There was a time when Jordin Sparks thought dealing with Simon Cowell was tough. But Cowell was a pushover compared to the rigors of Broadway, which have tested the mettle of this Grammy-nominated songstress who, at age 17, became the youngest winner of "American Idol."
Vocal strain and an injured hip kept her offstage for several performances soon after making her Broadway debut in August in the Tony-winning hit "In the Heights." But Sparks, now 20, got back on track, thanks to physical therapy and her own brand of perky determination.
She stars in the show at the Richard Rodgers Theatre through Nov. 14, and credits her castmates for helping her through. They include legends like Tony winner Priscilla Lopez, and lesser-known but powerhouse Broadway performers like Marcy Harriell. The cast welcomed her with open arms, Sparks recalls. And those early days of aches and pains perhaps fuel her portrayal of Nina, a Latina college student who also stumbles out of the gate, returning home to Washington Heights after a rough freshman year with a secret and a fervent desire not to disappoint her family.
Sparks, meanwhile, seems just as driven. She's back in the studio, recording her third album, and has launched her own fragrance, Because of You, named for the fans who voted for her on "Idol." (The softly fruity scent, sold on dots.com, hits national chains in November.) She chatted about Broadway dreams, challenges and life with a certain member of the Giants.
So what's it like being on Broadway?
It's amazing. A friend came to see the show, and we stood onstage afterward, and she was like, "I can't believe you get to stand here." And I said, "I know, this is insane."
What's come easy for you, and what's hard?
Learning the music was the easy part. But I'm used to doing my own songs - I can change a note here, take a breath there. In the show, I have to play the character and sing the songs the way they're written. So it's definitely been a lot of learning. The dancing is new, too. My dance part is probably 30 seconds, max - but it was the scariest thing the first night. I go out there and say, "OK, Jordin, don't trip over your feet."
How has it been being on vocal rest?
It's frustrating. If you can't tell, I'm a talker. So to be on vocal rest, I have to be super-disciplined. I mean, I had a feeling Broadway would be difficult. Eight shows a week - you say, "Yeah, that's gonna be a doozy." But it's a beast to do eight shows.
So some days, you don't talk at all until you get to the theater?
It helps. The thing I had to learn is that my vocal cords are a muscle, even though we don't think of them that way. I have to remind myself to warm up, to cool down.
And how's that hip?
[Big laugh.] Oh my goodness, that was another super-crazy thing. And slightly embarrassing. I just did a little step wrong, pulled a muscle in my hip and leg. I was like, "Oh, maaan." But I'm better.
You used to live out here in the '90s, when your dad, Phillippi Sparks, played cornerback for the New York Giants. What stands out from that time?
We lived a few years in Ridgewood, New Jersey. I walked to school. My dad sometimes would say, "OK, I'm gonna drive you and your brother today." But instead of school, he'd take us to Giants Stadium. I remember there was this big jar of vitamin C tablets, and they were so good. I don't know why that sticks out in my head. Or we used to roll on the medicine balls while he worked out. Later, my mom would be like, "Soooo, the school called . . . " It wasn't all the time, but that was really special.
And you got to see some Broadway shows back then.
We saw "Smokey Joe's Cafe" like seven times because I was so obsessed with it. During the holidays, my grandparents would come out, and we'd see a show - "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King." It was awesome. My first show was the Rockettes when I was 4. My nana has a picture of me in this red coat and hat - and she tells this story that I walked up onto the stage after the show was over and said, "I'm going to be up here one day." I was 4 years old. Who says that? So it's kinda come full circle. It's been exciting, the journey I've taken since then. It's just been so insane and unorthodox and nonstop, but it's been a lot of fun, and now that I've gotten here, I wouldn't change a thing.