Jennifer Hudson — vocal powerhouse, Oscar winner and all-around phenomenon — still calls Chicago home. “I always say Chicago allows my feet to touch the ground,” she said. “Chicago people allow me to be Jennifer from the South Side. If I wanted to be in front of lights and cameras every time I stepped out of the house, I would live in Los Angeles or New York. I love the normalness of living in Chicago. I do what I do, but when I come home, I want to be a Chicagoan.”
In the years since her Ravinia Festival debut in 2011, which she calls “one of my favorite experiences performing onstage,” she became a coach-mentor on the American and British incarnations of “The Voice” and has landed two hotly anticipated projects, an Aretha Franklin biopic (“I’m literally sitting at the piano right now practicing for the role”) and the upcoming screen adaptation of “Cats” in which she will portray Grizabella.
Move over, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Hudson’s signature “Dreamgirls” showstopper; “Memory” now looks to be a permanent part of Hudson’s repertoire. “I am so blessed to be associated with these legendary classic [Broadway] songs,” she said. “I love ‘Memory’; that’s probably what led me to perform with orchestras, which is my favorite way to perform.”
Hudson may have a new favorite Ravinia experience after July 14, which she appears with her hometown’s — and the nation’s — leading ensemble, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as the headliner of Ravinia’s annual Gala Benefit Evening, hosted by its Women’s Board. Conducting will be George Hanson.
The Aretha biopic brings Hudson full circle. She auditioned for “American Idol” singing Franklin’s “Share Your Love with Me.” In the ultimate honor, the Queen of Soul did share her love, selecting Hudson to portray her in the film before her death last year. (Hudson sang in tribute at her funeral.) She still cannot fully process this project. After “Dreamgirls,” she said, she was asked constantly what she could do to top winning an Oscar on her first film. In terms of dream projects and challenging roles, she would respond that the thing that would come closest would be to play Aretha Franklin. “For that to be actually happening,” she began … overwhelmed, she couldn’t finish the sentence.
They spoke many times over the decade. They first met after Hudson’s “Dreamgirls” triumph, when the idea was floated that she should portray Franklin onscreen. Hudson recalled with a laugh, “[Franklin] said, ‘You’re going to win an Oscar for playing me, right?’ I said that I would do my best. And she said, ‘Are you shy?’ I said, ‘I am when I’m talking to Aretha Franklin.’ ”
Note: This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the full version, click here.
Donald Liebenson, a Chicago-based entertainment writer, has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times and on RogerEbert.com.