Grammy-winning singer Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame came to the production of “Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida,” opening Monday at the Muny, with something key. She’d played the title role in the hit musical to acclaim on Broadway in 2003.
But the Chicago-area native didn’t want to approach rehearsals wearing that on her sleeves.
“I didn’t want to come in like ‘I’ve done this already.’ I wanted to come in fresh. But it did help that I did it before. Some natural blocking came back to me, and that helped the director,” Williams said last week in an interview at the Muny offices during a break from rehearsals.
When Williams was approached with an offer to reprise “Aida” at the Muny for its season-ending production, she says, “I was very excited to do it again. I’m a lot older now, and I wondered what have I learned. Has anything within those 13 years happened that I can put into the character?”
That’s the approach she takes with every show she has done, roles in productions of “The Color Purple,” “Chicago,” “Fela!” and “What My Husband Doesn’t Know.”
In “Aida,” Williams stars as one half of a star-crossed love affair between Aida, the captured princess of Nubia, and Radames, the Egyptian captain who enslaved her people. Zak Resnick plays Radames.
“Whenever I do a show, it imitates what I’m going through at the moment. It’s great therapy,” she says. “I’ve been in a few failed relationships, ones where you have to let it go but you don’t want to let it go. Aida is in love with this man, and things are crazy.”
When she played Shug Avery in the first national tour of “The Color Purple,” she says, she was on the tail end of Destiny’s Child and learning what it meant to strike out on her own. The group of Williams, Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland disbanded in 2006.
“It taught me about being a woman outside of a group. I had been used to handlers and people taking care of things for you.”
Before the Muny production, Williams had recurring dreams of revisiting a theater role, but those dreams were actually of “Chicago.”
“I pay attention to stuff like that. I knew I was about to do something. When they offered me ‘Aida,’ I didn’t hesitate,” she says.
One of the first calls she made was to Heather Headley, who won a Tony Award for portraying Aida on Broadway before Williams and who starred in the Muny production of “Into the Woods” in 2015.
“I adore Heather. She said I absolutely have to do it. She talked about how she enjoyed herself and how beautiful (the Muny) was, so gorgeous. She said ‘You’re gonna do great.’ ”
She says the difference between doing the musical on Broadway and at the Muny is that on Broadway she was dropped into a show that was already up and running. At the Muny, the show was built from the ground up with her.
“This way I’m having new discoveries,” she says.
Those discoveries are playing out more than they ever did on Broadway. “A lot of the lines are really about our people (African-Americans). We are going through so much with our people. Some of the lines are nervous to say because sometimes it’s so black vs. white now. It’s like ‘how can I use this to be a voice somehow? Can Aida be a voice?’” she asks.
“The purpose is bigger than this love thing going on. Yes, let love come when it’s right. Until then, be about your purpose.”
Williams, while making her name in one of the best-selling groups of all time, is in a place in her life where her work in theater is more meaningful to her than being a popular singer.
“I think I’ve done enough to where I’d pick theater. I can do pressure, but the pressure to be an artist is not something I want to do anymore unless I’m doing it with Destiny’s Child, and it’s fun because it’s with your girls,” she says.
Emerging as a legitimate actor is a bit of a comeback for Williams. In her junior high school days, she couldn’t get cast in productions such as “Hello, Dolly” and “Li’l Abner.
“I wanted to be Daisy Mae,” she says. “When the offer came for the first time to do ‘Aida’ in 2003, I said, ‘I get to do it. No longer am I auditioning.’ Sometimes I might have been discouraged but God made a way. He led me to it. Rejection can either discourage you or propel you.”
Williams says her last album, the gospel effort “Journey to Freedom” (2014) featuring “Say Yes,” was her swan song as a recording artist.
“Right now I feel I’ve said everything I had to say on ‘Journey to Freedom.’ On that album, I needed to get free from things, from opinions, from what everyone else has to say. Let me live.”
After “Aida,” Williams’ plans include a book on her journey and the importance of listening to her inner voice, as well as continuing to produce Believe at Home, her bedding and home goods line.
Still, if something great comes her way, such as a collaboration, she could jump back in for a one-off.
And if that ever happens to be a Destiny’s Child reunion, she’s in. Watching the Muny production of “Fiddler on the Roof” while she was rehearsing for “Aida,” she says, a scene with three girls reminded her of Destiny’s Child.
“It’s weird. We’re together a lot but not one time have we talked about it. If we do, we do; if we don’t, we don’t. We’re just glad to have a relationship. I know what’s going on in their lives, and they know every detail of my life, ” says Williams, who has caught Beyoncé’s “Formation” tour a couple of times.
What "Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida" • When 8:15 nightly, Monday through Aug. 14 • Where The Muny, 1 Theater Drive, Forest Park • How much $14-$90 • More info 314-361-1900; muny.org