Two powerful women stand center stage. No. Dominate center stage. The number is “My Own Best Friend” from Broadway’s longest-running American musical Chicago, and a moment Angelica Ross, making her Broadway debut as Roxie Heart, doesn’t take lightly.
“It just really hits home for me because I think that so many trans people and queer people go through the stage of hating themselves,” Ross told INTO a week prior to her opening night. “And not understanding the gift that they are, and seeking validation and love outside of themselves. When the most important thing is to recognize you’re going to have to be your own best friend, at least first.”
Ross is known to most audiences for her standout performances in two Ryan Murphy-produced hit series: as Candy Ferocity, an irrepressible trans woman who meets her untimely end in Pose on FX, and as Donna Chambers in American Horror Story 1984 as well as The Chemist and The Theta in AHS Double Feature. Her arrival on Broadway crashes through another glass ceiling, proving the ambitious artist and entrepreneur has even more tricks up her sleeve.
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Chicago originally opened in 1975, featuring a catchy Jazz Age score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, direction and choreography by Bob Fosse, and starring Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly and Gwen Verdon as Roxie. But it was the 1996 revival that had staying power. The musical satire, based on real-life reporting of Maurine Dallas Watkins that followed the sensationalized trials of two alleged female murderers (both acquitted) has been a revolving door of guest stars in its lead roles from Mel B and Rumer Willis to Pamela Anderson and Brandy Norwood.
Ross’s formidable stage presence dismisses the notion of stunt casting, which has helped keep the show afloat for more than 10,000 performances. Her Roxie is at once mischievous and sultry, amplified by delicious Fosse-inspired hip swivels, shoulder rolls (which show off her gorgeous clavicle), and jazz hands. Some Roxies stun audiences into submission; Ross wins them over by baring her heart.
An ‘Accidental Activist’
“There’s been no such thing as luck; ‘luck’ equals preparation plus opportunity. So whether it’s television or this moment on Broadway, my whole life has been preparing me for this,” said Ross, paraphrasing one of Oprah’s favorite learned lessons.
Ross says that few people know that this isn’t her first brush with theater. Her first musical performance was in 1st grade in a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And she was certain that she was going to attend Juilliard for training before embarking on her Broadway career. Ross still holds onto an old black and white headshot with a resume stapled to the back highlighting 11 years of musical theater experience. But industry stereotypes and limitations propelled Ross in a different direction.
“I consider myself sort of like an accidental activist,” Ross said. “I only became one because I had to — I had to be able to at least speak up for myself. And in the process of doing that, I found out I was not just speaking for myself. I was giving voice to a lot of other people who were going through similar experiences. That’s really what’s going on right now with my career.
“I know that I’m specifically made for this time because I’m prepared for this moment.” — Angelica Ross
“It’s not that the world has changed so much. It’s just that people who find the same experience that I’ve found — where you are met with limitation, stereotype, or a definition that does not define you — I represent for a lot of folks how to redefine things for yourself. In this world that we’re in right now, a tumultuous political landscape, [we’re] also in a space where we need to laugh sometimes. And we don’t want to just laugh at homophobic and transphobic jokes on TV because that’s what’s popular. I know that I’m specifically made for this time because I’m prepared for this moment.”
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A longtime fan of the film version of Chicago (Ross had the artwork on her vision board), she further identified with the role after reading the script for the stage musical.
“It really landed with me how similar the journeys are for women like Roxie to women like myself and Candy Ferocity [from Pose] who have to navigate a world that has been dictated by men, and knowing that you are a star but struggling to find the spotlight,” Ross said. “And being in an environment where all signs point to ‘this is not your time; this won’t happen in your lifetime.” That might be true for some people, but as Roxie Hart says in Chicago, ‘No, no, no. But it ain’t.’”
Finding Her Voice, Both Onstage and Off
Given her acting bonafides, it might come as a surprise that Ross, who recently released the single “Only You” is also a powerhouse singer. She said that after having spent so much of her youth in choirs, it has been a treat to study with vocal coaches like Eric Vetro ― who works with Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Shawn Mendes, and Camila Cabello ― and rediscover her voice and range.
