Brynn O'Malley, who made her Broadway debut in Beauty and the Beast, was about to focus on work in television when she received the script for Honeymoon in Vegas, the new Jason Robert Brown-Andrew Bergman musical now in previews at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre. The singing actress, who wanted nothing more than to hate the show, was only a few pages into the script when she realized she couldn't pass up the chance to audition for what she calls the "greatest dream of a musical." And, audition O'Malley did, earning the lead female role of third grade teacher Betsy Nolan opposite love interests Rob McClure and Tony Danza. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with the talented performer, who spoke about her journey from viola player to musical theatre actress, her Broadway debut and her current role in the Gary Griffin-directed musical that officially opens Jan. 15. My interview with the star of Hairspray, Wicked, Sunday in the Park with George and Annie follows.
Question: Where were you born and raised?
Brynn O'Malley: I was born, raised and schooled in Michigan.
Question: When did you start performing?
Brynn O'Malley: My mother was super-supportive of the arts, and when we were kids, my older sister Megan, everyday we were painting pictures or writing poems or playing piano or doing something artsy. She was very encouraging of that, whatever it was. My older sister was really more into musical theatre and Broadway, and I loved it, too, but when you have one older sibling — I ended up having a lot more siblings later in life — but at the beginning, I kind of got very careful about, "That's her thing. I'm going to find another thing." Because you don't want to be competitive. So I took to more writing and playing musical instruments...even though I was into it, there are plenty of home videos of us performing and stuff, it wasn't until high school.
I remember the day of the high school musical auditions for Hello, Dolly! I knew my mother could tell that I kind of was interested and wanted to try out, but all my friends were in the pit and I wanted to play in the pit. She could tell at the last minute I chickened out and was just like, "Oh, I'm just going to play in the pit. That's what my friends are doing!" And she made me go to the audition, not like in a Momma Rose way, but I think she could tell that a part of me kind of wanted to try it, and I was kind of being a chicken, so she made me go to the audition, and I got cast as Cook No. 1 and I had the time of my life. I ended up doing all of the high school musicals after that. I think it was the next year when I did The Music Man. I got Marian in my sophomore year, and it's kind of funny. I was playing the viola at the time and I decided, at that age, like something ridiculous, like 14 years old that that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was good, but I worked really hard and I was good, but I wasn't [exceptional]. I always say, I played the viola and I would be first or second chair in whatever scenario, but it was always that first chair violinist that just had the virtuosic quality. You hear the things that people say to them, and you know the way you are impressed by what they can do, and it just seems like it's so easy for them. I had to work very hard and I was good, but the first chair violinist, they made it look easy. It was a thing that came very easily for them, and so it seemed like it was a special thing coming from another place. So when I did The Music Man, it was very easy for me, and people started coming up to me and saying things that they never said to me about my viola playing. [Laughs.] And I just went, "Oh, I think maybe this is the thing." I always feel like the thing that you're supposed to do is the thing that comes so easy and freely for you but people look at and go, "That looks impossible. I don't understand." [Laughs.] I think that was sort of the moment when I went, "Oh, maybe this is what I'm supposed to be doing because this feels like I'm going to a carnival, but everyone's acting like I've climbed a mountain." [Laughs.]
Question: When did performing change from a hobby to a career?
Brynn O'Malley: After I did The Music Man, my high school drama teacher said that the University of Michigan Musical Theatre Department - I didn't even know what that was - are doing The Music Man this year, and it's ten minutes away from my house, and so we finished doing The Music Man, and we went as a group and saw the Michigan production. Gavin Creel was playing Harold Hill as a sophomore, and my mind was blown. I had seen the national tours of musicals come through over the years in Detroit, but I couldn't believe that these were people that were just a couple of years older than me, because to me, they were just as good as any touring company of Miss Saigon or Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera I'd ever seen. And so then I was like, "Well, what are they - I don't understand, you can get a degree in musical theatre? Can I also get a degree in lollypops and pony rides?" [Laughs.] It seemed so crazy to me, [and] my high school drama teacher was very supportive...She had moved to New York and had done the New York thing and then moved back to Michigan. This was pre-internet, so she was printing out microfiche articles about what it's like to live in New York and be an actor, and she kind of gave me all the hard information and was just like, "Read everything, know what you're getting yourself into and think of it like a business." So I think that was around the time when I went, "OK, I could go." I'm a type A and my dad is in marketing, so I had to sell them on the idea of, "I'm going to do this really insane thing with my life." So I really started to do my homework and went, "OK, I can get a degree in this. If it doesn't work out, I have a degree from a good college as a fallback." I wanted to know everything. I think it was around sophomore year of high school that I just went, "If I'm gonna do this, I gotta get serious about this now."
