SLICING UP “WAITRESS”: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH STARS JESSIE MUELLER, CHRISTOPHER FITZGERALD AND JENNA USHKOWITZ

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SARA BAREILLES HAS BAKED A SMASH.

The Tony and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter’s debut musical, Waitress, opened this past March to rave reviews and instant box office success. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, Waitress is predicted to recoup its costs as soon as October. As Forbes points out, “For a new musical that isn’t Hamilton, that’s pretty spectacular.”

Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a waitress in a small Southern town, who yearns to leave her abusive marriage. Also working at the pie diner are her best friends, Dawn and Becky. When Jenna becomes accidentally pregnant, she meets the handsome (and also married) Dr. Pomatter. As she seeks a path to freedom, she sets her sights on a local pie contest as her golden ticket to a new life. Meanwhile, Becky and Dawn look for love in all of the most unexpected places.

Jessie-MuellerI spoke with Tony nominated actors Jessie Mueller (Jenna) and Christopher Fitzgerald (Dawn’s love interest, Ogie), as well as Glee star Jenna Ushkowitz, who has just joined the show as Dawn (following a leave of absence by original cast member Kimiko Glenn). We chatted everything Waitress including their favorite pies, working with Sara Bareilles, their creative processes, inspirations, and more.

NAGORSKI: How did you first get involved with Waitress?

MUELLER: I had a lunch with Diane Paulus and we discussed the project, and then I did a reading in December of 2014.

Jenna-UshkowitzUSHKOWITZ: Kimiko Glenn, who originated the role of Dawn, took a leave of absence. They called me on a Thursday and said, “We’d love for you to come in to meet everybody on Friday to do some of the Dawn stuff.” I went in and did it for a couple of hours and then left. That same evening, I found out that I was going to be joining the cast for a little while. It was all really quick and then I started rehearsals the next day!

FITZGERALD: The producer, Barry Weissler, called me. He and I had a couple of meetings about what we could find to do together. We had talked about a couple of things and then he said, “I’m doing this project. Do you know the movie Waitress?” I told him, “I think I’ve seen it. I’m not sure.” And he said, “Well, here, take a look at it. Somebody get me the DVD!” So he gave me the DVD and then explained, “There’s the small part of Ogie, the poet, who is a very eccentric guy. I’m not sure if it will interest you but take a look and see what it does.”

Christopher-FitzgeraldI asked him, “Well, who’s doing the score?” And he told me, “I think Sara Bareilles.” And when he said that, I was like, “A-HA! She’s cool! That would be interesting.” So I went home and I watched the movie. Eddie Jemison, who plays Ogie, is hilarious. He’s so good. But I couldn’t quite see how some of it was going to be musicalized, especially that character, but I figured why not give it a shot?

Then, they had a reading at their apartment, and there were maybe five of us. So in terms of when actors started to be involved, I’ve been involved since the very beginning. And nobody in that reading (other than me) is still a part of the project. There are all sorts of reasons why that is. We read through the screenplay essentially, and then Sara just sat at a piano and played and sang the songs. It was so incredible! When that reading ended, I was like, “I really want to be a part of this. I’ve got to make sure that I put some effort into continuing to let the people who are making decisions know that I want to be a part of it.”

I met Diane Paulus, our director, at that stage. And then we started doing several more readings, which is generally the process for new musicals. You have to do a lot of readings because you’re just trying to synthesize so many things – story, story with songs, who’s singing, why they need to sing, songs are cut and added, etc. There’s a lot of that kind of process. Through those readings, I was able to start a dialogue with Diane, Jessie Nelson (who adapted the screenplay) and Sara about the thoughts I had. It just became more of a collaborative experience and then we went into rehearsal, and now here we are!

Jessie, you’ve also been with the show since its early days. How has Jenna (and/or your interpretation of her) evolved throughout the process, from the early readings to the A.R.T. run to now on Broadway?

MUELLER: I think (and hope!) she’s grown deeper, and become like more of a second skin. Getting to spend time with a character helps. When I start working on someone, it feels disconnected. But I’ve learned for my own process that it is just that: a process. It takes time. I think in the beginning, I was a bit puzzled by her and by her decisions and choices – a bit like the audience experiences her. But in spending more time inside her, I came to know the complexity of her experience. I don’t judge her anymore. I think I did in the beginning.

Part of what makes you each so captivating on stage is how fully immersed in your characters you get. How do you choose your roles?

FITZGERALD: As an actor, you spend so much time hearing “no.” I’ve heard that word endless amounts of times. Hearing it so many thousands of times, you almost start to have a relationship with that word and that experience. But this was one of those experiences where I was like, “I think I have a handle on who this guy is and this would be really fun to physicalize.” In readings, when you’re reading it, you’re really working on the material. But I was like, “If I could get on my feet, I think I could have a lot of fun with this song.” So I don’t know about choosing stuff, it kind of chooses you, weirdly, you know?

The characters that I’ve played on Broadway, like Boq (Wicked), Igor (Young Frankenstein), Og (Finian’s Rainbow), are all of these weird little creatures. I basically am Broadway’s creature guy. I play all of the weird, non-human characters. So this time around, as Ogie, it’s nice that I get to actually play a man … but he’s also unlike any other man.

USHKOWITZ: Like I say for anything in my life, if it scares me a little bit, that’s always a good sign. If there’s a bit of a challenge, no matter what that is, I’m intrigued. I haven’t done a Broadway show and that rigorous schedule in eight years, so I definitely had to get back into a groove. I enjoy finding characters that are different from what I’ve done before. But it’s also important to make sure that I can relate to them and that my heart’s in it. Otherwise it’s kind of pointless.

MUELLER: I gravitate toward roles that I connect with. There was something about Jenna, and especially the music, that I related to. When I first heard “Everything Changes,” I cried. I’ve never had a child, but there was something that struck a chord. The healing of that song, the transformation, the yearning for renewal, the breakthrough – I found it so powerful. I like pieces that illuminate what it’s like to be a human being on this earth: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How influential was the film when you were working on creating your characters? What/who else helped you find them?

MUELLER: Very! I came back to the film when we were working on the show out of town. It’s where Adrienne Shelly’s vision started. I think what Kerri Russell brought to the film was beautiful. I’ve since become a huge fan of The Americans and I always think of Dr. Pomatter’s line, “I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes.” She has this amazing life that lives in her eyes. Well, you can’t really access that in a large Broadway house, but it was very influential to me. Jenna’s sadness lies very deep within her.

I also watched waitresses all the time. I searched for photos of people and waitresses at diners, especially those in small towns, or highway truck stops. There’s a fantastic book I got called Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor. And I found myself listening to a lot of country/folk music. There’s a Kacey Musgraves song called “Merry Go Round” that I got obsessed with for a while.

USHKOWITZ: I saw Kimiko’s performance right when the show first opened. She was wonderful and I wanted to keep the integrity of what she worked on. Especially during the rehearsal process with the girls, I wanted to make sure that we were keeping with the vision of what everybody had created. But obviously, Kimiko and I are so different, so it was also important to keep that and then wash away the rest.

