What is it like playing Effie White in musical smash hit Dreamgirls? Moya Angela reveals all here
Dreamgirls is a multi-award-winning, international sensation. The hit musical – described as "lavish", "dazzling" and a "full-throttle, fast moving blast of a production" – won two Laurence Olivier awards last year and is set for a UK tour after its West End run closes in January 2019. Talented performer, Moya Angela, plays the role of Effie White – along with Karen Mav and Marisha Wallace – the lead singer of The Dreams, who become music superstars in the show.
Moya – who has also appeared in The Lion King, 30 Rock and was a semi-finalist in America's Got Talent in 2016 – has a close connection to the character of Effie White, having played her several times, dating back to nearly a decade ago. Here she tells Mandy News about how she got started, what experience can bring to a performer's palette and how taking a break can be good for you.
Moyà, how did you get involved in singing and how did you take that to the stage and theatre?
I have been singing since I was a little girl; I grew up in church and was in a show choir at high school.
After show choir, I auditioned for The Lion King national tour and ended up booking it. I was with them, on and off, for 10 years. In between that, I did Ghost the Musical on Broadway and was also in In Transit the Musical on Broadway.
Dreamgirls has been very, very woven into part of my life. Without all of those things, I’ve played Effie White four times in my life, over the past 10 years. I feel like every time I do it, it’s a better process and I get stronger as a woman and stronger as a performer, and it just heightens my love for what I do more and more every day.
When you first played Effie White in Dreamgirls, how did that come about and how did that lead to you doing the West End version?
I first auditioned for the show in 2009 in New York City. It was a version of the show that was opening at the Apollo and then going on tour.
To be honest with you, it was one of those situations where I was pretty much at my lowest in life. My phone was disconnected and my Mum said “we have to get your phone put back on” and so she did. About three weeks later, I got a random call – it was random to me at the time, but now I know that it was part of my story – from Binder Casting in New York City. They were auditioning for Dreamgirls and had been for about six or seven months.
My family helped me put some money together, because I didn’t have any, and flew me to New York so I could audition.
Normally, you go on those auditions and it’s poker faces everywhere – you can’t tell what they like and if they are even enjoying you or anything. But I could tell immediately that they loved me. They wanted me to come back the very next day to sit and have a session with Henry Krieger, which was the most phenomenal thing to ever happen to me at the time. We sat down and we played through some keys and played through some songs.
That was just phase one; there were two more phases after that. I had to go back home for a month, fly back to New York, go back home for another month and fly back – and then I was told that I got the job.
That was the beginning of my journey. Robert Longbottom was the director at the time.
I have done a few reincarnations of this role. I did it in 2016 in Los Angeles and won an Ovation Award for that. I did it again after that in Las Vegas, with my organisation Broadway in the H.O.O.D.
Then in the summer of 2017, I was in New York City in my apartment and didn’t have a job. My other Broadway show had closed and I was just trying to figure things out. I heard the production was going to Broadway and thought “I want in, I’ve worked so hard in this role for years and years and years; any production that’s going to Broadway, I want to be a part of”.
I auditioned for Casey Nicholaw, who’s the director of this production here in London, and Sonia Friedman. It was very magical, and I cried and they cried, and a few months later they asked me to move to London to play Effie with another couple of girls.
It’s been a really amazing time that I’ve been here in the city. This city is a very different place to anywhere else I have lived. This is the first time I’ve played the role not moving around, just staying in one place – it’s been quite an experience.
How are you finding London and the culture change, and what’s a day in the life working on the show like?
I’m used to the culture change. This is my third time living out of the country. The good thing is that you guys speak English, so it was not the most crazy change. But it is a different city and I do feel like I’m living overseas being here, even though we all speak the same language.
I’m finding that London is like a much cleaner, older, more enchanting New York. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
The lifestyle may have been a little more rough than my move, because this role is quite difficult. There’s a lot of rest and a lot of cardio, and a lot of humidifiers to keep my voice on point, and a lot of not eating crazy things to make sure I maintain.
But all that discipline I’ve been able to practice in the past. I just have to reimplement it. When you sign that contract, you are signing yourself to not do a lot of stuff. That’s just the commitment that it takes, because that’s how powerful the role is.
You’ve played Effie White a few times and each time it’s evolved more – can you tell us a little bit about Effie and what you bring to the role?
The first time I played Effie, I was Effie – I had just broken up with who I called the love of my life at the time. It was my first introduction to a really serious relationship. So, I played her the first time heartbroken. I was able to take my personal issues, bring them on stage and try to harness them.
It was very difficult, at first, not to bring that home because I was actually heartbroken. I had an assistant at the time, and she said “you have to leave that girl at the theatre, because she shouldn’t come home with you”. I had to learn how to leave work at work.