Question: Did you go to a school that had a performing arts program? What was your path?
Brynn O'Malley: Because I was smart and I knew that I wanted to go to the University of Michigan, they had a summer program at Interlochen, and I'd already been going to Interlochen every summer for orchestra. I'd gone to camp every single summer of my life, so it was an easy switch. I just auditioned for the musical theatre department and got in and started going there for my last couple of summers of high school. I asked my parents to let me go to Interlochen Arts Academy for my senior year of high school, and they laughed in my face. [Laughs.] And that's kind of why I love them because they were like, "No, we're very supportive of what you're doing, but we're not crazy, and we're not letting you go to a private school. You're going to be a normal kid and you're going to go to high school like a normal person." And they were completely right, supportive without being pushy or being way too indulgent. So I just did the summer camps, and I started doing community theatre in Ann Arbor, which was also kind of awesome. And then I auditioned for Michigan. It was my first choice, so I went in and did the first audition/early decision and found out four days later that I got in.
Question: When did you get to New York?
Brynn O'Malley: The summer after I graduated from college. I got my Equity Card from the Muny the summer after I graduated, and then I moved to the city in the fall and started plugging away from there.
Question: Your Broadway debut was Beauty and the Beast?
Brynn O'Malley: Yes, almost exactly one year after I moved to the city I got that job.
Question: Do you remember how your first night on Broadway lived up to or didn't live up to what you thought being on Broadway would be?
Brynn O'Malley: Honestly, I don't even remember the first night of Broadway. I remember everything else leading up to it. At least for me and this is something I'm still working on, is really appreciating things in the moment. Especially on that show, I didn't build it from the ground up. I believe it was in its 12th or 13th enchanting year when I joined the company, so you're kind of getting plugged in to a well-oiled, very-fast-moving technical machine. I just remember going in and just making sure I did everything right and didn't hurt anybody or kill anybody. [Laughs.] But I do remember the first time I went on for Belle. Somebody said something to me, probably one of my parents, said, "Just make sure you take a moment when you're up there and doing that to really be in the moment and appreciate where you are and enjoy it and have fun." And I do remember having a couple of moments like that the first time I went on for Belle. That felt more like my Broadway debut because it was special and I had people in the audience. I had 25 family members. I had a lot of time and I felt very ready, so when the curtain came up and the pin spot hits Belle holding the book and the basket and I heard my whole family screaming, I was like, "This is Broadway!" [Laughs.]
Question: Skipping forward a bit, how did Honeymoon in Vegas come about?
Brynn O'Malley: My agent was really trying to get me to stop doing Broadway shows for a while and be serious about television and focus on that, and I had said, "Absolutely!" Then I got Annie. [Laughs.] So the deal was, "OK, last one and then we're really going to focus on TV." And I was like, "You got it!" But then Honeymoon in Vegas came up, and he sent me the script, and I said, "Well, I have to read it. It's Jason Robert Brown. I have to. I can't blow this off." [Laughs.] But I was like, "But I promise you, I promise I am opening this script with the full intention of hating it. Don't worry. I just have to read it so I know for sure that it's garbage and I don't want to go and do it." [Laughs.] So then I open it up. I remember there's a line on the second or third page of the script, and a lot of people in the show...say that was the moment they were like, "Oh, this show's really funny." [Laughs.] I was on page three going, "Oh no!" Every time I'd turn a page, I'd think, "Oh no. I love it! It's like my greatest dream of a musical, oh no!" [Laughs.] And then I remember calling my agent and being like, "I'm so sorry, I love it so much. I have to go in for it." And he got really quiet, and he went, "I loved it, too. I didn't want to say anything, but I just kept thinking, 'Why am I not hating this? Why am I not hating this?'" He was like, "I agree, go ahead. I'm sorry because I love it, too, it's really great. It's so special." And I remember on our first read-through/sing-through, we got done, and Rob McClure and I looked at each other and went, "This is incredible, right? Absolutely incredible...This is an amazing show, right?" Nancy Opel just went, "Oh, this is very rare. This is very rare, appreciate what you have right now." I auditioned for the show, and it was absolute torture because I'm pretty sure my first audition I had to sing "Anywhere But Here" four feet away from Jason Robert Brown, who I'd