I loved, loved, loved the movie when I saw it years ago, but I have not seen it since because it is very different. Dawn’s character is the biggest rewrite from the screenplay to the book for the musical, so I didn’t want to confuse the two. Therefore, I haven’t watched it again. Once I leave the show, I’ll probably go back and watch it again just because it’s so good.

Because Dawn is so particular, I look to people and to friends who are introverts to help bring her to life. I’m also an introvert and kind of OCD myself, so I tried to bring little bits and pieces of all these people that I knew and my own imagination to who I thought Dawn would be. I wanted to make her as human as possible because I think she is the easiest to be misconstrued as a caricature. And she’s not! She’s a real person. So that was really important to me when we were working in the few short weeks of rehearsal.

FITZGERALD: To me, the film was always the Bible of the piece. It’s where I felt like I always returned to in order to find the characters and their humanity. Adrienne wrote, starred in, and directed it, so that was always a constant reminder to allow her vision to inform you somehow. Those people crafted those characters first.

I’ve had a little experience doing that before. When I was playing Igor in Young Frankenstein, I felt the same way. How do you follow Marty Feldman? He’s perfect. He isIgor. There will never be anybody but Marty Feldman in that part. That was an iconic movie and each performance is iconic in it. All you can really do is try to tap into that and try to steal some of the joy, spirit and whatever that essence that makes it so incredible is. You want to try to borrow it and use it to your advantage.

For Waitress, some people didn’t want to watch the movie and didn’t want to have that experience. But I did and I definitely watched Eddie a lot. I think the main thing that I stole from him was that Ogie is a guy who is positive all the way down to the fiber of his being. He makes only positive choices and that’s really fun to play! It’s really fun to play someone who’s naively positive and who doesn’t see the wall in front of them that we all have. That really helped inform his song (“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) and the whole character’s journey.

Ogie is just like, “You are the one and I couldn’t know it more. This is too right. You know it and I know it.” He has that spark that made me realize that that’s where his drive comes from. It’s really fun to come into a show and have that energy, especially when all of the other characters are in the midst of the thickness of conflict. Everyone else is dealing with so much and making crazy, horrible choices because they’re in a lot of pain. Almost everybody in this show is in some way. So here I get to come in and just be like, “This is a joyous day!” And Ogie really believes that.

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Christopher, you’ve won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for your performance. Do you think it’s this overwhelmingly positive outlook Ogie has on life that makes him such a scene-stealer?

FITZGERALD: Absolutely! That outlook informs everything. Have you ever seen those videos of birds doing big, crazy sex dances to try to get their mate excited? But in reality, they’re just these little, tiny birds that are showing off because of the stuff around them? They always make me laugh and they remind me of Ogie. They make me think of just how funny it is that there’s this person who’s a complete dweeb and nerdy weirdo, but who just doesn’t give a shit. It’s so satisfying to see somebody like that! We kind of all wish to be like that.

So yes, I think that positive drive is really what makes everyone go, “Wait, what’s happening? Who is this guy?” And then Sara wrote this crazy song that I feel like could almost be a stalker song. It’s kind of weird. We don’t have a lot of time to set it up. But he’s so positive and loving that you know it comes from an earnest place and that it’s not crazy. I feel like at the end of the song, if Dawn said, “You know, I really can’t do this,” Ogie would say, “Okay, I get it.” He’d put on a little performance and be like, “Now I’m very sad. I will try again but I get it.”

Waitress is the first Broadway musical to come from an all-female creative team. How (if at all) did this impact the overall creative process/experience of building the show?

MUELLER: I think we probably developed a shorthand that most of us weren’t even aware of. There was lots of talk of gyno appointments, babies, love, affairs, a woman’s experience, etc. It was very easy to go there and I think that’s because of the personalities that were in the room.

USHKOWITZ: Going into this show knowing that is awesome! You walk in already feeling inspired and empowered. I think all around women are raising the bar in society and in today’s world, so I’m thrilled and honored to be a part of that as well. It should be that way and yes, we should have all women creative teams! It shouldn’t be out of the norm. But I wasn’t looking at it any differently than I do going into any other project.

FITZGERALD: I think to tell a story about women, it’s probably good to have women tell the story. That sensibility was important to what the story’s really about. However, it was just a normal Broadway creative process with all of its challenges and all of its celebratory moments. It wasn’t really that different to me. I’ve worked with a lot of female directors and there’s no real difference to me. It’s the same kind of process.

The show explores themes such as motherhood and self-empowerment, and has resonated with all sorts of audiences, regardless of age, gender, etc. What do you think it is about Waitress that makes it so universally appealing and crowd-pleasing?

USHKOWITZ: I think what is really cool about it is you have these three ladies and each one of them goes through a beautiful arc in the story. Each one is vibing off each other’s energy. For example, Dawn and Ogie’s scene forces Jenna to go call Dr. Pomatter and face him. Each one sort of feeds off the other and inspires the other to grow and to change. It’s a really beautiful story of empowerment. It shows the importance of leaning on, supporting, and learning from each other. And the music, obviously, is really beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I feel like the strokes with which these characters have been created make them very real. You don’t usually see a comic musical with these kinds of damaged people. Characters have flaws, but there’s a difference between, for example, Harold Hill’s flaws (in The Music Man) and Jenna’s. It’s just deeper. The stakes are inherently higher when you’re in an abusive relationship and are stuck in a small town and are in a lot of pain. I don’t know if people see themselves, but they feel like these are maybe characters that they really can understand or connect with. The show doesn’t do a lot of pandering. It just shows these characters’ lives.

Also, I feel like you don’t see enough stories about women. This show has complicated relationships between women, and friendships that are not fabulous. They’re in a diner. I think it’s those kinds of themes that we all gravitate to, and because of those dynamics, people are attracted to the show. It’s really interesting. It really seems to be striking a chord in particular with young women.

I also think it’s Sara and the way her music speaks to people. When you’re listening to Sara’s music, whether it’s a song like “Gravity” or really any one of her albums, it’s like you enjoy the ache of her music. It’s as though it’s actually pleasurable to feel the kind of pain that she sings about. Do you know what I mean? When you put it on, it just gets inside you. Even if it’s a song about a break-up or heartache or whatever, it’s delicious to your soul somehow. When Jessie sings her 11 o’clock number, “She Used To Be Mine,” it’s just an amazing moment. It’s an incredible song about someone at their wit’s end, but the way the melody is and those lyrics are just make the song so satisfyingly painful. That’s the way I feel.

MUELLER: The show taps into a part of the human experience everyone can relate to – doubt, pain, suffering, life choices. I think to see someone honestly acknowledge their mistakes and their pain is a very powerful thing. Something we don’t often feel safe enough to do in life. But when we can sit in a theater and engage with characters and watch them go through it, we can safely relate. I had an acting teacher who used to talk about that. The power of theater is we can learn lessons without the collateral damage of actually having to go through it ourselves. And I think the show is really well balanced. There are laugh-out-loud moments and moments of extreme joy and healing. It’s got a little bit of everything. Each side makes the other more potent.

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What is something about yourself, either personal or professional, that playing these characters has taught each of you?