Now, I am playing it the polar opposite. I am madly in love with someone in my life, who I consider the man of my actual dreams. Before I was very sad and I was able to tap into that but now I’m not very sad, life is good and I’m in a better place. So, I have to still go back to those horrible memories and tap into that to be able to use it on stage, so it seems real.
I’ve also changed vocally. The older you grow as a vocalist, the stronger you are. I find it easier to sing certain things that I wasn’t able to sing back then because I wasn’t sure how to pull that off. Now I’m older and I have more training, so I’m like “okay, this is how we tackle this”.
There was also a fear I used to have going to work every day. I felt like “how am I going to make it through?” It just seemed like it was impossible, doing this role and singing like I do. Now, yes I have rough days, but within my maturity and within my experience, I can get on stage – and even if I have to change how I sing something that day – I’m not scared of people’s reactions to it. I’m not scared to just try something different, because certain things might not work.
Our instrument is inside our body, so if our body is not OK then it doesn’t always come across OK on stage. It’s not like a saxophone you can just pick up and play the same way every day. You also have to go on stage everyday and, if you’re having a bad day, act like you’re not.
With age, I feel like I know how to tackle my energy and work around the difficulties of this vocal beast of a role.
You mentioned earlier that you are an ambassador of Broadway in the H.O.O.D. – can you tell us a little bit about how you became involved in it and what they do?
Funnily enough, I was moving to Vegas, just because I’m adventurous and I’m one of those “why not” girls. I saw an ad on Facebook, through a mutual friend, about a production of Dreamgirls in Vegas and thought “well, who else would do another production of Dreamgirls?”
This was while I wasn’t really doing any shows and I wasn’t in New York, so I reached out to the person in charge and, long story short, ended up playing Effie in their production.
It actually became a lot more personal than I thought because it wasn’t just playing Effie – I also started teaching again. This was through the organisation Broadway in the H.O.O.D. (H.O.O.D. meaning Helping Others Open Doors).
I teach drama and acting to kids and adults with that organisation in Vegas. We have a contract with the Smith Centre – which is the only equity theatre in Las Vegas – to do our own shows all year long. So, I am either teaching with them or doing a show with them. They are my Las Vegas family and I am definitely an ambassador for them.
I have worked with some of the most amazing youths and adults. Some kids were homeless and they got in our show and, being around us and our programme, changed their lives and we got them on track and we got them a place to live and now they’re in school.
We deal with kids whose parents don’t have the funds to put them in acting class or teach them anything. There are other kids who come from battered or broken homes. We try to find them a job or what their passion is even if they are just doing the lights in one of our shows or making costumes for a show.
It’s just a little old organisation that I adore.
I’m grateful for my journey because of the lessons I’ve learned, and what is the point of learning things if you don’t pass it along and pass it out to people who need it?
My ultimate goal is more philanthropy than anything. Everything that I do is so that I can give back in the way that I’ve been given to. Organisations like that are just really important to connect with, because otherwise I’m just walking around, making money and doing what I love to do, but not really sharing it with anybody.
I love to help people get to where I’m at or where I’ve been, just by lending a hand.
How long is your show on for in London and do you have any other plans for the future?
Our show is until January 2019, so everybody needs to go and get a ticket today!
I plan on going back to Las Vegas for a while when I’m done with this, so I can jump back into helping. It’s always a good place for me to go when I’m in between, trying to figure out what’s next. But, sometimes, it’s OK to try to figure out what’s next! I’ve learnt that. Sometimes, it feels like you always have to be booked and have things happening but I love for awesome things to just flow my way without me trying to nudge them along.
Another thing I’ve learned, playing this role, is that you need to take a break. You have to recoup and let your vocal chords figure out regular life. I have to take a break after playing this role. Every time I play it, I take a break because I would hate to go into another project exhausted.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to become actors and actresses in musical theatre like yourself?
My advice, for those that are extremely passionate about it, is to start in your community. That’s what I did.
I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana – not the hugest city, but not a small city by any means. What taught me to be where I’m at now is doing local theatre, doing regional theatre, helping to bring theatre to my community, being around my peers and being able to do shows. Building up my résumé.
I never expected to go straight from college to Broadway. I wanted to do the in between stuff, so I could actually be ready for Broadway. I think my first musical was The Wiz, and I just made sure that every summer, when I came home from college, I would do a show in my community to build my résumé.
So, I knew what it felt like from the ground up, because there is no better training than the resources around us. I wouldn’t trade that part of my knowledge for the world. It’s really important to start from scratch.
That’s not everybody’s journey, that’s my journey, but I really encourage people to start in your community, in your local theatres, just start anywhere, but start it at home.
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To see Moya Angela as Effie White at the Savoy Theatre please go to http://www.dreamgirlswestend.com/
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