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Brenda Braxton
by David Drake

©2002 Bruce Glikas for Broadway.com
Brenda Braxton
Watching Brenda Braxton's terrific performance as Velma Kelly in the Broadway revival of Chicago, I couldn't help but be struck by her connection to the original—Chita Rivera. Not that the two look alike, but rather it's the spirit: Two women of color who, despite racial barriers, have worked their way up the gypsy ladder to become true masters of musical theater performance. From her roots as a swing in the original Dreamgirls to being one of the Jelly's Last Jam "hunnies" to dancing in one of Broadway's most notorious flops Legs Diamond, the Tony Award-nominated star of Smokey Joe's Cafe is alive and kicking—and currently making "All That Jazz" all that more damn entertaining. With the body of a 22-year old, a smile to blind traffic, and a pair of eyes that could make Eartha Kitt hiss, Brenda Braxton sat down with Broadway.com to give us the skinny on various topics including working with Michael Bennett, black actors winning big at the Oscars and The Catherine Zeta-Jones Effect.

Okay, it's apparent in Chicago that you're a singing- dancing maniac. How long has this been going on?
[Laughs.] Like a maniac?! Well, my first Broadway show was in 1976, in the black Guys & Dolls. But I've been dancing since I was three.

Something you've always wanted to do?
Ever since I came out of the womb.

Was your family supportive?
They were behind me 100%. Especially my mother. She'd wanted to be an artist, but her mother wouldn't let her. Cause back in those days, you had to have some kind of career as a secretary or nurse. So my mother swore if her kids showed some kind of artistic ability she'd let them persue it. As long as I kept my grades up, she said, I could keep dancing.

You've been Velma for two years now?
Two years next week, yes—that I've been in and out of either the Broadway or road company.

Story continues below


Did you see the movie?
Nope.

Really?!
[Laughs.] Well, no, cause I didn't want to see it while I was doing the show.

I suspect the movie's popularity has reflected well on the show's attendance. So how do you reconcile Velma for folks groomed on Catherine Zeta-Jones?
Well, when I first star
©2004 Bruce Glikas for Broadway.com
Brenda Braxton and Walter Bobbie
goof around backstage
at Chicago
ted doing the show I hadn't even seen it on [the revival] yet, cause we were still doing Smokey Joe's Cafe. So my whole thing was, "Am I going to be as good as Bebe Neuwirth?" That was my first question/worry/angst. But then [Chicago's director] Walter Bobbie came in and said, "Brenda, we hired you to be you." And that kind of turned everything around for me. Because it's true. No matter how hard I try, I won't be Bebe, I won't be Catherine Zeta. But what I think what I bring to it is a whole new thing. And I kind of figure that by the end of the show, whoever had doubts, I think they love me. Still, sometimes I look out into the audience during "All That Jazz" and think, "Ooooo, they're in shock right now, aren't they?" Because it's a black woman comin' out of that hole. [Laughs.] "That's not Catherine Zeta!"

That's a wise decision on Walter Bobbie's part, especially after the film. Cause even if the movie gets audiences in, once you start “All That Jazz,” it's like—Welcome to our version of Chicago!
That's right. That's right. And the show is so great, it works no matter what.



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