The fictional character Roxie Hart has many awful attributes — she’s adulterous, narcissistic, scheming, manipulating and murderous. Next week she’ll also be something unexpected: Inspirational.
“Pose” star Angelica Ross on Monday will step onstage in Hart’s high heels, becoming the first openly transgender woman to play a leading part on Broadway.
“I think about the trans women who are looking at me right now and are now thinking that this is possible,” Ross tells The Associated Press. “I am really excited to embrace the audience as they embrace me.”
Ross’ journey to the Ambassador Theatre seems almost fated, starting as a youngster who loved musical theater in Racine, Wisconsin. “I’ve been in musical theater since probably first grade,” she says.
Early roles as Sleepy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” — “I was a ham,” she admits — led to playing Tyrone in “Fame” and Billy in “Anything Goes.” She saw Broadway shows like “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “The Color Purple” and “On Your Feet!”
“It’s really the liveness of it for me. As an actor on television, there’s a lot of cuts. There’s a lot of in and out of the moment and having to get back in the moment. But I love the live moments on stage. I love the silence.”
Set in the 1920s, “Chicago” is a scathing satire of how show business and the media make celebrities out of criminals. It has Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, skimpy outfits and killer songs such as “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango.”
It tells the story of Hart, a housewife and dancer who murders her on-the-side lover after he threatens to leave her. To avoid conviction, she hires Chicago’s slickest criminal lawyer to help her dupe the public, media and her rival cellmate, Velma Kelly, by creating shocking headlines.
“Roxie’s quick on her feet getting herself out of trouble. She knows her womanly ways,” says Ross. “I feel like so many women, including trans women, have had to navigate a male-dominated environment and have had trouble with other people having the vision to see their talent.”
Ross says she identifies a lot with Roxie and Velma’s Act One closing song, “My Own Best Friend,” where the two women sing “I play in a game/where I make the rules.”
“I play in a game where I make the rules and rule No. 1 from here ’till the end is I am my own best friend,” she quotes the lyrics. “I just know there have been times in my life when I wasn’t. When I was in chorus with everyone else saying negative things about me.”
The celebrity-craving heroine at the heart of “Chicago″ has been played by dozens of women since the show opened in 1996, including Melanie Griffith, Christie Brinkley, Marilu Henner, Brooke Shields, Lisa Rinna, Gretchen Mol, Ashlee Simpson, Brandy Norwood, Jennifer Nettles and Robin Givens. Pamela Anderson made headlines earlier this year when she played Roxie.
“Chicago” producer Barry Weissler has welcomed all of the new Roxies and has been impressed by his latest star: “She’s just a wonderful actress. She sings, she dances, she has personality. What else could I ask for?”
Ross, whose credits also include “American Horror Story: 1984,” “Transparent,” “Claws” and “Doubt,” will start an eight-week run beginning Monday.
She joins a Broadway that is starting to open its arms to transgender actors. In 2018, “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” star Peppermint became the first openly trans woman to originate a featured role on Broadway, starring in the Go-Go’s jukebox musical “Head Over Heels.” This spring, L Morgan Lee made history as the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Tony Award for her work as a featured actress in the musical “A Strange Loop.”
Other Broadway actors who have identified as trans include Alexandra Billings in “The Nap,” Becca Blackwell in the play “Is This a Room,” and Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe in “Straight White Men.”
Ross, who has been working with a vocal coach, an acting coach and the dance captain at “Chicago” ahead of her Broadway debut, has even surprised herself at what she’s capable of doing.
“I’m projecting my voice without a mic to the back of the theater and filling it up in ways that I even didn’t know that I could do. There’s some high notes in some of the songs, and I’m hitting them without effort. And it’s just this moment where I look up and I’m just like, I see when I was on stage in Racine, Wisconsin. I see all these moments adding up and I’m just like, ‘This is what this was supposed to be.’”