Carmen Cusack’s star is on the rise.
In 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?
Twenty-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?
From 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!
PHOTOS BY NICK STOKES
Inspired by a real event, this “unabashedly romantic” (The New York Times) original musical tells a sweeping tale of love and redemption set against the rich backdrop of the American South in the 1920s and ‘40s. When literary editor Alice Murphy meets a young soldier just home from World War II, he awakens her longing for the child she once lost. Haunted by their unique connection, Alice sets out on a journey to understand her past — and what she finds has the power to transform both of their lives.
With music and book by Steve Martin, music and lyrics by Edie Brickell, and direction by Walter Bobbie, Bright Star began performances on Thursday, February 25th at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street), and officially opened Thursday, March 24th, 2016.
Visit BrightStarMusical.com for more info & tickets