Britney Coleman may have made her Broadway debut back in 2017 (as part of the cast of the most recent revival of Sunset Boulevard), but on July 18 the actor greets an important milestone in every musical theatre performer’s career: her Muny debut. Now celebrating its 100th year, The Muny in St. Louis, Missouri, is the country’s oldest and largest outdoor amphitheatre, seating 11,000. “It really is an institution,” says Coleman, who bows as secretary Grace in this summer’s production of Annie.
The story of the red-headed orphan who escapes the wrath of Miss Hannigan for a trip to meet millionaire Oliver Warbucks has charmed audiences of stage (and screen) for decades. The Muny production directed by John Tartaglia also stars Peyton Ella is Annie, two-time Tony nominee Christopher Sieber as Daddy Warbucks, Tony nominee Jennifer Simard as Miss Hannigan, Holly Ann Butler as Lily, Jon Rua as Rooster, and John Scherer as FDR.
From its massive size (it takes a lot longer to cross from stage left to right) to its quick rehearsal period (11 days!) to performing under changing lighting as the sun sets on Forest Park, Coleman spoke to Playbill about her inaugural Muny experience, what makes this Annie special, and why she thinks she’s gonna like it here.
Since it’s your first time at The Muny, what surprised you most about working here?
Britney Coleman: With how big a company it is, I was surprised at how much of a family it is. Everybody is so warm and welcoming and excited for everybody to be there. A lot of people work there once and get started and they don’t stop. One of our guys in the chorus, Rich, Annie is his 80th show! We did a little celebration for him and I thought that was sweet because everybody has been keeping track of that.
What do you have to do differently as a performer for a space that big?
I went to see Jersey Boys [here] two nights ago. The audiences lean in to the performances. They’re so attentive and quiet, in a way. It’s amazing to watch everyone, from the first seat all the way to a mile back, just kind of watch the words as they go from the stage and reverberate through.
In terms of prepping for it, a lot of it is just making sure we pay attention to detail. We can’t go too fast with the really intricate things. I have a whole Charades moment and we had to break it up, beat by beat in order to make sure everything lands before we keep going with the next move.
How do you balance being big enough for the full audience without turning into a cartoon?
Annie’s a tricky show because even without a really big house it can end up being a little cartoon-y. We really have to make sure it’s grounded in a way that these stakes are real, but we have to be much more physical. I’m used to much more intimate proscenium houses. It’s never felt unnatural doing big gestures, though, when I have the audience in mind.
There are these new challenges to playing a house this large, of course, but what is the joy?
Some of my castmates who have worked here before have already mentioned it: When a laugh lands, it usually starts in the first section and you can hear it travel!
Who is your version of Grace?
Right off the bat I gravitated to Grace for her warmth. There’s tendency to have the professionalism that she has really shadow how she relates to Annie when she first meets her or how she interacts with Warbucks. And, of course, with Hannigan there’s a beautiful, juxtaposed picture of Grace being very put together and Hannigan being completely unraveled and I loved that. But I also really want us to just tap into the joy of finding this little girl who was so willing to get herself out there and experiences this world that she’s never seen before. I think there’s just so much charm, and I feel like Grace has this almost motherly instinct right off the bat. I get just as charmed with Annie as the audiences do when we first meet her. There’s a lot of joy to be found and it’s the joy that I really gravitate to.
What is special about this production of Annie? What do you love about the full show?
We have 37 orphans. Which is nuts! I think “Hard Knock Life” honestly is worth the price of admission for the show just because it is so epic and the girls are dancing for their lives! It is so fun to watch. Definitely a camaraderie with the orphans like “Once an orphan, always an orphan.”
How does it feel to be among all of those young performers as the professional in the room?
I very much feel like a role model for the girls, which is so inspiring and it really made me tap into why I’m doing what I’m doing in the first place. Why I chose to pursue this career is to really tell a story and bring that joy to people. I just see the girls, they’re so well-behaved and so attentive. We’re doing all these huge production numbers and they’re just wide eyes and shiny teeth and just living. It’s also been a nice wake-up call for me to tap back in and say, “I can give 100 percent for rehearsals. I don’t need to rest on my laurels.”
What has it been like to work with Christopher Sieber and Jennifer Simard and Jon Rua?
So, so awesome. Chris just did this role at Paper Mill [Playhouse in New Jersey] with Peyton, our Annie. They already have a relationship and I’m kind of a new piece of the puzzle. We only have 11 days to rehearse and that’s terrifying, but Chris has been lovely in helping me get from point A to point B and [navigating] what our relationships are. He’s also been really open to new energy. Jen Simmard is phenomenal. I can’t wait for people to see her sing her numbers because I don’t think the folks are ready at home. Jon Rua was a total Muny vet. We’re all stressed about making sure we have enough time to be the actors who dive into their scenes and do it 100 times, but he’s been really good about saying, “We’ll be fine. It just ends up being fine.”
What about working with John Tartaglia as a director and his vision for the show?
He is a dream. Definitely an actor’s director. He’s got the full picture down. He’s weaved all of the elements together as far as having 37 orphans and a 25-member adult ensemble and then I think we have 20 teens on top of that. He’s so good at painting the scene for all of us. He is the perfect fit for the show. He’s seen enough productions to know the pitfalls of the show as far as getting campy and whatnot; he’s really taken great care to not let us get into that mode and make sure we’re grounded and present and telling this very real, lovely story.
What are you most looking forward to?
When we open, to walk out onstage as the sun is setting—because it really isn’t set until the end of the first act of the show. I’ll be able to see 11,000 people in those seats and I’m really, really excited to experience that.