FITZGERALD: I had a lot of fun really working on this and taking charge of how I felt like my first number could go. It was fun to have that confidence. It taught me a lot about taking that moment and collaborating with Diane and (choreographer) Lorin Latarro. It also started as something so different than where it got to, so it taught me to be really open to new things and to have faith. And I really did! I was like, “We’re going to get there, but I don’t know how.” I learned a lot doing that. That was cool.

MUELLER: Playing Jenna has taught me to own your feelings and your thoughts. The good, bad, and the ugly. I’m still learning that one everyday … and then having to re-learn it. And to stand up for yourself.

USHKOWITZ: I’m an introvert at heart. Dawn has taught me to branch out to be open to new experiences and also to love myself. Dawn’s really happy in her ways and that allows her to hope and dream. I think that’s really valuable too. You need to know what you enjoy and how to live your life so that you’re happy.

Christopher, how is your chemistry on stage different with Jenna than it was with Kimiko? And to both you and Jenna, how does that chemistry inform your performances?

FITZGERALD: It’s really not so different in terms of the way that the story comes off. I’ve also played opposite a few understudies, so I’ve played it now with maybe four different Dawns – the same way that Kimiko and Jenna have also played opposite different Ogies. What’s kind of remarkable, though, is how the story is still told. It’s really fun! Dawn is basically the straight man through that first act number. She’s just like, “What’s happening?” It’s so fun how that turn happens. I’m having a great time with Jenna. She’s got a big laugh and a really fun spirit. We get along very well and we’ve become good pals.

USHKOWITZ: Christopher is a comedic genius. Our chemistry is vibrant and it’s like a little Ping-Pong game in that we really do vibe off of one another. I also would say he’s like a teddy bear, so it’s a very cuddly relationship. He’s very charming. I actually met him 20 minutes before our first performance together because he was on vacation when I was in rehearsal. So it was really important to listen to each other because we were literally getting to know each other on stage for the first time. That was a really great learning experience for me and I’m lucky to continue to do that every day. It was really special and definitely very cute.

In your opinions, why are Ogie and Dawn a perfect couple?

USHKOWITZ: I think they push each other. They both have created these beautiful lives for themselves that make them very fulfilled. Realizing then that there can be other people that can also fulfill you in ways that you can’t do for yourself is really sweet. I think that the two of them are like peas in a pod that way. And accepting each other for who they really are – like when they dress up as Betsy Ross and Paul Revere – is really cute.

FITZGERALD: They’re so mix-matched but so perfect for each other. Dawn is essentially kind of a “no” person. She’s sort of afraid, quiet, and reserved and he’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch those two forces come together.

What’s your personal favorite song in the show and why?

MUELLER: It really changes every night and they all feel so different. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite.

USHKOWITZ: My favorite song to listen to is definitely “She Used To Be Mine.” I think Jessie gives a spectacular performance and I feel like that song is the culmination of the show. It just really gives you an idea of who she is and what we’re dealing with. But I also really love “Everything Changes.” I really enjoy singing that with the girls. It’s just all so beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I’ve got to give it up to my buddy Nick Cordero and his song, “You Will Still Be Mine.” But they’re all good! They really are. I like to put on the CD in my car sometimes, just because I love all of the songs from the very beginning to the end. I really just think this is a remarkable score!

What are your favorite things to do to relax on a no-show day?

MUELLER: Get out of the city and go somewhere green!

USHKOWITZ: I just finished watching Stranger Things. I like to binge-watch TV shows just because on no-show days, I try not to talk. I’ll either go get a massage and then watch either The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise or Netflix.

FITZGERALD: It depends. Sometimes I like to take a nap, sometimes I like getting outside and sitting in the park and zoning out. Seeing friends. It’s always different for me.

This show doesn’t knock me out in the same way that it does someone like Jessie. She’s on stage the whole time. The emotional gamut that she runs is large and that really takes a toll on an actor in the long run. Because it’s not that you don’t feel those things. You do. You have to go there if you’re going to put over a scene where you’re about to be physically abused. And the fear of that is something that as an actor, you have to kind of tap into. So that takes its toll. It’s not necessarily always a fun place to be.

But that’s the most fun thing about playing Ogie: he’s nothing but positivity and joy. It’s falling in love with somebody and expressing that, and then letting that continue and that’s it. It doesn’t really take any other kind of turn. So it’s just fun to be here. And the cast and crew are a great group of people.

Jessie, one of the many things that I found so powerful and impressive about your performance at this year’s Tony Awards was how you were able to so quickly emotionally transition from the bubbly “Opening Up” to the vulnerable and heavy “She Used To Be Mine.” As an actor, how do you mentally prepare for the rollercoaster journey that your character goes on every night?

MUELLER: HA! I think that might have been sheer panic or exhaustion on the night of the Tonys. And there was a beautiful moment when I finished my costume change, and walked out on the stage, and saw and heard Sara, and it all hit me – how special the moment was. How far we’d come and what we’d all built together. During the show I really have to take it one moment at a time. It’s death for me if I think about where I have to get to or the emotion of a moment. If I open up and let go, it’s much better. I’m still learning how to do that. I have to continually remind myself there’s something bigger happening than all of us. But it also takes all of us. Every moment takes me to the next, every character, that’s what makes it possible.

How would you each describe the experience of working with Sara Bareilles and what’s been the best part about getting to sing her music?

FITZGERALD: Sara is awesome. She’s got a great sense of humor and all we do is kid around with each other and make fun of each other. She’s unbelievably talented and is unafraid to think about, speak about and give out stuff that is challenging and interesting. It was really fun to collaborate with her. We came up with some other ideas together and she was open to any and all of them. She’s fierce and is also very clear about what she wants and what she needs. That’s also really satisfying. She’s just incredible.

MUELLER: Sara really was awesome. She was so open, available, and extremely thoughtful and supportive when it came to the score. If something wasn’t fitting in my voice or wasn’t serving the bigger picture, she was open to changing it. She wanted the score to be comfortable for us to sing. That being said, she’s brilliant and has an incredible vocal instrument. I think this is one of the most challenging scores I’ve ever sung. She set the bar high!

USHKOWITZ: I actually didn’t work with Sara. She came and saw the show after I joined and she really enjoyed the performance. When I was learning the material, they were like, “Don’t worry! Just sing the stuff and feel it and be honest with it.” Looking over videos and things that I’ve seen of Sara working with the original cast, like when they were working on the album, she always encouraged them to “Let this be your version.” She’d say, “This is your story and your version. I’ve done mine!” She put hers on a concept album and it’s beautiful to listen to. But we’re all different so I think that’s the biggest thing I took away. That it was okay to make her my Dawn. To not try and replicate what had been done – because you can’t.

Vocally, how does singing this type of pop-infused score differ from your more traditional and classical musical theater work?

USHKOWITZ: That’s exactly what it is. It’s pop. It’s a bit more laid back and emotionally driven. And Sara’s songs, I will say, are not easy to sing. It’s not like we’re singing some easy pop song that’s done in a recording studio. Her stuff is tough. It’s beautiful and intricate and that’s why I think it does so well. In musical theater, you’re trained a certain way. So to be able to bring in this contemporary sound and have that live feel with our studio mics and everything makes it become sort of like a pop concert as well.

