Carmen Cusack on making her solo concert debut at Feinstein’s/54 Below, playing Tony nominated Bright Star heroine Alice Murphy

Cusack-Carmen

by Casey Mink

Carmen Cusack just wrapped her critically acclaimed—and Tony-nominated—run in the Broadway musical Bright Star, marking one of the most rapturously celebrated Broadway debuts in recent memory. But the sometimes-shy Cusack still feels like the new kid in town, particularly when counting herself among the Great White Way’s many luminaries. However bashful she may be, the golden-throated beltress is embracing her newly-elevated profile and is set to make her solo concert debut at Feinstein’s/54 Below with four dates beginning Aug. 9, for which tickets are available here (the fourth show was added due to popular demand).

Fresh off of an appearance at the Democratic National Convention in which she joined in song with some of the biggest names in theatre, Cusack divulged what audiences can expect from her first full-length appearance onstage as herself, and why that prospect both thrills and terrifies her. Cusack, who has stepped into seemingly every iconic role of the last century both regionally and in the West End, also waxed introspective on why it is her Bright Star character resonated with so many young people, what nearly caused her to quit the business, and how she does manage to unwind when she finally has the time. Yes, just like you, she does Netflix and chill.

First things first, what was it like performing at the Democratic National Convention?

It was kind of crazy. The security was mad and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I feel very new in town, still, and it was great to hang out with other people in my industry and get to know people and I made a few friends! So it’s been really, really nice. They got us out as soon as we sang because the security was so locked down and the fewer people they have backstage, the better. So as soon as we sang we got marched back to the bus and were heading back to New York, but the entire journey back to New York, the bus driver had put on [President Obama’s] speech live for us to listen to so it was just very surreal. It was a very surreal night for us to be a part of.

You’ve been heavily involved with Broadway for Orlando from the start. Why is it an important cause to you?

[The massacre in Orlando] was such a tragedy, and it happened literally the night before the Tonys and it could have been such a wonderful evening but it was hard to go to that event with a genuine smile on my face because of just everything that the whole LGBT community has gone through. Just being able to go and support the people, the victims and the people that lost loved ones and just help them out the best I can. All I can do is sing, because I don’t have a big bank account to hand them money, so anything I could do to offer my help, of course I was there. Luckily for me, I haven’t been stuck in a show for a couple weeks, so I have been able to give my time a bit more.

In the broadest sense, what can audiences expect from your solo concert debut?

Well, I’ve had time to chat with a few people who have done 54 Below shows, and there doesn’t seem to be any particular form or rule or reason. It’s just whatever you want to do. Some people have themes, and some people do full on cabarets and they have a full story. But, I hate to say, I’m not a huge musical theatre fan. I love some things, but not all things. I’m kind of critical. So it’s not a musical theatre type of cabaret by any stretch. But I love singing the Bright Star music, I love that ilk of music, Americana/southern gothic/folk type stuff, which is kind of what I write. A lot of the show is going to be Bright Star music because, why wouldn’t I? And then I’m going to pull in a few songs which I fell in love with and then was gutted that they had to be cut from the show, so I’m going to bring some life back to those songs, and I might throw in a little background story on those.

I’m not going to do a lot of talking, but I am going to express why I’m singing a particular song in places throughout the show, and from what point in my life this came from and why it inspires me. I’m starting off the show with the song that opens Bright Star, “If You Knew My Story,” and I guess if there were any kind of theme to the show, that really is the theme. I’m new here and it was my Broadway debut, and I feel like there are a lot of question marks as to who this person is; Who is Carmen Cusack? So I’m just going to try and fill in the blanks for people as to why I’ve been away as long as I have, where I traveled to and why I traveled there, what show I did there. I’m on my third passport, so there is a lot of information that I could fill in—but I don’t want to fill in everything! I still want to keep some mystery about me. Things will start to open up the longer I’m here and the more that I do. But honestly, I couldn’t fill in all the gaps in 75 minutes with all the songs that I want to do. But the songs that I choose have been very informative about where I’ve been in my life and what took me to those places and what inspired me.

Does it bother you at all when people say those things along the lines of “Where did this woman come from?” just because you hadn’t been on Broadway?

No, it doesn’t. I’m very, very flattered, honestly. It’s so nice to come here to such open arms and have people be surprised. The show, Bright Star, was not based on anything, it was not based on a movie or book, so when people came to see the show, they had no expectations. I was ready for this experience, because it can probably be overwhelming for someone that isn’t ready and doesn’t have as much experience with dealing with the press and answering questions and it can be a bit daunting. I’m just so glad that I’ve had these life experiences that I’ve had through working, to be finally ready to come to Broadway. I was ready, even though it was overwhelming at times, I was prepared for it, more than I could have possibly been ten years ago.

You reached out to your fans on social media, asking them to suggest a musical from which they’d like you to perform a song at your shows. How did you come up with that idea?

