NEW YORK, July 1 (UPI) -- Grammy Award-winning singer Toni Braxton is returning to Broadway a changed woman.
The 34-year-old diva earned accolades in 1998 when she played the bookish teen Belle in Disney's Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast." After overcoming a series of financial and romantic troubles, Braxton is now happily married with two children, has a new album in the works and started performances Monday as a Nubian princess caught in a love triangle in another Disney Broadway blockbuster, "Aida."
So, how does she manage it all? For starters, she took a job that has hours conducive to family life.
"What I love about Broadway is that, in many ways, it's like a 9-to-5 job and then I can come home and be with my family," the entertainer recently told United Press International. "I'm in one place and that's very, very convenient for me. It allows me to do what I love doing and still be a wife and mother. But juggling a family is hard. I'm in a different stage (than during 'Beauty and the Beast') absolutely, and I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to do it all."
Although she loved her first stint at the Palace Theatre, Braxton confessed that she feels more comfortable playing Aida, a character closer to her age and experience, than she did portraying the wide-eyed beauty Belle.
"I'm excited!" she exclaimed, noting she has always been a sucker for stories about forbidden love like "Aida." "With this I get to be an adult. The other one, I was a 15-year-old. Twenty-nine playing a 15-year-old. I had enough. This is like a soap opera."
Unfamiliar with "Aida" when approached by the show's producers to play the title character, Braxton recalled how she sent her "spies" to see the Elton John/Tim Rice musical and counsel her on whether she should take the role.
"I sent my sister and she's like: 'Oh, my God! You have to do it! It's incredible!'" Braxton remembered. "And then I took my younger sister and she said, 'Oh, yes. Confirmed! Please do it.' So, I was taking a little bit of a risk, but I came here to New York and I saw the play and I was like: 'Oh, God! It's so beautiful! I'm so glad I said yes!'"
Braxton is the latest in a line of Broadway Aidas headed by Heather Headley, who won a Tony Award for the role in 2000. Asked if she felt any pressure to live up to the stellar performances of her predecessors, Braxton replied: "I don't feel the pressure. Not in that sense."
"I do feel that, 'Okay I have to make sure I know my lines every night, that I stand the right way,'" she said. "The singing, people are like, 'Oh, we know she sings, but now she's acting. Can she do both?' That pressure, I feel a little nervous about."
Braxton is the first to admit that she was worrying more about her personal problems than performing in "Beauty and the Beast" a few years back.
"The pressure during 'Beauty and the Beast' was what I was going through in my life personally and it was starting to bleed into my work," she acknowledged. "On my off days, I would be doing depositions and then I would have to fly back to New York and do the play that night. I loved the play, but I didn't enjoy it. I didn't relish it and this time I get to do that. I'm very settled in my life. I'm happily married with a family. I go to work. I come home. I can laugh. I can do things. I can go to Broadway outings. I never participated in anything in the Broadway world before."
But she has a whole different attitude when it came to "Aida," she said, noting how she worked hard exercising her voice for several weeks rehearsing for the role, despite the fact that it was allergy season in the Big Apple.
"It's not really a strain," she explained. "It's like performing live at an awards show or something like that, but it's a lot of singing. It's like 13 plus songs. That's a lot of singing.... 'Beauty and the Beast' was the first play I had ever done, so I'd never exercised that muscle. Now I'm a little more comfortable. I've familiarized myself with the process and now it's easier. However, this role is harder."
Asked why she thinks pop stars are more accepted in Broadway shows nowadays, Braxton said she believes it is because the Broadway audience is getting younger.
"Before, you'd think of, 'Oh, my grandparents are going to see a play,'" she mused. "But now young people in college and high school are going. The first play I saw was in high school. It was 'A Chorus Line' and I was so excited. We drove from Maryland, the whole school. It was a great experience. But it's younger. Elton John's doing the music. It is pop now... It's just younger now and it's refreshing."
The winner of six Grammy Awards, five American Music Awards and two Billboard Awards, Braxton will play the role through Nov. 16. Her new album is scheduled for release in September on Blackground/Universal Records.
"I'm excited about being at another label, although I love Arista--Arista has been very good to me... but it's time to move on," she said. "I could blame them for things, they could blame me for things, but in the end, we had wonderful chemistry and it worked, but it's time to move on now. I'm very happy and I think that with this album I'm going to go back to the basics. More songs like 'Breathe Again.'"