FITZGERALD: To me, it is a little easier to sing. The way that Sara voiced the characters is just such strong writing. And there’s not much difference when it’s good writing.

MUELLER: It’s really fun and was a departure for me. There’s a little more freedom. And sometimes that’s scary, but it also encourages me to really put my heart and soul into it. Of course I’m conscious of what I sound like but it’s not my main concern when singing pop scores. It’s fun to put some guts behind it and hopefully give audiences something they don’t always hear in musical theater.

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What are your personal favorite kinds of pie(s), both to eat and to bake?

MUELLER: Chocolate cream pie from Bakers Square, or banana or coconut cream. I’m not good at baking those, so if I were baking, it would be a fruit pie – maybe strawberry rhubarb.

FITZGERALD: I really love a banana cream pie. Some people hate the idea of banana in anything and it makes them gag. I love it. I also really like a good, high-quality chocolate cream pie. My mom’s apple pie was always simple and so well done. So, I also just love a very well made, fresh, hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I mean, come on!

USHKOWITZ: Well, I have to be honest, I’m not a pie baker. I will make a healthy pie out of spaghetti squash, but that’s about it and that’s kind of boring. I like quiche, which Jenna also does make for the diner. I’m a big fan of eating quiche, but if I had to choose a sweet one, I’d go with a classic apple pie à la Mode.

Jenna, one of the many projects you’ve taken on since Glee ended is your podcast, Infinite Positivities. Can you please tell me a little bit about what inspired you to host this and what some of the most rewarding aspects of working on it have been so far?

download (1)USHKOWITZ: Well, after I wrote my book Choosing Glee in 2013, I got a really great response from people and I started to realize that not everybody had this viewpoint and perspective on positivity. It really opened my eyes to understanding how to condition yourself to make happiness a choice. The podcast is sort of an extension of my book. I take topics based off of the chapters in my book and I discuss real life issues with really cool and inspiring people. The way I like to find my guests are people who seem like they live their lives whole-heartedly and sort of have been through tough times but came out the other side successfully. I can show my listeners that it’s not always easy and either way, you’re going to come out stronger. So, that was sort of the inspiration.

The most rewarding thing is having these amazing, inspiring, successful people on and learning that they’re just human beings. We all feel and we all mess up and we all fail. We’re ambitious and we try and I think that the most beautiful thing is just being aware of all of these things and showing people a different perspective on life.

Who of your Glee co-stars are you still in the closest contact with? And have any come to see you in this show yet?

USHKOWITZ: Well, none of them have come to see me because I’m only in my second week of the show, but I know Darren (Criss) is going to come. He said he wanted to come and Lea (Michele) wanted to come. I talk to Darren, Lea and Becca (Tobin) a lot. I was actually speaking with Kevin (McHale) just this morning. Then of course, Harry (Shum Jr.), Naya (Rivera), Diana (Agron), and Amber (Riley). It’s hard to say. We all speak a lot. We stay in really close contact. We’re all family so sometimes we’ll go months without talking at all and then sometimes we’ll talk everyday.

Jessie, can you please describe what the recording of charity single “What The World Needs Now Is Love” with Broadway For Orlando was like?

MUELLER: It was one of the coolest afternoons I’ve had in a long time. It felt like such a blessing to have something to do in the face of what felt like helplessness. And what a room! I felt like I was watching from the outside and wondering who the heck had let me in there. I was in a Carole King/Sara Bareilles sandwich for most of the session. My heart was very big that day.

Christopher, a few months ago, I interviewed Shoshana Bean, and she told me that she credits her involvement in Wicked with why she gets to travel the world singing today. So I’ll ask you the same question that I asked her then: How has being such an integral part of such a blockbuster musical shaped your career?

FITZGERALD: Well, nobody wants to hear me travel the world and sing like Shoshana. If I sang like Shoshana, I think I would say what she said. It’s interesting. I come out at the stage door after the show and half the people are like, “Oh, my god! I loved you in Wicked! I love Wicked!” It’s crazy that there are still fans from that time.

The only thing I can say really is that it was amazing to watch the power of something that could affect that many people. It was like, “We’re just singing songs and telling a story. It’s nothing more special than that!” And yet it is that special, and it’s just remarkable! People still have such an affinity for it. The fact that right now there are like five different Boqs around the world tonight that are going to say lines that I said first, and do little bits that I did, that just blows my mind sometimes. I’m like, “Really? They’re going to do that little book thing that I did and they’re wearing the same costume that I wore?” It’s totally surreal!

And yet if I walked over there right now, the people at the theater would be like, “Can I help you?” or “Who are you?” They even have a sign that says something like, “If you were in Wicked previously, you may not come backstage. You have to come back with somebody.” Because there are so many of us now!

Waitress1487rOh wow. If you were in charge of casting, who would you like to see play Boq in the upcoming Wicked film adaptation?

FITZGERALD: Aside from you, you mean? I don’t know! Who could play Boq? Joseph Gordon Levitt, maybe? I don’t know. It’d be one of these actors that I don’t know because they’re so young now. Maybe Michael from Stranger Things. My wife and I just finished that show and we loved it. It was so fun and exciting. That’s my hip answer because it’s pretty current. But already Stranger Things is becoming old hat, I guess. It’s so sad how quickly these things move.

Do any of you have any plans to release your own solo albums? What would they sound like?

MUELLER: I’d love to someday, when I have something to say. I just don’t know what that is right now. So I also don’t know what it would sound like.

USHKOWITZ: That’s a really good question! If you were to ask me even before Waitress, it would definitely be along the lines of a Vanessa Carlton/Sara Bareilles/Ingrid Michaelson/Regina Spektor/Florence and the Machine feel. But as of right now, no. I’m really enjoying this acting route at the moment. I’m not closed off to it, but that’s not something that I’m dying to pursue at the moment either.

FITZGERALD: Maybe! It would be called like, The One Syllable Names or The Creatures. I did a Feinstein’s show before it closed about three years ago (before it became 54 Below). I did it with my friend David Turner. It was a mixture of all sorts of fun songs. It’s a really fun thing to do because you get clear about what really moves you. It was a combination of some songs from my childhood and some songs that were older and also some new ones. So it’s really eclectic and weird, but fun.

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CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS TO WAITRESS, NOW PLAYING AT BROADWAY’S BROOK ATKINSON THEATRE. AND CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE THE WAITRESS ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING.

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: CHATTING WITH “FUNNY GIRL” SHOSHANA BEAN

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SHOSHANA BEAN IS READY TO TAKE CENTER STAGE AGAIN.

After being Idina Menzel’s original replacement as the green-skinned heroine of Broadway’s Wicked, Bean has spent the past decade primarily focused on her career as a singer/songwriter. But following an acclaimed star turn last summer in Beaches, a musical based on the beloved film and novel, Bean is ready to take the theater world by storm again.

Next month, she’ll be fulfilling a lifelong dream of headlining Funny Girl, playing at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts. As she gears up for her debut as the iconic Fanny Brice, Bean spoke with me about her history with and excitement surrounding Funny Girl, her aspirations of returning to Broadway, her illustrious career as an independent recording artist, and much more.