I didn’t have a lot of time during awards season to spend time on the Internet, and keep up with what was being written up, what interview I had done. So a few people told me that I had to read this blog that someone put out of the ten roles they would like to see me play. I thought that was really interesting so I looked it up, and I thought, ‘that’s so funny.’ My husband and I were literally talking about one particular show that I’d really like to do—and I won’t mention it now because I don’t want to put any dampers on it—and that had been listed and I was like, ‘yes there it is!’ And that was among all these other shows that I wasn’t familiar with and it made me look into what these roles were about and I did a bit of research and was like, ‘yeah they’re right. Ooh, let’s play that role.’ And then I couldn’t decide, so I wanted to have fun with it and involve these people because they have just shown so much love and I want to keep them in my life and let them have a say about what I should do in these shows. Parade has won out, and I’m going to sing a song from that, the role of Lucille.

Parade is not the most well-known show. Did you know it at all?

No! I didn’t. I remember singing “All the Wasted Time” as a duet years ago in a concert in London, and I loved that song because it kind of showed that range of my voice that I never got to sing very often. It was more kind of folk/country/Americana. I was playing all the—Les Mis, and all these blockbuster shows. I would literally run across the street on a Thursday night, every single week when I was playing Fantine [in West End’s Les Misérables], I would run across the street to a place called Café de Paris in Leicester Square and sing Dusty Springfield stuff and sing 60s stuff, because I just needed to scratch that itch of singing the kind of music I like to listen to and I like to sing.

And I do love musical theatre to a degree. I am so thankful and grateful that I have gotten to play some of these amazing roles that I have gotten to play. It’s just that I’m not a fan of everything. I’m just a bit critical but no one can deny that Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis all these wonderful scores—how can one live without them? I’m just picky.

Your versatility is unprecedented. You have done roles which were performed on Broadway by Idina Menzel [Wicked] and Kelli O’Hara [South Pacific], and neither of them could ever swap roles with the other.

I really put that down to gospel training and opera training. I grew up with gospel and then I studied opera and I found a way to intermingle the two.

Are you excited for audiences to have the chance to see you perform just as Carmen Cusack and not as a character?

I am and I’m also very, very scared. It always horrifies me. I enjoy hiding behind a character—I know it’s kind of weird to say ‘hiding behind,’ but I love taking on a character and being able to speak beautifully written, well thought-out words. When it’s just me, I just sometimes don’t know what I’ll say, so I’ve gotten pretty good at editing myself. Half the time my husband says, ‘No, you don’t say enough. You’ve edited yourself so much’ because I’m just so scared to put my foot in it. But I am really excited about singing the kind of music I want to sing, and I’m also really excited about putting forth a couple of my own original songs.

I was going to ask whether you’d be including original songs.

Yeah. And I know, like you said, I’ve done these roles that are kind of all over the place, that not necessarily one person would do them all, so I’m putting together—I’m not a fan of medleys—but I’m putting together a condensed version of some of those big, iconic roles like Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Fantine and Elphaba and Mother in Ragtime, so I’m putting together a condensed version of all of these iconic roles, so hopefully I will have scratched that itch a little bit.

Let’s talk Bright Star. Your character, Alice Murphy, was one of the most fully-fledged characters I have ever seen on stage. What was it like creating her?

Well, luckily I had time to get to know her, who she was. But, to be honest, as soon as I got the script to put myself down on tape to send to them for the possible reading in Poughkeepsie at New York Stage and Film, I knew who this was, I knew what she was about. I felt so connected to her, myself, with my own yearnings and my own desires to learn. I fled my own home at a very young age to learn and to see the world and to be something different than what was probably expected of me where I was being raised. I connected to her on many, many levels. I also connected to her getting pregnant as a 16-year-old because my mother had me at 16, and we grew up almost as siblings. I really connected with the struggles of what my mother went through. Also, just the opportunity to play 16. Who gets the opportunity to play that again? I’ve always had the 16-year-old in me and I can tap into that at any given moment. These two women, they’re the same, but something happens in her life that changes her so dramatically, and yet she’s still got this light, and it hasn’t gone out just yet.

Do you think of Alice Murphy as a hero?

Oh absolutely, for women—for anyone—for anyone that has to go through something and come out the other end, yes. I hope that men as well connect with her. I had so many young men come up to me for reasons such as they were adopted, or that they just connected to her character in these really cool ways. It brought me to tears some nights, when I would come out to the stage door afterwards and have these really young people wanting to talk to me very specifically about possibly having to consider abortion or having to consider whether they were going to keep a child, and young people that had been adopted and parents that had adopted children. The list goes on and on as to how this role and how the story in general connected with people. And also it did have that girl power message that women, they can do whatever they want, they just have to put their head to it. We all go through trials and tribulations, but just keep your head in the game and get on with it.

Alice has to withstand so much, and her journey is very much about perseverance. For you, as an actress, were there ever moments where you nearly gave up?

