it was for me when I first heard her. I was so into Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald at the time, and all of a sudden, wow, there’s actually a black woman doing what I want to do, which is jazz pop.”
Cox has certainly carved her own path in the recording industry, but her increasingly frequent forays into musical theatre continue to open up a part of her artistry that may surprise her most ardent fans.
“I came into this business performing in musical theatre, singing in bands, doing commercials and little independent films,” she says. “So it’s like, as an artist, I’ve grown up doing whatever the gig has called for.
“When I started recording I didn’t get the opportunity to hone in on those other parts of my work, so I jumped at the other opportunities as they arose. I’ve always felt that the iconic artists are the ones who do it all, from Dorothy Dandridge to Barbra Streisand. It’s so much more gratifying as an artist when you can explore different sides of your personality.”
Certainly her character Lucy is a side of Cox we’ve not seen: a voracious man-eater who revels in her power over men with little time for remorse. Given the absolute absence of diva behaviour in Cox, it’s proof that her acting skills go far beyond the calibre of, say, a Spears or a Bieber.
“Lucy’s a character so full of strength and overtness,” Cox says. “She thrives on her sexuality, and I like that she’s a survivor. In a way, it’s given me a certain confidence to constantly play a person who has such power with her femininity.”
The artist will get another chance to sink her acting chops into a powerful, vivacious woman when she takes on the role of Dorothy Dandridge next year on Broadway. It’s quite a coup for Cox, but that innate Canadian modesty blooms when it’s pointed out that she’s reached that upper echelon of artistic achievement.
“Really, it’s about the team you’re working with, and this is an amazing team,” she says. “Acting is so intense, and I found that to be really challenging but also exhilarating.
“You know, when I got into this business, just getting a record deal was so major. Then singing with Whitney and Andrea Bocelli and so many awesome things in between; I feel so fortunate. And now, being in this role that wasn’t originally written for a black woman, I get the chance to be part of its creation. Once you originate a role, it’s there forever, and I’m honoured by that.”