NAGORSKI: Funny Girl is such a landmark musical. What’s your first memory of seeing the show and/or movie?

BEAN: Well, I’ve only seen the show once, so my only memory of actually seeing it on stage was when Leslie Kritzer did it at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2001. That’s my iconic visual of the production. But the movie? Oh my gosh, it goes so far back to early in my childhood. I remember that it was a repeat watch, for sure. And then I got the vocal selections. To have that sheet music as part of my collection was such a big deal to me.

I guess my first memory would be that “I’m The Greatest Star” was the song that stuck out to me the most. My grandma introduced me to the movie and she would sing that song with me. Who could forget Barbra’s little sailor outfit and those bangs? It was such a powerful song and I just felt like it spoke to me, even at that very young age.

I was always involved in theater, but I was never really front and center. I always had the most amount of energy and probably sang the loudest, but I definitely was never chosen as the star, so I already could identify. My career started at 6-years-old, and I could already identify with Fanny Brice not being given her opportunities.

So is “I’m The Greatest Star” the song from the show that you’re most looking forward to singing every day on stage?

I mean, yes, but mostly, I’m looking forward to singing the entire score! There’s not a bad apple in the bunch. But music that makes me dance is by far and away my favorite, so that’s one that I know I will revel in nightly.

You’ve sung back-up for Michael Jackson and alongside huge names like Brian McKnight. But it’s Barbra Streisand who you’ve most often referred to as your biggest musical influence. What is it about Streisand that makes you look up to her so much and how does it feel to be tackling what is arguably her most famous and defining role?

It feels terribly intimidating because my fear at this point is how ingrained Barbara’s performance is in my body and in my voice. Now that I’m older and I’ve done my research on Fanny over the years, I’ve realized how important it is to be really mindful of the fact that this show is about Fanny Brice, who is a totally different performer than Streisand and the way that Streisand interpreted her.

I’m intimidated and I’m a little scared because I really want to make sure that I do justice to Fanny. I need to ignore the fact that people will come in ready to compare me to Streisand. Her portrayal and star turn became a much bigger deal than the story of Fanny Brice. So I feel mindful and I have trepidations about taking on the role.

As far as how Streisand has been an influence to me, it started because she was a big part of my upbringing. “The Way We Were” was the catalyst. It was the first song of hers that I can remember hearing. Her music and her voice were something that my grandma and I bonded over. I mean, she has an instrument unlike any other. Growing up, I remember being so inspired by her because she was a woman who not only tackled musical theater, but who also tackled pop and jazz and who was actually considered very soulful. She collaborated with many other R&B and blues and jazz artists of the time.

To me, she was a woman who crossed all of the boundaries. She directed, she starred in movies, and she did everything that a performer could possibly do. And she did it with non-traditional looks and a voice that was unlike anybody else’s! So at a very early age, I identified with the fact that she could do anything, did do everything, and did it despite what critics may have predicted or deemed impossible. She has a monstrous hunger and the resolve to do anything she sets her mind to. She’s never stopped inspiring me in that way.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 3.08.43 PMWhat is something new or specific that you’re bringing to Fanny to give her that unique Shoshana twist?

There’s nothing new or different to bring to it except that I am just a different person. I read a Fanny Brice biography and highlighted and dog-eared so many pages. Because whether it was a direct quote from Fanny or whether it was a review of her performance, I think the thing that made her so special was her pedestrian-like approach to things. Everyone kept saying that she always had a very special relationship with her audience.

That was the best reminder for me to just do what I already know to do. It reminded me that the most important aspect was engaging with the audience, and not to get too in my head about the fact that it’s Fanny Brice, and it’s Barbara Streisand, and it’s Funny Girl, and it’s this big moment for me because it’s this huge dream come true to play this role.

Do you still find parallels between your story and Fanny’s? If so, how will those connections inform your portrayal of her?

I do think that I’ll be bringing who I am and my story to the table, which is not unlike Fanny’s story or the story in Funny Girl. I can relate to so much of that and I’m so grateful that I’m getting to do this later in my life. I don’t think that Shoshana five or ten years ago would’ve understood a lot of the stuff that’s going on a really molecular and soul level, you know?

Really I think that my challenge will be just letting go and being who I already authentically am, and not feeling like I have to prove something or be somebody else. I do really want to honor some quirks and some trademark characteristics of Fanny’s. I keep watching her movies over and over to try and get some of her schtick in me – like the specific faces that she makes or the way that she speaks.

I have to tell you, one of the most riveting parts of watching old clips of her is what an amazing listener she is. There’s this one movie called Be Yourself and it’s her and this guy, and watching her scenes with him when she’s not speaking or performing and the way that she listens and engages is incredible. Because typically, when someone is known for being a physical comedian, you’d think her schtick would be all about stealing the limelight and chewing the scenery. Except it really wasn’t about that, so I was blown away. That was another good reminder for me of the heart of the character. It’s not going to be about me just trying to find funny things to do every five seconds, you know?

That may sound silly, but there are a lot of pressures that come with doing this show. I mean, if you’re going to be in Funny Girl, you’ve got to be hilarious and sing like Streisand, right? But initially, the show was written about this woman, and to me, she’s the person I want to honor in the best possible way.

You just wrapped up the starring role of CeeCee Bloom in Beaches in Chicago. What was that experience like and do you plan to continue being involved with the production when it ultimately comes to Broadway?

Yes, I hope to! I don’t really know what’s going on with it right now. I literally just heard from Iris Rainer Dart, the book writer, the other day. She sent me an email about something else and was like, “I just did a bunch of rewrites, I’ve got some juicy stuff for you.” You know, we recently lost our other book writer, Thom Thomas. He passed of cancer.

Oh, I’m so sorry.

I think that because of that, everyone kind of just felt a little icky about moving forward. I know that probably hurt Iris a great deal. But the experience of that show was certainly amazing. It was my first real run of a show since Wicked. It had been almost 10 years since I had been on stage and in a show of that magnitude, and it was awesome. So much life has been lived and so much experience has been had since Wicked that I feel like I’m a different person when I come to a role. I’m grateful to have experiences to bring to these characters because I can relate to them. CeeCee is not unlike a Fanny Brice type of a character, so it was awesome. It was a lot of work! It wore me out. I was like, “This is why I love this!” but at the same time, “I’m cool on eight shows a week for a while.” Eight shows a week can be so hard. And I wasn’t used to doing that anymore, so I was like, “Why am I comatose? Why can I not get out of bed on my day off?”

That show was a marathon for me. It made some of the other roles I’ve done look like a piece of cake because between 20 costume changes and dancing and tapping and singing, it was just a monster.

Yeah, I bet!

But don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that I did it. I had the time of my life! It was a blast.

Aside from hopefully Beaches, do you have any other plans of returning to the Broadway stage in the near future?

I would absolutely love to! I don’t know what’s coming down the pike or what would be a great fit, but yes, I would definitely love to come back to the stage, and specifically Broadway. Beaches definitely bit me with the bug again.

