Musical Theatre is magical. There’s no other treat that ushers us through tears, laughter, and awe from the comfort of one plush chair. We love the fantasy of stage lights and an orchestra, and the voices that elicit goosebumps seem at once otherworldly and like the only arresting, real thing in the theatre. Aspiring musical performers need to dream big to make a name, and the entertainment industry can seem so insurmountable that even the struggle towards fame itself has been immortalised in the storylines of Smash, Chicago, and La La Land – Well, here’s to our broadway muse, DreamGirls’ Moya Angela.
Moya Angela has made Effie White her own time and time again, and picked up a 2016 LA Ovation Award and a 2010 NAACP Theatre Award for her prowess. Moya made her Broadway debut in The Lion King, shared her gift too-briefly on America’s Got Talent, and now she’s touched down in the UK to take the West End by storm. We speak to her about fame, hard work, diversity and inner confidence.
From church choirs to final-bow encores, Moya tells us what it means to follow and create a legacy, and why you’ve got to be kind to yourself.
Debut: Have you always known that singing was your dream?
Moya: Well, I always sang. I sang in church growing up – my mother was an avid member of church, and I’m the baby sister of three, so I grew up with it. I was kind of a late bloomer, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a while, and I would look up to my sisters for ideas, though one of them was in school for electrical engineering! I think it was in high school, in the show choir that I really realised my purpose in life.
Did you go down the formal training route?
I went to Kentucky State University School for Music Education and got classically trained. Basically, I knew I had a big mouth (laughs), so I knew I had to be a musical theatre girl. I was very dramatic naturally, but I did want full control over my voice, and the first job I booked out of college was The Lion King!
Wow. No big deal! So, do you think education is essential?
Not really! I think singing is a gift, and some don’t need the training to have the gift. To each his own. I didn’t actually graduate college in the end, I went straight into doing what I wanted to do with just enough training under my belt so it wasn’t a waste, and now I have an itch to go back and complete it! Learning about your craft can come from anywhere; you could see a guy on a corner playing music and that can get you inspired as an artist. Everyone’s path is different.
What was your first experience of the stage?
Most memorably in The Lion King I realised I had just gone from church plays to the real thing! (Laughs) It was eye-opening, the first two years in the company I was just this little sponge, I didn’t know anything! I covered six roles with two principles, and just soaked up everything I could.
Could you tell us what a Broadway audition is like?
It’s quite intense! You get all prepared to sing thirty-two bars of a number and within that thirty-two bars everything can change, to be honest. Seems small, but it’s a big deal. You have to show who you are but also take direction while knowing they may or may not ask you back. Callbacks are even more intense, like “I did all of that, but did I get the job?” It just becomes a waiting game, and sometimes you’re just blessed to get the job. West End shows are the same process. I feel sorrier for the people who have to pick, honestly, they have to see who you are in that short amount of time.
Right now you’re playing Effie White in the iconic Dreamgirls. What’s it like to tread the boards in something so prestigious?
When you sign up for a job like this, you have to be willing to not do a lot of stuff. To not eat much, not go out much, you gotta take care of your body – healthy eating, properly sleeping. You do that because of the people who came before you and the door they opened for you, it just shows this is something you love, appreciate, and respect. It’s one of those special ones, you’ve gotta appreciate everything it entails.
I overcome doubt by reminding myself how far I’ve come, and staying grateful for the moments that have put me here
Your Effie is multiple-award-winning! What does the character mean to you?
It’s really interesting to win an award for something you didn’t know you were up for. Awards are just never the reason you signed up, you know? With Dreamgirls I was initially crying every single night, like, “what have I signed up for?” and to know that paid off is incredible. I’m so gracious that they continue to call me back to play the role of Effie, it’s such an extreme honour to be appreciated for something you’ve worked your absolute hardest for.
How do you get ready for a performance?
Oh, it’s daily discipline. I love my humidifier to keep my air moist when I warm up, and I’ve been getting into a lot of yoga recently. I really warm up all day on a show day. I start talking and singing in the morning and ease my way into it. We all do group warm-ups closer to the time, and in my dressing room I’m still steaming and still warming up!
‘Broadway Star’ is a famously tough ambition to fulfil, what’s your advice for dealing with self-doubt?
