Once a conquering heroine on Broadway and a bona fide Dreamgirl, Anika Noni Rose is now a Disney princess. And not just Disney’s first of the American variety, but its first black princess.
That’s change we can believe in.
“You’re talking about people who never dreamed they would see this,” says the star of the new animated feature The Princess and the Frog (opening Friday), remembering an 80-year-old audience member at a recent talkback who was thrilled to see the character onscreen. “My grandma was at the premiere with me; she’s 90-plus. You have no idea how amazing it is to be able to give this to her.
“On the flip side, my 4-year-old nephew was also there, and it’s a different kind of gift to him because he doesn’t expect anything different. The babies that are coming to this thing, regardless of background, this is going to be the norm for them. It will no longer be something that has to be special after this year. And I think that is an amazing and wonderful thing.”
The 37-year-old, honey-voiced performer wasn’t conjured by magic to appear in Disney cartoons. The Connecticut native got there by way of the San Francisco Bay Area, where she appeared in acclaimed local productions including Valley Song at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
“Valley Song was my second professional show. It was a two-hander, it was 90 minutes, and I think I was offstage for about 30 seconds,” Rose says by phone from Los Angeles. “I love dialect work, and I really got to plunge into that: black South African, Afrikaner — I actually sang in Afrikaans. Meanwhile, the second draft of my MFA thesis was due the day after opening, so not too much partying.
“I think that the thing about the Bay Area that’s so lovely is that there is such a wonderful opportunity for theater. … So when I came to New York, I had such a base of positive theater experience and such an extensive roster of work, I felt like I could have stepped into anything and been very, very comfortable.”
She left for the East Coast in 1999 and blew through her savings in three months.
“When the job ends, your next job is to find another job,” she says with a laugh. “I was down to my very last unemployment check — that’s when I booked Footloose on Broadway. That was the biggest check I had ever received.”
It was just the next stage in her evil plan, it turns out.
“When people used to ask me what I wanted to do, I always said, ‘I want to conquer Broadway.’ A lot of times people were like, ‘Ohh, that’s nice.’ No, I meant it,” she says, and one can almost hear her eyebrow arch.
Things were, indeed, blooming for Rose. Soon after Footloose, she began workshopping what would become Caroline, or Change with Tony Kushner.
“I had a relationship with Tony because I did Hydriotaphia at Berkeley Rep,” she says. “When I first signed on (to Caroline), Emmie’s part wasn’t even complete. It was really something that we created as a group. So I felt it was so personal, and she was mine. It was the first thing that I had created from page to stage.”
The role earned her a 2004 Tony award. But Broadway or no Broadway, she acknowledges she had a lot to learn about film. Rose’s screen debut was in — ahem — From Justin to Kelly, the American Idol spinoff movie.
“There was a number we did when the camera was way across the street, so I was performing like I was onstage. And I found out later that” — she slips into a no-duh voice — “even though the camera was across the street, the angle was very tight on … oneself. So I learned to always ask what the angle is because you can look a little crazy sometimes if your version of the angle is different from the camera’s version.”
After Caroline came the much-ballyhooed film Dreamgirls and a couple of miniseries before Rose leapt back to movies as the voice of Tiana for Princess and the Frog.
The new feature is a New Orleans-set, Jazz Age riff on The Frog Prince in which aspiring restaurateur Tiana and a spoiled visiting prince find themselves devolved into anthropomorphized amphibians by bad voodoo. The cast includes Keith David, John Goodman and Oprah Winfrey.
“How wonderful that children are able to see people who look like their friends, their family, their neighbors represented in a way of beauty and intelligence. And in the world of fantasy. I think it’s important to have representation in the world of fantasy for everyone because that’s where children live,” Rose says.
“When you talk about Disney, you talk about the history of Americana because that’s what they are, really. It’s just a wonderful forward movement. And I will be really, really happy (to see) little brown babies and little blond babies, from all different backgrounds, wearing this Tiana dress. They’ll be wearing it because it speaks to them as a young woman, as a young lady, as a girl. To them, there’s no politics involved. That is what is going to change our world.”