I’m at the point in my life that I’m just so grateful that I’ve been able to do what I love to do for 20 years now. Basically, whatever you want from me, I’ll do it. I just am so happy to be able to do what I love. I had all of these huge goals that I wanted to achieve in years past. But at the end of it, I just look back and think that while you can make your plans, life is ultimately going to take you where it takes you regardless. So I’m just kind of really embracing that and going along for the ride for the first time in my life.

Anyone that knows me will say, “She has decided where she’s going and she will force her way into that place and she won’t care what you have to say.” But now, while I of course definitely still have plans, goals, and dreams, I’m much more open than before. For example, I never would have told you that this year would’ve brought me Funny Girl at North Shore Music Theatre. I never would have guessed to put that on my plan. But the opportunity came and I was immediately like, “Absolutely! There’s no question that I’m not going to play this role.”

wicked-shoshana-bean-02_612x380_1Going back to Wicked – in addition to being the very first Elphaba in the show’s national tour, you were also the first actress to play the role on Broadway after Idina Menzel. You even took over for her a few days earlier than planned when she sustained a terrible injury during what ended up being her final performance. What was her advice for you on your opening night? Did what happened to her make you nervous?

Well, I don’t think that she gave me any advice on the actual opening night. I think that I learned a lot by watching her and by being around her when I was standing by. But her best advice came to me when I was probably a week or two into the run.

Keep in mind, this was at the top of 2005 and YouTube was just taking off. People were putting up clips and bootlegs of the entire show, and people were talking shit about my performance. And I made the mistake of watching every video and reading all the comments. I didn’t know it was a mistake to do that, but who knew it was a mistake back then?

I would literally spend my days off or my nights emailing people and being like, “Please take that down. I was sick. That’s not fair.” I would try to go head-to-head with these nameless, faceless people. So I emailed Idina and was like, “I’m losing my mind, how do you do it?” And she said to me, “Shoshana, don’t do it. Don’t look at the videos. Don’t engage with those people. Don’t read the comments. You will literally spiral and spend your life in bed with chocolate. Do not do it.”

From that moment on, even when I post my own videos, I don’t read the comments. I realized right then and there that she was right and that if I’m going to keep any level of sanity, I have to completely ignore what’s being said – whether it’s good or bad. There’s a Maya Angelou quote that says, “Don’t pick them up, don’t lay them down.” Meaning you can’t take the good stuff and ignore the bad. It all exists. So the best thing you can do is just do your job the best you can, right? That’s probably the best advice I got from Idina.

How has being such an integral part of such a blockbuster musical shaped your career?

At that point that I took over, right as YouTube was ramping up, the show was already a huge success – but it wasn’t the monster that it is today. I don’t think I knew the scope or the massiveness of what I was involved in at the time. It was obviously a very big deal, but I think I made it less of a big deal in my own mind so that it wasn’t so intimidating, threatening, or terrifying.

But now, 11 years later, I truly believe that it is the reason that I have a career. Because of Wicked and because of YouTube, I get to do concerts all around the world, and people know who I am because of that. That’s so huge! I hate to give it all of that credit, but it is definitely the driving force behind it.

Of course I’ve done other things, and there are other things you can find on YouTube that are not just Wicked. But there are so many independent artists like I am, and who make their own music and make their own records, but they don’t have that fierce and loyal following that I got from being involved in Wicked. So I’m very lucky.

Oddly enough, it’s not even always the people who knew me from 10 years ago. It’s like 13-year-olds, who were three-years-old at the time, who just found a video the other day, and are now like, “I’m a Shoshana Bean fan!” Which is wild but then I’m like, “Well I haven’t done Wicked in 10 years, but I’m thrilled to have you along for the ride!”

That show created this following of people who are interested in the people who have been involved in it. And I am no fool. I absolutely am aware that that’s why I’ve been able to do a lot of what I’ve done and have gone where I’ve been able to go.

That’s incredible! As a solo artist, you already have two albums, an EP, and various singles under your belt. Do you have any plans to release more original music soon? If so, what musical direction will your new material be heading in?

Well, I have a project I’m about to announce shortly. It won’t be original music. So it’s a project that I’m going to do in the interim before my fourth original music record. But yes, I’m in the process of writing the fourth record. I’m struggling a little bit to figure out stylistically which direction I’m going in. I’m in the process of it and of evolving it into what it will ultimately be.

I just did a show Saturday night at Hotel Café in LA where I debuted some of the new stuff. It was terrifying! I didn’t know how the hell it was going to go. But I’m in the in-between phase now, so I just thought, “Why don’t we just share where we’re at? Let’s just be honest about it. It could totally suck. No one can vibe with it, or they can totally love it.”

So yes, while I am working on a fourth record, I would say I’m only about 40% there. I’m not even half way to the point where I can say, “Okay I get where I’m going and what I’m doing.” Therefore, in the meantime, I am going to do this other project that I’m super excited about. I love being in the studio. I love putting out products. I love having something new to give to people. And in this digital age, people’s appetites are insatiable. You put out a record, and they’re like, “What’s next?” Meanwhile, you’re like, “I just put out a record! Yay!” So yes, I will always keep doing that.

I just got off the road touring with Postmodern Jukebox all over Europe and that was such a ball. Getting to meet their crazy audiences and not having to be in charge? That was super fun. And now I’m doing Funny Girl! So it’s like I said, I’m just open and just enjoying that being a performer takes me in all kinds of different directions. It’s rad.

Speaking of Postmodern Jukebox, how do you go about selecting the songs that you cover with them? And what is it about these experiences that make you want to keep working with them again and again?

I got involved with Postmodern Jukebox when they moved to Los Angeles, and in the beginning, we just did one video. That came from creator Scott Bradlee and I just brainstorming. He ultimately decided on Backstreet Boys and that’s how “I Want It That Way” became our first video. He was set on doing something from the 90s and so we landed on that one. We’ve now done four videos together and it’s always a great collaborative effort.

Sometimes I bring stuff to the table, like when we did Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.” I asked if he had already planned to do that one and when he said no, I just said, “let’s do it!” And then this most recent one that we did, Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold,” I went to him and explained the concept and the idea I had. That one’s on their new record.

But really, the way that this all started, I acted as a kind of musical liaison. They came to LA and they did this residency, and I just kept introducing them to other musicians and songs, and then they just started coming to me for recommendations. So I kind of felt like the fairy godmother of their talent. And even when they went on tour, I held down their residency in LA and did all of the booking and stuff like that.

More than anything, it just started as a collaboration between friends. I had never gone on the road with them, and frankly, I hadn’t ever really been interested in it because I’m the girl who wants to do her own music. I didn’t think I was interested in going out and doing other people’s music. But they came to me when they needed a pinch hitter for this European tour. Someone got sick so they needed someone to jump out for a month. I saw that they’d be going to all of these European cities that I’d never gone to, and that’s amazing. Plus, I had a month to kill, so why not go have fun?

When you are your own boss, and you are the driving force behind your music and your band and you’re booking the people, and you’re selling the merch … it’s exhausting. By the end of last year, after all the shows I did overseas and stuff, I was like, “I don’t care if I never do another solo show again. I’m so tired.” So the thought of going out with them and just having to show up on time and getting up on stage and nothing else was just like, “Yes! Fantastic! I’d love to go.”

