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Patti LaBelle on Returning to Broadway with 'Fela!'

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The last time Patti LaBelle performed on the Broadway was 28 years ago in a revival of "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God" with Al Green. Since then, Patti's career has soared to new heights, winning countless awards, including two Grammys, and releasing chart-topping hits like "New Attitude," "Somebody Loves You Baby (You Know Who it is)" and "On My Own," her number-one pop and R&B duet with Michael McDonald. On September 14, Patti will add to her legacy when she returns to the Broadway stage in "Fela!," the Tony-nominated musical based on the life of Nigerian composer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. She'll tackle the role of Fela's mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, who died from injuries suffered after a thousand Nigerian soldiers stormed her son's compound and threw her out of a window. When ESSENCE.com caught up with Miss Patti, she couldn't have been happier. She was anxiously awaiting her opening night -- and that enthusiasm led her to reveal some things that took us by surprise...   ESSENCE.com: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. PATTI LABELLE: Ahhh ... Thank you for wanting me! ESSENCE.com: Of course! This isn't your first time on Broadway. After all of these years, what made you want to come back with this particular production? LABELLE: I was asked to come see the show about three or four months ago, and I was taken. I just said, "I'm going to go back to Broadway," which brought me a lot of joy at times and a lot of misery at other times. You know, with the eight shows a week and doing the matinees and wearing the same funky outfits. But I said I'll do it because the story was so beautiful. For four and a half months, I guess I'll go through the torture! ESSENCE.com: What is your method going to be to maintain your stamina through "the torture" until January 2 when the show closes? LABELLE: Well, my method is just to know that everything I'm doing will be appreciated because the character is a beautiful character. I'm playing a ghost. The torture is my seeing my coffin every night. You know, like I'm dead! So, that's kind of spooky to me. It's real. It's so real. My method will be knowing that every night I get out there, I'll be making a difference with the story. Not Patti LaBelle. Patti LaBelle don't live here anymore! It's all about Funmilayo. I'm wearing no bling-bling, no makeup, no nothing! I love it. I love being stripped down. ESSENCE.com: Can you do that? LABELLE: Yes, baby! I do it, and I do it well! (laughing) ESSENCE.com: How would you describe your character? LABELLE: She was this wonderful woman who was the first to drive a car in Nigeria. The first to ride a bike. The first woman to go to China. She has so much information for her son now that she's gone, and she doesn't want him to make the wrong choices in life. She's a strong woman who I can be. I can be her so well. As long as I know that my land, Patti LaBelle land, never mixes with Funmilayo and her place and her roots, I'm going to be fine. I'm going to do it! ESSENCE.com: We love that confidence! Didn't you have fears coming back to Broadway? LABELLE: Nope. Not at all. I can get over anything. I can get over the eight shows and the matinees. Miss Patti will be up for those matinees! It's just wonderful that I'm taking on this role. I feel great! ESSENCE.com: You are taking over Funmilayo from Tony nominee Lillias White. Will your portrayal be different? LABELLE: Yes. The melody in the songs may be a little different. I'm going to try and put Lillias' thought process and the way she did it out of my head, which is out of my head now! Lillias' performance was phenomenal, but I don't want to come in and copy someone. I want to make it my own. I just want to be a different Funmilayo. ESSENCE.com: "Fela!" is based on a true story. If there were a musical about your life, what would it be called? LABELLE: Pitiful! (laughing) ESSENCE.com: What! LABELLE: I'm only joking! They would call it "LaBelle," it would have to be! I can't come up with another name. ESSENCE.com: What are your favorite Broadway shows? LABELLE: I don't do Broadway very much. I don't see many shows. I wanted to see "Fences," but I missed that by a day. I've seen "Fela!" four times now. ESSENCE.com: What kind of music are you currently listening to? LABELLE: Would you be mad at me if I said I'm not listening to anything? ESSENCE.com: No. LABELLE: I don't listen to music. ESSENCE.com: Really? LABELLE: No, not at all. It's really weird, isn't it? ESSENCE.com: You mean you don't go around your house singing? LABELLE: No. Not even in the shower. ESSENCE.com: Then how do you keep your voice in shape? LABELLE: I don't know. I guess I just wake up blessed. ESSENCE.com: This is going to be shocking to people. LABELLE: Is it? I might sing a little note, and it scares my little shih tzu. When I sing a high note, he jumps back. ESSENCE.com: Well, we know those Patti LaBelle high notes! LABELLE: Oh, my little dog is so cute. ESSENCE.com: Are you currently working on a new album? LABELLE: I've been working on this album for a year. Thank God LA Reid is a nice man because he could've thrown me off the label by now like he did once before! But so far I'm not being harassed or rushed. I'm going to do it. ESSENCE.com: What will the album be like? LABELLE: I can't even tell you that because I don't even know. I haven't gone through that process yet. So, now that I'm in New York I'll be going to the studio during the daytime and doing the show at night. I can't wait to start on that, and I can't wait until September 14th when I start this play. ESSENCE.com: What do you hope people get from "Fela!"? LABELLE: I hope they see Patti LaBelle and say, "Damn, she wasn't Patti LaBelle. She was Funmilayo." ESSENCE.com: You really want to take Patti LaBelle out of her, don't you? LABELLE: She better be. I'll slap that heifer if she shows up! I will slap her!
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