Yes, there was one particular moment. I was working with the Chicago Shakespeare Company, doing Sunday in the Park with George, and I was playing Dot/Marie. I walked in on day one and everyone else knew their lines, everyone else was off-book already, literally the first day. A couple months before going into that job, I was preparing our wedding. We were getting married a month after I finished my contract with Sunday in the Park, so my head was kind of elsewhere, planning a wedding, and coming off of another job that I’d just done, so I wasn’t as prepared as everyone else was in the room. It became very clear that my director was baffled by this, and then I began to understand why everyone needed to be off-book, because it was difficult. It’s one of those things where it can take days and you’ll think, I’ll never get this. But then, all of a sudden, the light bulb comes on, and it becomes crystal clear exactly how you’re supposed to do it, but it took a while. I have to say, it was one of those roles where it took me longer than a week to know how I wanted to place it and know where it needs to be. Also, the material, I was so in awe of the complexity and the sophistication of not just the music but the storyline and all the different layers of what he’s trying to say about what it is to be an artist. It just hit me on so many different levels and I almost didn’t feel worthy as an artist to be a vehicle for this beautiful piece.

You know when you just go through phases where you just don’t feel good enough? That was my little low place, where I was just like, ‘I’m not smart enough. I’m not good enough. This is so much bigger and better than me. I don’t know how to elevate this—I can’t elevate this.’ The same thing happened with my husband. I thought my husband was too good for me and I tried to break up with him several times and he had to walk me through it and talk me through it and had to be my therapist at times. It felt like the same kind of thing with Sunday in the Park, where it just felt like I had this perfect thing and I wasn’t good enough for it. I didn’t try to quit, but I went through almost a nervous breakdown and my husband had to talk me through it and say, ‘You’re going to be just fine. You’re going to do this role and be great.’ One day, I think midway through the second week, a light came on and I knew that I could do it. And it was great, it really ended up being one of the most wonderful, magical experiences.   

Would you like to do more Sondheim?

Oh my gosh. That was my first Sondheim. That’s been my first and last, so I’m desperate to do more. He really writes for the actor. Yes, I am ready to do more of his stuff for sure.

One good thing about not being in a show is having more time to see other shows. Have you had a chance to see anything?

I had a chance to see Hamilton. I had a chance to see The Humans. It’s so good, it’s so, so good. But I have to say, since I have been traveling I haven’t had a chance to see so much. I really wanted to see Shuffle Along, and then it closed. But I really want to see The Color Purple so that’s on the list. We’re going to see Forest Boy. It did really well in London, and a really good friend is in it.

Prior to Bright Star you hadn’t spent a ton of time living in New York, is that right?

Yeah, the last time I was living in New York was when we did the off-Broadway version of Carrie.

Now that you’ve spent a longer period of time living in New York, what is your opinion on the Los Angeles versus New York paradigm?

I have to say that they’re both great in small doses. I love, love, love California. I’ve learned to appreciate Los Angeles. I love the mountains. I love being able to go to any beach. I love being near vineyards and I love fresh, wonderful produce, which you do get more of in California. But there’s such a wonderful concentration of community here in New York, and there’s such a social life here. Our social life kind of dwindles when we’re in L.A. There’s great things about both places and when I’m away from one I’ll miss the other. Right now I’m loving being able to go back and forth and being able to call both places my home.

Would you like to transition into some film and television acting?

Yeah, that’s actually what we’re working on at the moment. I have a manager and new representation now, so all of that is getting pushed. I would love to do some telly work. My husband is a TV/film actor, and after kind of going through the motions with him in L.A., it is such a hard game in L.A. Movie stars now are doing TV. Everyone is doing everything now which is great but also makes it more challenging if you’re not a huge name. But yeah, there’s just a lot more telly out there, so I’m going to give it a go and see what happens.

What television shows are you watching right now?

I’m kind of obsessed with Bloodline. And I kind of geeked out on [Broadway and Bloodline star] Norbert Leo Butz because he did the Broadway for Orlando thing with us, and I geeked out on him because I just fell in love with that show. Now—and I know we’re late to the ballgame—we’re now watching Orange is the New Black, and then there’s this new one called Stranger Things. It’s awesome, it’s got this 80s vibe about it and I’m just going crazy over it.

What do you do to chill out and relax?

Um, that! Watching shows. Well, my husband fits in the gym pretty much every day. Right now, I’m not able to go to the gym every day. But that actually is one of the things that I do enjoy when I have the time, believe it or not, just to go and get a good run in and get a good sweat on. But yeah, other than that, we like to cook, we like to go out to eat—we are big foodies. And then the Netflix, ya know, Netflix and chill!

Would you want to reprise your role in Bright Star if it went on tour?

Maybe! Maybe for a little bit. Why not? I’d definitely go to L.A. with it, for sure. Who knows?  

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