never met before, so that was my first encounter with him, and it was just awful. [Laughs.] I was so nervous. I don't even sweat, and I was just sweating buckets. I'm pretty sure I broke out into hives. I just mentioned this the other day, singing for Stephen Sondheim, not that terrifying, more of a thrill. For Sunday in the Park with George we got to choose any song of Stephen Sondheim's to sing for him, and I was auditioning for Celeste No. 1 and Elaine, so I was like, "They don't need to hear some crazy thing or watch me have an emotional breakdown. They just need to see me do something lovely and soprano." So I sang "I'm Lovely" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and it was just like, "Yay! I'm singing for Sondheim." I picked the easiest song in my book, so I just had a good time, but having to sing Jason's music for him that you learn in three days and you haven't vocally figured everything out that you want to do, and you haven't figured all of the acting, and it's this emotional journey, it was just absolutely terrifying! I think I had two or three auditions for Honeymoon in Vegas, and then at my last one, they had cast Rob McClure, so I had to read with him, and I remember having to sit across from him, two feet away from me, and had to sing "Anywhere But Here" again, and I was like, "Jason's over here and I don't even know Rob, and now I'm just aggressively belting at his face." I remember walking out of that audition, and my agent has a new joke now that if I'm completely breaking down and saying it was the worst audition of my life, that means I got the part, and that's exactly what happened with Honeymoon in Vegas. [Laughs.]
Question: What was the Paper Mill experience like?
Brynn O'Malley: It was absolute insanity. We put up a brand-new show in six weeks, a show that had never been done before, and in the rehearsal room was fine, but once we got into tech, we had so much to do, and we were getting so much information, and it was truly insane. We were supposed to do the invited dress, and we were not done teching the show. As you know, the show ends with some really dangerous things happening for certain cast members, and it was bad. [Laughs.] I remember we showed up that morning, and we had an Equity meeting down by the river. We were like, "I don't know if we can do this tonight." I've never seen the Paper Mill crew that stressed out before; people were just throwing things backstage and yelling, and it was terrifying, and we all kind of pulled it together as a company and decided, "No, we're going to do the invited dress tonight, and everybody just needs to focus and just hunker down and just be the most focused group in the world." I always say it was crazy. It was one of the worst afternoons of my career, immediately followed by one of the greatest nights of my career. The show was a miracle. We had almost no problems the entire night. We sailed through, and it really was [miraculous] because the next day, we had technical problems and accidents happened, but we got through that dress somehow, and it's carried through the show. We always have a joke that we're like, "Just when we think this whole thing's gonna fall apart, the show has something magical with it where at the last second, everybody pulls together and amazing things happen." And I really do think it's because everybody believes in the show so much and wants it to work and wants it to happen that just when the moment when everyone's about to give up, everybody goes, "No, we have to fight!" [Laughs.]
Question: Have there been many changes from Paper Mill to Broadway?
Brynn O'Malley: It's like a thousand little changes - that's how I'll put it. Everybody that's come to see the show so far who saw it at Paper Mill a year ago, I ask them, "Did you notice any difference?" And they're like, "No?" [Laughs.] They can't really put their finger on anything that changed. They just go, "I just know that it's better, faster, funnier; it's just better." But nobody can really pinpoint what has changed, and that's because it's just little changes, little clarifications, little cuts, little things that just make it tighter and cleaner, switching one joke up for another, and it just works a little better now or is a little more topical a year later. Itty, bitty, little changes. The one thing I will say that's changed a lot is the set because it was at Paper Mill, and Anna [Louizos] really didn't have much of a budget out there, nobody did. So now that she's got a real Broadway stage and something that you could really invest in - because we didn't really know what theatre we'd go to, so it was kind of pointless for her to build some crazy, massive thing that couldn't fit somewhere. She wanted to keep her options open. Now we know what our theatre is, and Anna got to build the set she really wanted to build for the show, and I would say that's the one thing that's drastically different because we really didn't have a set at Paper Mill.
Question: Now that you've been playing her for a while, how would you describe Betsy?
