Carmen Cusack has been in the business for a long time. Still, when you see the auburn-haired beauty as the leading lady of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s new musical Bright Star, you might think to yourself, “Who is that?” The bluegrass musical marks Cusack’s Broadway debut, but she has played leading roles since the age of 23. From Phantom’s delicate soprano, Christine Daae, to Wicked’s belty Elphaba, Cusack’s many shades give new meaning to the moniker coloratura.
Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera, West End U.K. National Tour
Cusack completed her vocal training in opera, but decided she wanted to do more serious acting. She bided her time, singing in cabaret gigs in Manchester, England, when the audition for The Phantom of the Opera arose. The show provided the stepping stone Cusack needed. “I was incredibly nervous and excited,” she says. “Of course, that was one of those coveted roles, Christine, and it was something that I had in my wheelhouse, vocally, training as a coloratura in opera.”
Fantine in Les Misérables, West End and U.K. National Tour
Near the end of her Phantom contract, Les Misérables called. “They wanted to see me for Cosette,” she says. Cusack had another path in mind. She confided in Phantom’s musical director. “I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to get boxed into a corner with these little soprano-y ingénue roles, because I feel like there’s more to my palette, there’s more color to my voice, and there’s also more colors in the styles of acting I want to do and the different characters I want to do,’” she recalls. “To be honest with you, most of the time the ingénue roles are a little bit dull and boring in my opinion.”
It wasn’t until a cast karaoke night that Cusack proved she could deviate from the bell-tone soprano. “I’d done a Whitney Houston number, and everyone freaked out because they didn’t know I had this other vocal style,” she says. Their response encouraged Cusack to pursue that other direction, and when she auditioned for Les Miz, she chose a belt number. The casting team wanted to put her into the role of Cosette immediately, but Cusack chose to enter the company as an ensemble member and cover for Fantine—taking over the role full time later.
“I remember just sitting there thinking, ‘Wow,’” says Cusack. “I’d never had the opportunity to sing in this lower key.” As affirming as the role was for her, it also brought on a period of intense stage fright. After she had fully assumed the role of Fantine, Cusack agreed to sing the Forbidden Broadway version of “I Dreamed a Dream” for a charity concert. “Forbidden Broadway lyrics would be going through my head, but my mouth was still giving the actual lyrics,” says Cusack. Until one night. “All of a sudden, I went, ‘Oh no. What…oh God.’ I finished the song in some kind of Swahili language, but the audience gasped, and for two months after that, I suffered severe stage fright. People had to push me on the stage to get me through my job.”
Rizzo in Grease at Larnaca Ampitheatre
Cusack’s stage fright subsided and she took a contract to play Grease in Greece. Far and away from classic roles like Christine and Fantine, Cusack explored her sassy side as Rizzo. “I could be so cool,” she smolders. “We had to learn the dances and everything, but because she was so cool, she just got to throw things away.”
During the run of Les Miz, Cusack spent her post-show Thursdays singing at the Café de Paris in Leicester Square until 2 or 3 AM. Sundays she’d sing a jazz gig at King’s Head in Crouch End. As much as Cusack loved exploring her range through these roles, she felt the need for change. “I kind of just got a little bit stale with musical theatre,” she says. “You know when you just need a little break from things?” Her love for jazz tugged at her, and on New Year’s Eve she resolved to take a year and throw herself into jazz. “Once I said my New Year’s resolution, the phone rang. It was an emergency call from a band that needed a singer that night to play for a New Year’s Eve party. I thought, ‘Well, this must be destiny calling.’”
Elphaba in Wicked, First National U.S. Tour (2007-2008)
A year touring with Leo Green’s jazz band cleansed her palette, and Cusack was ready to return to the stage for the right role. Enter: the green girl. As vocally demanding as the role is, Cusack says that “playing the book scenes with [Katie Rose Clarke, who played Glinda] were kind of my favorite moments. We had a really special connection, the two of us, and the way we would bounce off of each other,” Cusack smiles. “Every night was different. We had such wonderful comic timing that I was able to bounce off of and feed her something different.”
But one emblematic moment stays with Cusack. “It was at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta … on the last month of my contract with Wicked, every night, going in and flying up into the air and singing ‘Defying Gravity’ and looking up and seeing nothing but stars,” she sighs, remembering the theatre’s painted ceiling. “That was a quite a poignant moment for me.”
Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, U.S. National Tour (2009-2010)
It seems like a crazy contrast that Cusack transitioned from the edgy Wicked Witch to South Pacific’s sweet Navy nurse. Cusack was actually called in to audition for the show’s Broadway bow at Lincoln Center Theater. “In my head I just thought, ‘I don’t know why they want to see me’ because Nellie Forbush is nothing but Doris Day through and through to me. Cute. Sweet. Butter could melt,” she says. “I couldn’t interpret it in my own way that I thought they would like, so I decided to just try and be Doris Day.” It didn’t go well.
“Looking at Bernard Telsey as I was singing ‘Wonderful Guy,’ and I was kind of swaying like Doris Day would sway and him looking and shaking his head: No.” The part went to Kelli O’Hara, but when casting time for the tour arrived, director Bartlett Sher asked to see Cusack again. “I knew I did it wrong the first time, but I see her differently. I wanted to play her differently,” she says. “My version of her is still a southern belle, but just a little bit edgier, a little bit crazier, a little bit rougher around the edges.” There’s the green girl we know.
Marie/Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (2012)
Cusack took on her greatest challenge with Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. “That was probably the most, in so many ways, fulfilling and, yet, scariest place to be,” she says, “because the material is so elevated and so unique, and it intimidated me.”
Her nerves rose to high tide. “‘How am I even worthy to be in this vehicle that is so perfectly made?’” she remembers. “It scared the heck out of me. I nearly had a nervous breakdown and quit the business because I thought, ‘I just can’t be good enough.’” Cusack felt the light bulb ignite, the lines and notes clicked. “I felt like, ‘Okay, I finally got my seat belt on, and I know what I’m doing on this ride.”
Mother in Ragtime, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre (2013)
The difficulty of Marie/Dot armed Cusack with the strength needed to take on Mother. She had not known the show until the offer came in. “It’s so tragic and yet celebratory at the same time, and what a role,” she says. “What a song.” Of all the women she’d embodied to this point, Mother evolves more than any other. “To have the opportunity to fill those shoes and to grow with that role,” she says, “it was really special.”
Annie Paradis in First Wives Club, Chicago (2015)
By now, Cusack proved her talent and her chops. With First Wives Club, Cusack finally originated a leading role (she originated the featured role of Lynn Gardner in MCC’s Carrie). “What I took from that experience was the work that the three women, Faith Prince and Christine Sherrill and I did,” says Cusack. “There’s still things to be worked on with that piece … but what I took from that was sisterhood.”
“With women that have played leading roles for so many years, and then to be brought together to share that pocket, can be tricky,” says Cusack. But instead of competition, the actress found mentorship. Tony winner and co-star Faith Prince (currently also on Broadway in Disaster!) taught Cusack how to play leading lady offstage. “She’s been such a teacher.”
Alice Murphy in Bright Star, Broadway (2016)
“Of all the roles that I’ve ever played, I connect with this role the most deeply because it kind of tells almost a small story about my mother, who had me at 16,” Cusack says of her current part. “I was nearly aborted because of the religious aspects of her family, and I’m glad that didn’t happen.”
Cusack chokes up talking about Alice, a woman she inhabits night after night at the Cort Theatre. “I connect with that storyline in a great way,” she says. “I also connect with her in the way that I came from very, very humble beginnings and there wasn’t a lot of money, and it was very highly religious, very stark background, and I had aspirations to do some things that I never thought…”
Though she did not make her debut with Sher’s South Pacific, he did facilitate her Broadway bow. He’s the one who recommended her to Bright Star director Walter Bobbie. “I’m kind of glad that it hit now at this point in my life, in my career, because I feel like I’m ready for it,” says Cusack. “I feel more confident.”
Onstage, Murphy is a young girl too bright for the small southern town where fate dropped her. Likewise, Cusack forfeited her hometown and matured across the pond. Cusack finds it easy to slip between the 16-year-old version of Alice and her elder counterpart.
But for all the emotional connection, the most rewarding piece of Bright Star has been the exploration of yet another hue in her voice. “This is where my voice sits naturally for me,” she says of the bluegrass style. “This is Carmen’s voice going through Alice Murphy. It’s like breathing to me to sing this music.”
“I waited for this kind of opportunity all of my career, to originate something to this degree and to be a part of it for the extent that I have been a part of it, whereby the writer is writing in ways that he’s starting to … write for my interpretation,” says Cusack. “Bright Star has been designed and the songs have been formulated around the way that I sing,” she continues. “That is the biggest gift of anything.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.