I’m so glad that I did because I had the time of my life. Their audiences are amazing! I played venues that I’ve only ever dreamed of playing, and I got to see what tour life is really like. I got to see so many amazing cities in Europe and it was just the best. They’re an amazing family of super talented people.

I’ve never done shows back to back every night except for in a musical, but in a musical, it’s frozen. Meaning the script is what it is, the music is what it is, you don’t stray from it, and you kind of do the same thing every night. This was so different because it was only loosely frozen. Like we do the same material every night, but since it’s a pop show, I can take a break here, and I can make this back-and-forth with the audience go longer, etc. There are living, breathing, changing, and evolving elements to it. Doing that every night was such an education for me as a singer and a musician. And to be on stage with such talented people, it was just beyond incredible.

It sounds like it! Funny Girl wraps up its run on June 19th. Do you already know what you’ll be doing after that? Are you going to be joining Postmodern Jukebox’s upcoming U.S. tour? What else do you have lined up?

I would love to integrate myself and pop in on a couple of dates on their U.S. tour. I definitely want to play in my hometown, Portland, and I already told Scott how badly I want to play Radio City Music Hall with them when they go to New York.

But I don’t yet know that I can. I’m very grateful that my schedule is really packed right now. I am going to Australia after Funny Girl for two weeks to do a bunch of solo shows. Then in the fall, I’m back in Europe again. I’ve got some shows in London, Germany, and Spain. There are a bunch of shows that have popped up, so a good chunk of the rest of the year is already spoken for. Plus, I’ve got this other project that I mentioned before.

All that is to say that while I don’t know, I love it. Shit always pops up out of nowhere, and you’re like, “In two weeks I’ve got to pack up my apartment and move.” You never know.

Recently, you inked a deal with ABC Signature for a new musical pilot that you co-created and for which you will be composing the music. What more can you tell me about this show? What’s the premise, when do you expect it to air and will you performing on it as well?

Well, we’re in a little bit of a holding pattern because my writing partner just became a staff writer on Fuller House. So her time is completely spoken for as of now. We got our rewrites from Signature at the top of the year and we made our changes. We have our studio, but now we have to pitch to networks.

The TV show is based on a musical we wrote called Dear John Mayer. We originally wrote it for me as a star vehicle. So in a perfect world, I would’ve thrown my hat in the ring to be the lead. But one of the first notes we got was, “Can you make the character not in her early 30s? Can she be in her early 20s instead?” So of course we were like, “Ok, there goes that.”

I don’t know what my involvement will be beyond writing the music. But I don’t know what the timeline is either. I think that she’ll have some time off this summer, so maybe we’ll be able to dig in more at that point. Hopefully they don’t give up on us!

You’re good friends with pop superstar Ariana Grande. Any chance that the two of you will put out some music together someday?

We did a show together at the top of the year, and she hit me up after and was like, “I want you to hear the new record and whatever your favorite song is, we’ll sing it together.” I was like, “This is my best life! I get to sing and I get to hear the record!” And then of course, we never got it together. I’d be like, “What’s up, how’s this week?” And she’d be like, “I’m in New York!” We just never coordinated, and now the record’s coming out this week and I haven’t heard it.

But yes, I love singing with her. She blows my mind. It was such a treat to be able to be on stage together when we did in January. I’m just proud of, not just the artist she has become and continues to evolve into, but also the person that she is and how she has handled a lot of pressure and being in the spotlight and being a woman – and being a beautiful woman at that. You know, you just can’t win. No matter what you do, they give you shit. So I’m proud of how she’s handled it all. And I’m so proud of the music that she’s making because I know that with this record specifically, she definitely took more control and definitely asserted her opinions and her desires more than she has on her previous records. So I’m proud of that. Of course I hope we get to sing together again at some point. Are you kidding? She’s got the most unbelievable voice.

Well, so do you.

Oh, well, thank you.

Thanks so much, Shoshana! Is there anything else you want to talk about that we didn’t discuss?

I don’t think so! You’re very thorough. Thank you so much, doll!

You too! I can’t wait to see the show!


Click here to purchase tickets to see Shoshana Bean in Funny Girl, playing at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA from June 7 – June 19.

Shoshana Bean

Originally published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW WITH BROADWAY’S BRIGHT STAR, CARMEN CUSACK

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Carmen Cusack’s star is on the rise.
Carmen CusackIn Bright Star, Cusack plays central character Alice Murphy, the editor of a prestigious literary journal whose haunted past may not be as behind her as she believes. Through Cusack’s passionate and moving performance, the audience gets to know Alice in both 1923 and 1945, at the ages of 16 and 38. Powered by her soaring mezzo-soprano voice, Cusack’s transformative and distinctive ways of portraying this character amount to a truly spellbinding and star-making Broadway debut. It’s no wonder, then, that she’s already nabbed Drama League Award and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for her role.

Set in North Carolina, Bright Star is an original bluegrass musical from the creative masterminds of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Currently playing on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, the show is a heartwarming, riveting, and charming reminder of the power of hope. I caught up with Cusack about playing the same character at vastly different stages of her life, her storied career so far, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: To start off, could you describe your audition for Bright Star? How did you first hear about the show and what song did you sing?

CARMEN CUSACK: I was in LA at the time and was asked to send them a taped audition, which I of course agreed to after reading the script. I decided to sing a couple of folky-type songs and backed myself on guitar to my own little renditions of “Wayfaring Stranger” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”.

This show marks your Broadway debut, yet you’ve been a stage veteran for quite some time. What was it about Bright Star that made you decide to trade in the West End and national tours for the Great White Way? 

Well, I grew up imagining my Broadway debut but life took some interesting turns that landed me in the UK at an early age. I started auditioning there and getting work and ended up staying for 14 years. My plan was to always come back to the States when the time was right – meaning when I could afford to or get a job that would allow me to return. In 2006, the creatives from Wicked were casting in London and it was at this point that I expressed a desire to go back to the States. A few months later, I was working in Chicago as a stand by for Elphaba and then went on to play Elphie full-time on the first National Tour. The big goal has always been to originate a character so I guess you could say (corny as it may sound) that the stars finally aligned – originating a role in a brand new show and opening it on Broadway. All three wishes in one!

You’ve starred in so many renowned shows — like Les Miserables, The Secret Garden, The Phantom of the Opera, South Pacific, and Ragtime just to name a few. Artistically, what do you find are the biggest differences between playing a classic role and originating one in a new musical? 

The freedom to really experiment. When you’re originating a role, the formula is still to be decided. But I also enjoy taking risks with more renowned roles and putting my own spin on them.

Throughout Bright Star, you alternate between playing Alice as a young woman and as a mature adult. What do you find to be the greatest changes in your character caused by the 22 years in between the times we get to know her?  

Carmen CusackTwenty-two years in anyone’s life allows for some hard knocks and Alice Murphy is no exception. Without giving too much away, she suffers a huge loss at a tender age, which informs the dark, guarded woman she becomes.