We’re in a world where you just walk outside and see so many things that create self-doubt. Being a woman, you’re being told you’ve gotta look a certain way. Little by little you collect all this self-doubt from all these tiny things put in your face on a daily basis… The thing is, what I do is quite magical – I don’t have a nine-to-five. I sing and dance for a living. I get to perform on stage every single day! I make people laugh, brighten people’s days, and create inspiration for others. With that in mind, I always try to dive into the confident side of it. Being a performer, when you hit lows, it can be so easy to slip into self-doubt. I still do beat myself up daily – I’m so glad you brought this up. When I start feeling that way, I remember that I live in Covent Garden, and I perform in the West End. How could I be doubting myself at all? I overcome doubt by reminding myself how far I’ve come, and staying grateful for the moments that have put me here.
That’s a fantastic mantra. What motivates you?
Lately, the older I get and the more I do what I do, it’s when I turn on the TV or watch a movie and I see some of my friends in it. All the people I’ve been around who have supported me are stepping into their own, it’s just awesome to see your friends out there doing the same as you and having their moment and remembering that your moments are always coming. I was watching a movie with a friend from The Lion King cast in it! You put in all this work over the years and suddenly you see others and yourself reaping the benefits. A good team full of love and support. That motivates me.
You blew the world away on America’s Got Talent! What was it like to compete on the televised show versus a theatre performance?
It’s so different! (Laughs) When I walk into the theatre I know exactly what to expect. TV – I had no idea! The live performances are like well-oiled machines. The energy – oh, the energy! When you’re on stage like that it’s like a full-fledged rock concert. I remember when I walked out to my first audition and the crowd roared, it went so deep into my soul.
How does one – if possible at all – prepare for a public persona half as gracefully as you?
Sometimes there’s so much prep you can do, and sometimes there’s nothing. People are quite unpredictable, you can never tell how they’re going to see you. It’s a huge world, people have lots of opinions, and I haven’t run into a lot of negativity yet, but it always reads better to do you with passion without worrying about how people receive you. I try so much to do things based on how I feel. You just have to dive in and stay humble.
Speaking of personas, Giving Life is the name of your one-woman show. What’s it like to create and run your own gig?
You know, the interesting thing about being an artist is that you realise people really wanna know your story! I saw this ad for headlining on cruises, and my agent told me that people will really wanna know about me. I just thought “really?” I call myself a method actor, and walk around before a show being exactly the things I am on stage, but my own show is based over five years worth of events and it’s a true testament to the things I’ve had to deal with, good and bad, which reminds me of where I came from and where I am now. Last weekend I was around a bunch of celebrities at the Oliviers, and now I’m just alone in my house waiting for my heating to kick in! Running that show is a feel-good moment for me to reflect.
What advice would you give to readers who dream of doing the same as you?
You have to be really consistent when you have a dream. Whatever your dream is, the consistency and discipline and the work behind it are the most important things. Don’t listen to the people who tell you to stop, you have to keep going – it’s like a race. If it’s in your heart, you have to finish. Doesn’t matter if you walk or run, you just have to finish.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career so far?
It’s gonna sound super cliché, but it’s from Dreamgirls and it’s the most nostalgic story ever! I was literally at my lowest; mentally, financially, and I got the call to fly to New York and audition. I’ve never been from the lowest to the highest so fast, I literally had nothing before I had the job. It’s a story I tell in my one-woman show! (Laughs) It’s the most nostalgic epitome of having nothing and becoming something so quickly. In theatre, bows go in order of importance working up to the end – I went from the first bow to the last bow in one show! That was like my pick-me-up moment of “this is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing”. Effie’s the most epic role you could ever wanna play.
Has there been any part of showbiz that really surprised you?
(Laughs) There’s a lot of surprises in showbiz! As performers it surprises me how we have to continually prove ourselves; you might have starred in the last show but you have to come and audition again for the next show. You’re forced to be humble. They will always knock you back down, otherwise.
Now more than ever with the rise of shows like Hamilton, it looks like musical theatre is having a shakeup. What do you hope to see, riding that wave?
When I walk outside I see people of different colours and races. It’s nice to finally see that shows are now showing that. It’s really creating a diverse and colourful array of people on stage. It’s not a fight of black and white, but of every culture. That’s what it looks like when I walk out of my door, so that’s what it should look like up on the stage. It’s not just musical theatre changing, in America there’s lots of leading ladies of colour on television! It feels good. When I was at the Oliviers we were discussing the #TimesUp movement, and I stopped to think about how lucky I am to get to share the stage these beautiful, empowered black women.
We could not agree more. You’ve achieved so much already – what’s next?
Oh, there’s so much more to do. I wanna record some music! I’ve done lots in America, but now I’m in London! There is just so much to do, I know I have a lot in me. I’m excited to see what comes. I’m ready.
To see Moya Angela as Effie White at the Savoy Theatre go to: http://www.dreamgirlswestend.com/
Words by Esmeralda Voegele-Downing