From the mid-1990s to early 2000s, Deborah Cox splashed across the Billboard R&B and dance charts.
“Who Do U Love,” “We Can’t Be Friends” and her 1998 mega-hit, the sumptuous ballad “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” (which Billboard placed as the No. 5 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Song of all time) established her as a defining voice in the style of her Arista Records label mate, Whitney Houston.
There is a sense of kismet that Cox, who broadened her career in 2004 with a Broadway debut in “Aida,” learned that “The Bodyguard,” the 1992 film starring Houston and Kevin Costner, would be turned into a theatrical production from Arista honcho and Houston’s guru, Clive Davis.
The movie grossed more than $400 million worldwide, but more importantly, it spawned the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time, a collection stocked with now-classic Houston songs, “I Have Nothing,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Run to You” and the Dolly Parton-penned skyscraper, “I Will Always Love You.”
All of them – and nine other Houston favorites – will be heard in the show, which stars Cox, 42, as Rachel Marron, the pop superstar who requires a bodyguard (Frank Farmer, Costner’s stoic role, played now by Judson Mills) to protect her from a stalker.
“The Bodyguard: The Musical,” played an extended run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey at the end of 2016 before embarking on a national tour that comes to the Fox Theatre March 28 through April 2.
Calling last week from the Durham Performing Arts Center, where the show was stationed for its pre-Atlanta visit, Cox talked about her theater background, being respectful of Houston’s memory and singing THAT song.
Q: You first heard about the musical several years ago from Clive Davis, correct?
A: Yes, I first heard they were adapting it into a musical from Clive when I was doing “Aida” and he told me, “you’re very unique, you have a very unique voice and not that many people can do Broadway and be a recording artist,” and he mentioned they were developing “The Bodyguard,” but I didn’t think much of it. Fast forward to almost eight years later, with (the show) approaching me about being the person to bring it to the U.S. and it was surreal to be chosen to do that. I have a strong connection to this character and all of the songs I grew up listening to and singing as a child, and having been label mates with Whitney, it feels like everything has come full circle.
Q: Are you always aware of the “Whitney presence” when you’re onstage?
A: I know there are great expectations. I knew what it was going to require and I would absolutely honor her. It’s just one of those things that when people think of this movie, they think of “I Will Always Love You,” “I Have Nothing,” that soundtrack and that time, and it’s always a very special, very personal moment for people. A lot of people come up to me after the show and say, thank you for reminding me of that time and for taking me back. It’s really touching. I’m really sensitive to it. I get it, the importance.
Q: Do you find that people are surprised that you have a strong theatrical background, having been in “Aida” and “Jekyll & Hyde”?
A: People just forget. I was here (in Durham) at the DPAC years ago with “Jekyll & Hyde,” but people remember things so in the moment. With social media we’re so inundated and I think people do forget that I’ve done things before. It’s interesting when I come back to these cities.
Q: What are some of the differences between the movie and the live production?
A: I think you get a stronger connection with Rachel and her son, that’s explored more, and there’s more of a love triangle with Frank and Rachel and her sister. This (version) is more of a suspense thriller than romantic. (Rachel) is a very complex character.
Q: A lot of beloved movies like “Flashdance” and “Dirty Dancing” really didn’t translate to the stage as well as it might have been expected. Do you think having the pedigree of Alexander Dinelaris (“Birdman”) as the book writer helped build this into a worthy version?
A: Alex is a great writer and I think this was done really well. I saw “On Your Feet” (the Gloria Estefan musical on Broadway also written by Dinelaris) and it’s really tough to translate from one medium to the next. Going into (this show), there was a little reservation, but once I read the script I thought they did a great job of still keeping the love story and the suspense balanced.
Q: Tell me about the EP coming out (March 31) with songs from the show.
A: My team put together eight of the most requested songs from the show, called “I Will Always Love You.” What’s been very telling is that people miss my voice and they miss hearing me in the show and desperately want to hear me on something after they leave the theater. We recorded the album (in Atlanta) with Big Jim Wright, the music director for Mariah Carey. I recorded my first album (in 1995) there as well. I have good memories of Atlanta.
Q: Have you gotten used to road life?
A: I much prefer live performances; the studio tends to be very isolating, I love the exchange between the audience and the performers, seeing people into the story and what’s going on. The touring part is grueling and tiring, but I try to make the most of it and do different things in each city. When my kids come out, we try to make it fun. It can be tiring at times and I’ve had to find a regimen to keep up.
Q: You did the vocals for the Whitney Houston Lifetime movie (“Whitney” in 2015), so did you feel a little more prepared going into this role?
A: Actually, I felt more prepared going into the movie because it required me to sing the songs with the essence of Whitney. I flew out to L.A. and we recorded those six songs in a day, so it was really my strong suit, going into the studio and knocking it out. I felt like that was more in my wheelhouse than this, which is creating a character from scratch – you’re telling a story in a completely different way. With this, you’re dealing with costume changes, acting, the orchestra, dancing, it’s a lot. It’s a very, very big show.
Q: You perform 13 songs in the show and “I Will Always Love You” comes at the end. What goes through your mind before that one?
A: It changes every night. I’m such a present performer; I’m so in the moment and aware of everything going on in the audience. Every moment is different because I’ve heard these songs sung in a very specific way, so it’s me bringing it to the stage. I have to remember I’m Rachel Marron in the moment portraying my love for Frank, as opposed to Deborah Cox the recording artist.
Q: Has Clive Davis seen you in the show yet?
A: Not yet. We started in New Jersey and everyone was on Christmas holidays, so hopefully when we get to L.A. We’ve spoken about it when I decided to do it last year. We stay in touch. I’ve had a lot of great success with him. He’s been a great mentor and started my career; he gives me advice.
Q: What’s on the agenda for you, outside of the show?
A: There are a lot of projects brewing. Right now this is my focus, and we will have more “Bodyguard” tour dates coming up. I kind of immerse myself in whatever project I’m in, but there are always multiple things going on. I haven’t forgotten about my own recording career at all.
“The Bodyguard: The Musical”
7:30 p.m. March 28-30; 8 p.m. March 31; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 1 and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. April 2. The role of Rachel Marron will be played by Jasmin Richardson at the 2 p.m. April 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 2 performances. $30-$125. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.