“I didn’t know what I had until I was put in the right environment,” Ross said. “And I feel like that is the central message here; that every child whether they’re trans, cis, gay, straight, or whatever, needs to be put into the right environment for them to grow and be affirmed. Every child deserves that, and sometimes, I find myself having these moments where I’m grieving for the years lost, [when] I did not know myself, or I was not affirmed in the value that I have. But it’s never too late.”
That’s why Ross remains vigilant and refuses to drop her guard while managing her career.
“I am investing in creating a business around me so that I don’t need anyone’s ‘yes’ but my own.” — Angelica Ross
“It’s very clear from the moment you open up any social media, turn on any news channel that we have not crossed the finish line to equality and equity for everyone,” Ross said. “So just because I have made it across some imaginary line doesn’t mean that I can’t get pushed back. Because the way that white supremacy in the system works is that even when you seem to be one of the successes, the reality is that it’s still success within a system of capitalists, so at any moment that I choose not to fully play by the rules, I know my *ss will be out on the street. To put it plain and simple: That’s why I am investing in creating a business around me so that I don’t need anyone’s yes but my own.”
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Coding a Path for Success
Both resilient and resourceful, Ross has learned over the years that being a multi-hyphenate isn’t just a celebrity talking point, but a matter of survival for the next generation of trans leaders. Early in her career, Ross taught herself coding and has since created TransTech Social Enterprises, which helps train and connect those within marginalized LGBTQ communities. The nonprofit incubator also hosts an annual summit with dozens of workshops, keynote speakers, and networking opportunities.
“It’s the old saying, ‘eat or be eaten.’ Back in those days, trans people, specifically trans women were being trafficked into the adult industry. Basically, we were being told, what options do you have? I found myself faced with those same choices until I started working for this one adult website,” Ross said. “Before I even got started, [the owner] recognized that I was just sharp in certain ways and decided to fire her webmaster and hire me to do some simple things. But then she asked me if I was able to update the look of the website which would require knowledge of CSS and HTML. And so I watched video tutorials and started to learn. I began building websites for myself and other people, built a team from there, and did that for about 10 years.”
Transforming herself into a tech whiz to escape dire circumstances and empower her community belies the story that one might expect from someone blessed with seemingly effortless charisma. But Ross said, “Some people still don’t understand how much I’ve been navigating the system.”
“I freed myself a long time ago and built a team and people who have the ability to follow the leadership of a Black woman and a Black trans woman at that. I’ve been in a lot of different situations where my authority or knowledge has always been questioned due to unconscious anti-Blackness,” Ross said. She attributes her ongoing success to “making decisions from a place of clarity, not from a place of lack or feeling like I need something outside of myself.”
This Roxie is All Heart
While Chicago’s above-the-title stars have come and gone, many of the musical’s cast members have been in the production for the long haul. At Ross’s recent opening night performance, the company looked as if it had been energized by a bolt of lightning.
Roxie, arrested for her husband’s murder, engages in increasingly corrupt behavior in order to secure her freedom and use the publicity of her trial to become a celebrity. As played by Ross, this Roxie’s selfishness is also tinged with survival as she navigates corrupt power structures.
This is particularly clear during Ross’s mesmerizing song-and-dance monologue “Roxie,” in which she explores her motivations, disappointments, and desires, painting the portrait of a woman stepping into her own and pouring all of her life experience into a line that lands with the heft of a cell block: “It was one big world full of ‘No.’”
When she says to herself, “Think ‘Big,’ Roxie, I’m gonna get me a whole bunch of boys,” it’s less about the male ensemble that emerges to back her up and throw-away laugh-line than a triumphant manifesto.
“I am who I am. I navigate the way I need to navigate, but we’re still not in a place where we’re seen as not only main characters but main characters with vulnerabilities,” Ross said, reflecting on her own experiences in the entertainment industry. ”Because of this ‘Black excellence’ moniker, you see a leaning into doing things that are always aspirational.”
In considering how she wants to see Broadway evolve, Ross is not content to wait around for others to do the work. “I want to bring an original musical to Broadway that centers the girls and our friends and family and the boys ― all of it,” Ross said
During her rehearsal process for Chicago, Ross said that she had an “aha moment” and began writing songs and lyrics in her free time, producing tracks, and even playing the piano on her recordings. With an eye on leading the way, she said, “creatively, it’s not about us just getting a role in something; (it’s about) centering our stories.” ♦
Angelica Ross appears in Chicago through November 6, 2022.