One day, “out of the blue,” Angelica Ross got a call from her agent.
The producers of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago the Musical, one of the longest-running hits in Broadway history, wanted to know if the actress would like to step into the starring role of Roxy Hart for an eight-week run.
“I was shocked at first,” says the 41-year-old actress, “but then it just kind of made sense. I had been opening myself up to the universe.”
Over the summer, Ross had released a single — “Only You” — which showcased her considerable singing talent. Her acting prowess was already well-known, with critically lauded roles on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise, and the drama series, Pose, set in the New York City ballroom culture of the ’80s and ’90s.
“To have Chicago call to bring both my acting and singing together,” says Ross, “was a sign that I was moving in the right direction.”
Her appearance in Chicago is being hailed as historic by some, but Ross is careful to point out she is not the first transgender person to play the Great White Way. Broadway in recent years has embraced out transgender performers, including Peppermint in Head Over Heels, Alexandra Billings in Wicked, and L Morgan Lee, Tony-nominated for her role in the stunning A Strange Loop. History, Ross suggests, lies in the nuance.
“It all comes down to semantics,” says Ross. “I’m the first transgender lead. Roxy is a leading role. But am I the first principle? No.
“It’s interesting because I kind of shy away from even thinking about it in that way because I’m just doing me,” she continues. “I’m doing what I know I’m supposed to do — meaning what is in my heart to do. I follow my heart. I have the courage to go toward my dreams and do the work. I think that history is being made every day by people whose stories we’ll never know. I just happen to be in the spotlight doing what I’m doing.”
Still, Ross is appreciative of the attention her stretch in Chicago has garnered — save the obnoxious braying coming from the Right, where she is perpetually attacked and misgendered. She cites a recent Breitbart article.
“They’re like, ‘he’ this, and ‘he’ did that, and ‘another man stealing a woman’s role,'” she says. “It’s pretty harsh. At first, I laughed. And I could not stop laughing because it is so wild to me that people would spend their time and energy and effort in this way. And not to mention, give me more publicity.
“The thing is” — she turns deadly serious — “they can misgender me, they can say whatever they want to say, but I still live my reality. I still live my life. And what they think and believe has no bearing on my life.
“Now, it has had some bearing on the political landscape. There are currently hundreds of anti-trans bills around the country. There are things that are being passed preventing people from accessing health care. There’s a real effect. And as a trans person and a black person, I have recognized that…the laws of this land have not been made to protect me or keep me in mind. So it’s always been about creating my own rules. It’s always been about living on my own terms. That is probably the legacy that I’d most like to leave behind — inspiring other people to live on their own terms and take responsibility for their own lives.”
To prepare for the demanding role of Roxy, Ross rehearsed for three weeks in L.A., and then three more weeks in New York.
“Even with that, my first day of being able to do the run-through with the orchestra, the whole ensemble, the lights, all of that, happened hours before my first performance. It was quite jarring. It felt like I was being shot out of a cannon.”
Ross is overcome with emotion when recalling her first curtain call in early September.
“I got so teary-eyed because I could start to see all the different people that showed up, and they were on their feet standing and yelling and smiling, and there was just so much love beaming back at me,” she says. “And when I walked out of the stage door and saw everyone waiting — and then saw my parents there, who I didn’t realize were there — and just the girls from RuPaul’s Drag Race — Silky Ganache, Ra’Jah — and Kendrick [Sampson] from Insecure….
“I still haven’t had the chance to thank everybody for just showing up for me in that way. It meant the world because I’m very well aware of how some other people respond to me and are anti-everything that I stand for — and that makes my life sometimes difficult. So it’s very encouraging and affirming to actually experience the love out in the open, in real time. Not just on the Internet, not in a tweet, but people actually showing up for you.”
Angelica Ross stars in Chicago the Musical through Nov. 6.
Tickets range from $58.50 to $228 and are available in person at the Ambassador Theatre, at 219 W. 49th Street in Manhattan or online at www.ChicagotheMusical.com.
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