As an actor, how do you so seamlessly (and frequently) transition from playing Alice at one age to playing her at another? 

Varying posture and vocal textures are some of the tricks and just changing my frame of mind from cocky and careless to confident and in control.

On your website, you describe Alice as your dream role. What is it about this character and her journey that spoke to you so loudly? What are some of your favorite things about her? 

That she gets to go from age 16 to 38 in a matter of seconds is a big sell. She is a spitfire of a character that has aspirations and goes after them even at the most trying of times. Also, I connect with her challenges, her losses and her ultimate victory.

Some of what makes Bright Star such a unique and unmissable experience are the bluegrass and folk influences in its music. Were you a fan of these genres and Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s prior to the show? 

YES and YES! I’ve always been a fan of Steve Martin’s comedy and a huge fan of Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. I grew up in the South with gospel music and the blues, bluegrass and folk. It’s in my blood.

You have so many great songs in the show, including my favorite, the climactic “At Long Last.” What’s your personal highlight to sing every night? 

I love starting off the show with “If You Knew My Story.” It’s one of the newer songs, as is “At Long Last,” which just got put into the show during our DC contract late last year. I feel it sets up the intrigue of Alice and I love how the staging incorporates the entire company, reinforcing the lyrics in the song, “Tell me I’m not alone”. Of course “At Long Last” mirrors my feelings personally that AT LAST I’m singing for a Broadway audience!

You’ve been a part of Bright Star since the very beginning. You played Alice in the show’s early workshops and out-of-town runs in San Diego and Washington, DC. How do you feel that both your character and the show have evolved since its original inception to the final, polished version?

Carmen CusackFrom the first reading, I knew there was strong content. I connected to the character from the start but also knew there was room for improvement. This was very exciting as this work was going to come from the collaborations of these incredibly smart, talented writers. I wanted to watch and learn from them and maybe through the process they might learn from us (the actors). I love being a part of collaboration and then seeing how it lands on an audience. My most treasured memories came during previews in San Diego at the Old Globe. We would meet every morning at 10 AM to discuss what had happened the night before with various scene changes. Steve and Edie were always there for these meetings and as we sipped from our Starbucks teas and lattes, we’d discuss how our experiments would land. There were lots of laughs. It felt like family time.

Do you have a pre-show ritual/tradition of any kind? If so, what is it?

Not really. Just a cup of tea and a moisture mask.

Recently, you played Annie McDougan in the Chicago premiere of First Wives Club. What can you tell me about that experience and do you plan on continuing be a part of that show if/when it transfers to Broadway? 

I think they are reworking it at the moment, which is a good thing. Writing a musical is about the hardest thing to do successfully. It takes time and dedication and you’re putting it out there for critique constantly. You have to form a hard skin, but if you don’t try, you don’t learn. First Wives Club is a great idea and it is going through its process. I LOVED working with Faith Prince and Christine Sherill. We had each other’s back and laughed also. I wish the First Wives team well.

You also played Eva Cassidy in the UK tour of Over The Rainbow. How was your creative process different when playing a real person versus a fictional character? 

Well, there unfortunately isn’t a lot of footage of Eve Cassidy out there, except for the two albums that were out at the time I was studying her. On her live blues alley album, she talks a bit and the way she spoke informed me in a way to her personality. I also read a book that was helpful. I wanted to sound exactly like her in how she sang and spoke, and I think I succeeded in that. It’s a shame that the script wasn’t very good. A fictional person allows for a bit more freedom, but I enjoy the challenges of both.

Tell me a little bit about Fountain Throes, the band you work with on the side. I hear you’re in the midst of putting together an album of original music? Any idea when that might be available?

I am half way through. I’m hoping to get the last five songs recorded soon as possible. The Fountain Throes are a handful of musicians I work with when I’m in LA in my downtime. I miss them! Thanks for asking about that.

You’re a big fan of margaritas. Where’s your favorite place to unwind after a show and what’s your margarita of choice?  

Well, I have yet to find a place here in NY. But I’m open to suggestions! I’m old school with my margaritas – tequila, lime juice and a little agave on the rocks.

Thanks so much, Carmen! Is there anything else you want to mention that we didn’t talk about?

I think you were incredibly thorough. Thanks for the opportunity!

Originally Published on PopBytes

QUICK PICK: “THE WOODSMAN” AT NEW WORLD STAGES

Ever since Judy Garland clicked her ruby slippers three times, audiences worldwide have been clamoring to return to the magical land of Oz.

The WoodsmanBased on the beloved classic novels by L. Frank Baum, Oz has been revisited in practically every creative medium imaginable. Films like Journey Back to Oz, Oz The Great and Powerful and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return are just a sampling of the many motion picture follow-ups that have been released since The Wizard of Oz debuted in 1939. Television specials like Return to Oz, Tin Man, and The Witches of Oz continued to navigate the mythology in vastly different styles, as have countless books, comics, and video games.

On stage, Oz has also been revisited in various incarnations. Based on Gregory Maguire’s series of novels, Wicked is the blockbuster musical that pulls back the Emerald Curtain on the secret backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West. Now starring two-time Tony Award-winner Judy Kaye, Wicked is a testament to the enduring legacy of the world Baum created so many years ago. The musical, which opened in 2003, just surpassed Rent to become the 10th longest-running show in Broadway history. The current national tour of The Wizard of Oz is an adaptation of the classic film, injected with new songs by the powerhouse collaborative efforts of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And, of course, who could forget NBC’s spectacular live broadcast of The Wiz this past December?

So since Oz is such a frequently explored place in our pop culture, it may seem a difficult task to create a piece of art that shows it to us through a truly fresh and innovative new lens. But James Ortiz, the creator, star, and co-director of The Woodsman, was more than up for the challenge. And the result paid off beautifully.

The WoodsmanNow playing off-Broadway at New World Stages,The Woodsman is a breathtaking and unique look at the Tin Man. Told mostly through gorgeous puppetry and accompanied by haunting original music by Edward W. Hardy, the intimately presented origin story of the most beloved heartless man in Oz is a striking piece of work.

Following its critically revered and sold-out engagements at 59E59 Theaters, The Woodsman chronicles the harrowing journey of a man who both literally and figuratively loses his heart when the life he has created with the woman he loves is ripped away from him by the evil Wicked Witch. With hardly any dialogue, the story unfolds through movement, allowing the puppets to convey the narrative in revelatory ways.

“Often puppetry is used as an effect or like a trick. But could we actually express complicated feelings without words? That was the challenge,” Ortiz told Playbill. Discussing the frail appearance of the puppet once the transformation into the Tin Man is complete, he added: “It was important for me that he be fragile in appearance. His earlier form is a very sensitive young man who is in the midst of trying to figure out what’s best for the person he loves. It was important that he had a fragility that could also be reflected in this other version of him.”

With an eerie set that complements the dark and melancholy tone of the show, The Woodsman is a daring, unprecedented, stunning, and completely unmissable twist on Oz folklore. It is sure to shock, awe, dazzle, and inspire you.

FOR TICKETS VISIT THEWOODSMANPLAY.COM

Originally published on PopBytes