Talking about her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, the musical revival in which she'll portray the glamorous, formidable blues singer Shug Avery, Jennifer Hudson can't contain herself. Her voice catches fire, its pitch rising higher and higher, and she speaks faster and faster. Like a lottery winner amazed by her own luck, she keeps declaring, "It's a dream come true."
Of course, Hudson is used to achieving her professional dreams.
She won an Oscar for Dreamgirls -- her very first film role -- and followed it with a Grammy Award, three Top 10 albums, and an especially delicious arc on Lee Daniels's soapy TV juggernaut Empire playing an ethically compromised music therapist. But The Color Purple, which premieres this fall at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York, represents a new frontier. "Everybody wants to do Broadway," Hudson says. "And if they don't, they're crazy."
Her enthusiasm makes sense given her theatrical past. Hudson's first professional performing gig was in a Chicago production of Big River, and just before she auditioned for the third season of American Idol, which made her a household name, she was acting in a production of Hercules on a Disney cruise. "A cruise isn't Broadway, but it's still theater!" Hudson says with a laugh. "I gave myself that as my test to see if I was going to audition for American Idol. I was like, 'If I can get through this, that means I'm cut out to go audition.' "
In other words, performing in a musical, even for a boatful of tourists, is more intimidating than singing for Simon Cowell. "I've been able to experience almost every facet of entertainment, and I can compare it all and say, 'No, no, no! This isn't harder than theater!' " Hudson says. "In acting, you get to do reshoots and retakes, and in the studio you get to do take after take. But in theater? You have to be 100% at all times."
To prepare for The Color Purple, Hudson has been going to as many musicals as she can -- she and her 6-year-old son, David, caught fellow R&B diva Brandy in her Broadway debut in Chicago this past Mother's Day weekend. She's particularly interested in how musical-theater performers tell stories -- and humbled by it. "I want to be able to deliver a song in that way and not just say, 'Oh, I know what I'm doing,' " she says. "No. Hunh-uh. I don't believe in walking into anybody's industry halfway."
She's also thinking about Shug, a central figure in the journey of Celie, an abused and seemingly broken woman in early-20th-century Georgia who finds her own worth. (The show is based on the 1982 modern classic novel by Alice Walker and the subsequent 1985 Steven Spielberg film adaptation.) Shug is crucial not only because her confidence inspires Celie, but because the women have a love affair.
Hudson says she saw the original run of the musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2005, "at least four times," and when asked for her take on the sapphic storyline, she responds quite simply: "It's love. It's compassion. They let their guards down, and they get to experience what true love really is. And that's what's so beautiful about it."
Shug's sexual fluidity -- she also has flings with several men in the show -- highlights her ability to be honest with herself in any given moment, a trait Hudson admires. "She's sexy, she's sassy, she knows who she is, and it's powerful to me," says the actress, that infectious excitement returning to her voice again. "I remember when I first got the call about playing Shug. Being offered the part made me stop for a second. I was like, 'Wait...Shug?' "
She stops for a moment, as if reliving the moment she landed the role, and joy bursts out of her one more time. "Then I was like, 'OK! I guess this is in me! I can play Shug.' "