Since the mid-1990s, Deborah Cox has maintained a multifaceted career as a singer of sleek soul-pop hits and as an actress on Broadway’s musical stage. There, smash R&B singles such as “Sentimental” and “We Can’t Be Friends” go hand in hand with success in musicals “Aida” and “Jekyll & Hyde.” She was also a friend and labelmate of the late Whitney Houston, whose role in the 1992 cinematic romantic thriller “The Bodyguard” Cox steps into as its touring theater production hits the Academy of Music. Sure, you’ll hear Houston’s hits like “One Moment in Time” and “I Will Always Love You,” but expect Cox to tenderly make them her own.
You always wrote most of your own songs, something your contemporaries couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Why was that important?
I wanted to make sure “Deborah Cox’s voice” was in each song, in some way. Even if it was a song that I didn’t write, I tweaked it enough to make it mine. It’s been important for me to have that liberty.
Serious as you are, was it totally cool finding your songs remixed and huge within the dance music community?
It happened organically, so it was nice. The remixes clicked and had their own identities. They really began to resonate within the gay community. They did their own thing.
You were laudably close to legendary music mogul Clive Davis, who signed you and made you his protege. Only Whitney Houston held such favor with Clive. Did you feel the pressure?
We’re still close, with him supportive of all I’ve done on Broadway. He understood I had a musical theater background before I made records and wanted me to develop all my strengths. Under his tutelage, he allowed me to be a well-rounded artist who never had to stoop to do things like take off my clothes or be image-focused. He’s a good man.
Whitney was also a pal, a labelmate, maybe a competitor?
Never competition. I came in the biz after she was long established. When I got to Arista, a friendship blossomed. Being labelmates with other females is a relationship to navigate gingerly. That’s irked me since my start — that people surmise we would be at each other’s throats. She was always supportive, and when we finally did our duet, “Same Script, Different Cast,” our relationship came full circle.
How did the theater version of her “Bodyguard” film come your way?
When I first heard about it, Whitney was still with us. Clive mentioned it. He must have been putting that bug in my ear. In 2011, they developed it in the U.K., and when they decided to bring it to the U.S., they contacted me. I saw that the songs told a story, that the musical was also a thriller, suspenseful and sexy, and that my character was complex, not one-dimensional. That’s a lot of positives.
Sensual as it is, it must be important for you to find chemistry with your bodyguard Judson Mills.
He’s definitely the biggest piece of the puzzle. The bodyguard has to have strength, inner life and the actor has to have the chops to pull that off as he’s driving this story. From the first rehearsal, Judson and I hit it off well.
How do you make certain these songs and this show become entirely your own while still paying tribute to your friend?
I think long and hard about my involvement with her, and every night I connect. I honor her. There are specifics moments in “The Bodyguard” that I won’t tell you about, where our relationship is front-and-center. Sometimes the lines are blurred between friendship and art, but I absolutely know that this is my journey now, and was hers as well. No matter what, you have to bring the message.
So what did you do the last time you were in Philly?
Funny you ask. It was June 2016 when I won the Liberty Bell Award from the LGBT community and did the Pride Parade. That audience is so beloved to me. It was very moving. Sadly though, it was the same day as the Orlando club shooting, so much of what we were supposed to do, we didn’t, and rightly so. They immediately heightened security and the LGBT organizers were on high alert. It was monumental for me to get the award, yet such a sad day.
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“The Bodyguard” runs from Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. until Sunday, Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. Tickets start at $20. 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org