Brynn O'Malley: Well, the thing that I liked about her the most is that when I read the script, I felt like I could tell that there was a bit of a struggle with that character. You want to have a female that you can root for that's like a modern-day ingenue, somebody that we can really relate to and root for. She's bet in a poker game and decides to fly to Hawaii in a split second with a man she barely knows, and she goes through a lot of really crazy things. She's also with a guy for five years that hasn't proposed to her, and there are a lot of pitfalls, there's a lot of traps for Betsy. When I read it, I remember thinking, "I see how I could make this my own and really give her a set of balls and make it so that she is not a pawn and she's not a victim of her circumstances and she's responsible for her choices." I remember coming in and reading a scene with Rob McClure at my final callback, and Andrew Bergman, our book writer, I remember we finished it, [and] it got a big laugh because they were surprised. I remember the first thing Andy said was, "Well, that's not what we wrote!" [Laughs.] I like to think that that's kind of how I got the part. I've always kind of felt that way about me, too. I've played a lot of ingenue parts, but I've never felt comfortable playing an ingenue, and so I always kind of come in and go, "Well, this is how I'm gonna do her, so if that's what you want, then that's what you want, but I'm not gonna just cross my eyes and bob my head around and giggle at everything. This is going to be how I do it." So I feel like I was able to bring that quality to Betsy, and that's why I like her so much, because I feel like she's not your typical ingenue. She's updated, she's a grownup.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her? Is there anything each night that you look forward to doing?
Brynn O'Malley: Yeah, there's actually a scene that's still really evolving, even at this moment. In Act 2 you get to see Betsy very tightly wound because she's got this nervous, really, really neurotic boyfriend, and we've kind of set up this dynamic where Betsy is sort of the one that keeps everything together. She's very responsible and she's also a third grade school teacher, so she deals with kids all day long, so she's always a grownup, grownup, grownup. You get to see in Act 2 a moment where she's just so fed up that she just kind of lets herself get super drunk and let loose and have a nice time. I like to see the complete opposite pendulum swing for Betsy in Act 2, and I think it's a fun release for the audience, too.
Question: Tell me a little bit about your two leading men, working with Rob and Tony Danza.
Brynn O'Malley: Oh, they're assholes! Nobody likes them. [Laughs.] No, they're the nicest people to work with, and it really is like we're a family now, and it's kind of nice. You can kind of throw elbows a little bit with each other now and every thing is OK, and it's nice. I feel like I've got an older brother and a younger brother that I never had. I have six sisters, and I really do feel like I've got my two brothers now, and that's what I kind of always wanted. They're great. Rob is one of the best scene partners that I've ever worked with...I feel like I can ask him for anything on stage. I can talk to him about anything, we can always throw out ideas to each other, we can ask each other for advice, and there's a level of trust that I have with Rob that I've had with almost no one else I've ever worked with, maybe one other person. Just absolute 100% trust. Tony is — I've done a lot of Broadway shows with a lot of Broadway TV/film folk. Tony does have Broadway credits — that's where he started, that's where he began, and you don't get this lucky with those people. [Laughs.] A lot of times they kind of feel like the rules don't apply to them or they're maybe not the most gracious or they're there for a more self-serving purpose, but Tony is in this show because he loves the show. He believes in this show as much, if not more than anybody else in the company. He is all in 100%. He is in love with the show, and he's such a good team leader, and he's so good about just setting the tone of the day, and he's just aggressively positive about it. He's like a bully for good! [Laughs.] When we were at Paper Mill, before the show would start, he would go around to everyone's dressing rooms and bang on the door and be like, "Get out here right now!" Because he wanted everyone to put their hands in a circle and do a cheer before we started.
Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or is this just all-consuming at this time?
Brynn O'Malley: Oh God, my boyfriend and I live together, and I don't even know when the last time was that I saw him. [Laughs.] Nope, this is it, no one's going anywhere; we're banking on this show, we want it to be a hit. We want to stay in it forever. Tony's joke is he's staying in it for the whole run. He said he's going to be in the show for 12 years. [Laughs.] If it works out and it's there, I can't imagine ever leaving. You don't get shows like this that often, something that you're really proud of, that's a real musical. It's got an overture and an entr'acte. This is everything all of us ever dreamed of growing up of being a part of, so I have no plans to go anywhere any time soon. [The Nederlander Theatre is located at 208 West 41st Street. Tickets are on sale now via Ticketmaster.com or by calling (877) 250-2929.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.