‘Masked Singer’ helped Michelle Williams get back onstage. Why a holiday show is next
Singer Michelle Williams rose to fame in the early 2000s as a member of R&B girl group Destiny’s Child. She began carving out her solo career before the group disbanded in 2005, eventually releasing several hit gospel albums. She took on Broadway roles in “Aida” and “Chicago” and toured with productions of “The Color Purple” and “Fela!”
But in recent years, Williams revealed that she has struggled with severe depression since she was a teen.
Months after reuniting with Destiny’s Child for Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in 2018, she checked into a mental health facility. Last December, she announced she was taking a leave of absence from her role as Erzulie in the Broadway musical “Once on This Island,” under doctor’s orders.
This year, Williams decided to lay low for the most part, saying, “I’m going to take time off and work on me so that I can get back out here and give the best of me and not an empty me.”
She found healing in an unlikely place: “The Masked Singer,” the competition show where disguised celebrities perform in elaborate costumes. Last week Williams was revealed to be the Butterfly character, at one point saying on the show the anonymity of performing in costume “helped take away the insecurities I have about my voice.”
Now she’s returning to the stage as the Wicked Queen in the Lythgoe Family Panto production “A Snow White Christmas,” which begins a limited L.A. run on Friday.
A holiday and family-friendly version of the classic tale, the musical is in the style of British panto, where audiences are encouraged to interact with performers. Since debuting in 2011, the show has featured other celebrity performers including Ariana Grande, Lucy Lawless and Neil Patrick Harris.
Here, Williams discusses the significance of “A Snow White Christmas” and finding the strength to perform again. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What led you to be part of “A Snow White Christmas”?
I have a theater background and so I just love doing theater — like every other year or so being involved in a production. It keeps my chops going and it’s just another way of expression. And I love that music is involved.
When I was asked to do this, I was curious about panto. It’s interactive musical theater, and most of the shows that I’ve done in the past, say like “Chicago” the musical or “The Color Purple,” people clap, people laugh when you say something funny. In panto, you can heckle people, you can boo them or you can cheer. So that’s what I was curious about.
How does that feel for you to be booed onstage?
It’s amazing. I’m being mean to such a sweet girl onstage. I would boo my character too. She’s trying to kill this girl, so it is absolutely hilarious. I know they’re booing the character and not me. And I get a chance to clap back onstage, because in some parts of the show you can do some improv. The audience is interacting, it’s shouting back at us. I get to shout back at them too.
Can you describe your Wicked Queen role and how you tapped into that dark, evil side?
I try to use people around for inspiration. I’ll never forget when I did Shug Avery [in “The Color Purple”]. I used an aunt of mine, because she kind of embodies who Shug Avery is — the finger waves, the red lips, cigarette in one hand and some brown liquor in the other hand.
For the Wicked Queen, I was sitting in rehearsal one day looking at our director, and how she moves. And when the little kids were kind of being rambunctious, how she would just get them right in place, but she never raised her voice. Right then and there I said, I’m going to practically embody Bonnie Lythgoe. Because people feel like in order to be wicked or mean, they think you raise your voice and do a lot of yelling. You can be grounded in your stance while you’re talking to somebody and you could say something out of your mouth, not smile, not even frown. And you can cut a person with your words.
You’ve done Broadway shows like “The Color Purple” and “Chicago,” so what does it feel like to do a more family-friendly show for kids?
It’s awesome. I had some folks that came to see the show when I was in North Carolina. And she brought her sons, but she enjoyed it too. There are some grown men that came to see this show and for there to be the balance where their kids are enjoying it and the adults found themselves booing too.
A lot of the songs that are sung in the show to me are for the parents or for the adults. “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis is in the show. Or “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John — like these kids today don’t know nothing about no “I’m Still Standing.”
I do like that aspect of the show, they did a really good job in balancing stuff for kids and adults.
You were recently revealed on “The Masked Singer” as the Butterfly. What was your experience like on the show?
“The Masked Singer” was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. Probably one of the top three to five things that I’ve done. It’s just so much fun.
The fact that they keep you secluded, you see nobody. The dancers didn’t even know who they were dancing with. There’s a fun fact, though: One of the choreographers, we were born and raised together, went to the same schools, went to the same church, and he was my very first kiss in life. Guess where that kiss happened? At church! ’Cause my mama kept us in church so much. So we snuck to the chapel and had a holy kiss. That was cool.
How did it feel for you in that moment when you were revealed?
When I was revealed, I just felt like I made it. I felt like I overcame something. I felt like, overcoming the fear of performing again. Because I voluntarily took this entire year off. The only reason why I did the show was because they were like, “You would be masked. No one would know who you are.”
So that’s kind of why I did it. I didn’t have to have my hair and makeup done. When I had to go to rehearsals, I could just be who I am. Let my skin breathe. I just felt free. I felt loved on. I felt like if I decide to pursue music full-time, I have a place here.
You’ve been really open about your mental health and struggles with depression. I was wondering how you’re feeling now?
I’m feeling good. Especially around the holidays, because [for] people with depression, the holidays can be very difficult. If you’ve lost a loved one, if you’ve lost your job, or some people just have seasonal depression. My therapist, she texted me the other day. She said, “Hey, I just want to check on you.” And I’m actually doing well.
I feel like when you intentionally create new memories around a time of year that brings you sadness, next year you can be like, I went skiing, because I’m intentionally creating a new memory. I hung out with loved ones, as opposed to isolating myself like I normally would do.
You’re onstage in “A Snow White Christmas” without a mask. How does that feel for you?
Well, it’s still kind of a mask because I’m not really being me, necessarily. But I’m around a cast of other supportive actors who are brilliant, sweet, kind, talented, funny.
Every night, there are scenes where I really could be in my dressing room chilling until it’s time for me to walk back onstage for my part.
But every night I sit on the side of the stage, and I laugh at the same thing, at the same time, at the same parts of the show, because it’s so funny. I can’t believe that these guys are onstage, just with all the shenanigans, and it cracks me up every single night. So that’s what keeps me going, is the laughter that this show brings.
Can you talk about your future plans? Will you be returning to the stage anytime soon?
I think I will always do theater as long as I live. You will never not get me on that theater stage, unless I can’t walk or I’m dead. Other than that, if it’s a right opportunity and it’s a show. Next time I want to do a play. I want to do a play, meaning no music. I want to do a drama. So that’s next on my list.
And hopefully originating a role. All the roles I’ve done in theater have been roles that are already done. You’ve seen the Wicked Queen. I did “Fela!” but that was already done, “Chicago,” that role was already done. “Aida.” Great, iconic roles, but it’s like now I’m in a place where like, I wonder if we can do a role that’s original and something that we build from the ground up.
'A Snow White Christmas' by Lythgoe Family Panto
Where: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 East Green Street, Pasadena
When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Dec. 22
Tickets: $28 - $108
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