Dreamgirls actress Moya Angela on why playing Effie is her dream role

By Rose Adams | 11 Jul 2018 | Culture, Art

Tempus delves into the world of stage powerhouse Moya Angela and finds out why we should invest in diverse theatre

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* Moya Angela stealing the show as Effie White in Dreamgirls at The Savoy Theatre [Image credit: Dewynters]

Moya Angela is a force to be reckoned with. After sell-out stints in The Lion King, Ghost the Musical and Dreamgirls on New York's Broadway, now the international musical theatre actress is riding high here in the West End too. Her captivating portrayal of lead role Effie White in London's The Savoy Theatre production of Dreamgirls – a role made famous by singer Jennifer Hudson, who starred alongside Beyoncé in the Oscar-winning film – has garnered Angela critical acclaim and a host of awards, including the 2016 LA Ovation Award Winner for Lead Actress in a Musical and 2010 NAACP Theatre Award Winner for Lead Actress. And she shows no sign of stopping there.

Tempus caught up exclusively with the star to find out the how theatre production differs in New York and London, why she believes there’s never been a more important moment for diversity on the stage, and how she perfects one of the most technically difficult songs ever written.

Tempus: Hi Moya, welcome to the West End! You’re well known for your work on Broadway, so what’s it like to star in London?
It feels much more special than Broadway… I’m just kidding! This city is awesome, so I’m really honoured to be here and be a part of this theatre community. It’s a great feeling. They say you guys are more reserved, but we seem to get the audience on its feet every single night – and I wasn’t expecting that. I feel like we’re setting a new precedent for the London audience.

You’re starring as Effie in Dreamgirls, tell us a bit more about the role. What can someone unfamiliar with the show expect?
You are going to get some of the best singing you have ever heard. Effie is a firecracker – she’s young but she thinks she knows everything. She meets this man, Curtis, who’s promising her the world, and so she goes with it, but he ends up leaving her in the background and putting [her bandmate] Deena in the spotlight, so she’s bitter, hurt and frustrated. She’s never had anyone break her heart before, so she lashes out, messes up the group and they replace her. That’s when the big song, 'And I’m Telling You I'm Not Going' comes up. It’s one of the most powerful vocal pieces ever to be written in musical theatre. I feel like everyone can relate to the story in their own way.

As an actress, how does it feel to get such a great reaction from your audience?
It helps when we get such a great response because when you’re doing a show within a show like Dreamgirls, I find that we really do feed off the audience. What cracks me up the most is that by the end of the show, it’s like you guys are watching a soap opera  you’re telling Deena that she has to leave Curtis, yelling out things like ‘yeah, girl, leave him’, which is very American.

Effie has been played by some huge stars, including Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 film. Did you feel that you had big shoes to fill?
You know, doing eight shows a week is much harder than acting in a film, because you perform every day whereas in a film once you're done rolling, you're done. Jennifer Holliday was the first Effie in 1981, so I have to give her props because she started this for all of us. No matter who plays it before you there are big shoes to fill. You need to have stamina, discipline and a focused mindset to really pull it off.

Related: Singer Jocelyn Brown on how we can invest in Britain's music scene

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* Moya Angela says performing in Dreamgirls is a dream come true [Image credit: Dewynters]

You mentioned your standout solo, 'And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going', is an incredibly powerful vocal...
Yes, when I first performed it we were in the New 42nd Street Studios in New York City, and I just remember being terrified. I call it a marathon – it takes you completely falling on your face first a few times in order for you to learn how to pace yourself. I remember in rehearsals [director] Robert Longbottom would often tell the band to stop playing before we get to that number and say, ‘I’m not going to let her sing it until she’s ready’. Then one day I was so full of emotion, and I remember him telling the band to keep going. If you start the song overly filled with emotion, there’s no way you’re going to make it through, it’s like trying to drive and cry at the same time – it’s just not safe – so I crashed and burned. I don’t even think I could vocally finish because I was just so overwhelmed. The same thing happened when I first sang it in front of a full audience – I wasn’t calm, it was a mess, but it was a good mess. I learnt how to actually pace myself and take my time with my emotions. 

You’ve sang it so many times now, do you ever still experience that same kind of emotion?
Absolutely, it doesn’t go away. You can’t get up on stage and fake it, you have to tap into something that took you there a long time ago, like someone hurting your feelings or breaking your heart. That’s really the worst thing about being an actor, you have to remember things that you might not want to remember again and learn how to channel that energy. I have to think about sad things that make me angry or upset or piss me off. Right before you sing this song you have to mentally tell yourself to calm down because there’s a vocal and physical build up – by the time you get to the end of that song, you completely lose your mind.

The British can be quite superstitious when it comes to the theatre. Do you have any pre-show rituals?
You guys are superstitious? That’s so funny! At old theatres in America we’ll leave a lamp on in the middle of the stage at the end of a show because we want the spirits in the theatre to see their way – we call it a 'ghost light'. I also have things like humidifiers and steaming that if I don’t do, there’s no way it’s going to be a good show.

With Broadway musicals like HamiltonMotown the Musical and Tina… taking London by storm, do you think audiences are hungry to see contemporary black stories in theatre? 
Absolutely. I think it’s awesome that theatre is opening its doors to different races' stories. It’s great to see your friends working and to see stories that you’ve heard growing up take centre stage. I connect to the story of Motown because I’m from Detroit, and my family would go to concerts in Michigan and hang out with Smokey Robinson and Martha and the Vandellas after a show. These stories are connected to my history. Hamilton is our story and it’s great that it’s doing so well here. It’s a different type of theatre – and it’s changing how people see theatre. 

Why do you think audiences and producers alike are investing in those stories?
People want new stories. London is pretty diverse, it reminds me of New York in that aspect, and there’s so many different cultures here with so many different stories to tell. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface, and only just begun to tell the stories that need to be told. 

You were on America’s Got Talent in 2016, what did you learn from this experience?
It was the first year Simon Cowell was a judge, which was really cool. It helped me to figure out who I am as an artist. It solidified that my art is well received, which as a performer, is something that you want. Simon is very blunt and honest about how he feels. When I got a standing ovation the first time, he said he’ll never forget that moment, but I feel like I won [the show] that day.

What’s next for you? Have you got anything exciting lined up?
Playing this role does mean you miss all kinds of things with the people you love – birthdays, holidays – so when I’m in between shows I love spending time with my nieces and nephews. I’m going to go back to Las Vegas and teach performance a little bit, do some television work. I need to catch up on all the things that I missed while belting my heart out playing Effie White on the West End.

Dreamgirls is at the Savoy Theatre, book tickets here.