Carousel pulled into town this year as two seasons were well underway – the first a Broadway spring crammed with Tony-worthy new plays, musicals and revivals, from the thoroughly modern Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to the polished gem My Fair Lady.
But for Carousel and My Fair Lady, another season helped set their stages – the #MeToo era, with its opportunities and responsibilities to view these two classic American musicals and their troublesome attitudes toward women, class, male privilege and, in the case of Carousel, domestic violence.
Neither My Fair Lady nor Carousel ignored what must have felt like a duty to contribute to the post-Weinstein debate, and in large measures both succeed, and not just in the “A+ for trying” sense.
Deadline spoke to Carousel stars Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller about these issues and much more. Both Henry and Mueller have been Tony-nominated for their leading roles in the musical, and both say they felt joy and responsibility in tackling what, stripped from any political or social implications, remains one of America’s greatest works of musical theater, with perhaps the most sublime of all Broadway scores. Henry, the In the Heights and Hamilton alum who now stands as the first black actor to play Carousel‘s ne’er-do-well soon-to-be-dad Billy Bigelow in a major production, became a real-life father during previews, giving his performance of the famous “Soliloquy”, addressed to Billy’s unborn child, a remarkable poignance. Mueller, best known to audiences for her acclaimed performances in Waitress and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, talks here of, among many other things, approaching the 1945-written Carousel as both a singer and lover of song – and through the eyes of the late-19th-century teenaged mill worker she plays.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Deadline: Let’s start with the obvious. How did knowing that you were about to become a father in your real life [with wife Cathryn Henry, a postpartum nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital] shade your performance of [dad-to-be] Billy Bigelow?
Joshua Henry: We were pregnant when I was in previews singing the song “Soliloquy.” The first lyric in the song is “I wonder what he’ll think of me?” What’s he going to call me? There weren’t many days when I wasn’t crying offstage to myself or just having a really emotional moment thinking about this kid coming. Singing that song kind of helped me work through some of the emotions that I was really feeling.
When [son Samson Peter Henry] was born [in March], we were in previews, and I was singing that same song but now I’m singing those questions and looking in his face and it just broke me up even more. I joke around with my wife and say he’s just going to know me as, like, the crying daddy. I remember the first time he smiled at me, we were leaving the house and he just smiled for two seconds and it just shattered me. Onstage I picture his face whenever I’m singing about “my boy Bill,” and it’s a very visceral experience.
Deadline: Even if you hadn’t been expecting in real life, this is such a huge, iconic role that just taking that on, as an actor, must have been daunting.
Henry: It’s one of the biggest roles in musical theatre, and I had not sung in such a big way for a very long time. One of the reasons I took this role was because I love the idea of redefining myself over and over again. I never want to be trapped into a box, and this was an opportunity for me to show a different shade, a different color, pun intended.
Deadline: This really is a big step for Broadway – the first African-American Billy we’ve seen. Was that going through your head when you decided to take the role?
Henry: There’s so much that goes into this role. Yes, it’s a big step for Broadway. And this role does address domestic violence, something I really don’t connect with, thankfully, but I’m glad to be able to talk about it in this piece. For me, my connection with this character is his eventual desire and drive to do something great for his family. That’s how I had to approach it.
In terms of me being the first African-American Billy, which is a huge honor and privilege, I’m thrilled about the doors that have been opened for me. I think about people like Norm Lewis, Chuck Cooper, Brian Stokes Mitchell, people that came before me so that I could walk into this opportunity. That is something that I thought about because I want other men of color to be able to do things that they haven’t been able to do before, and just to show people that these roles can be done in different ways. This moment is bigger than me and I’m cognizant of that.
Deadline: Which sort of takes us naturally to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who cast you in your first big role. Can you give me a little background on how you met, and how In The Heights came to you?
Henry: That was my first Broadway show. I was doing Godspell with Robin de Jesus [at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse], and he mentioned this Off-Broadway musical that was happening, and there was an understudy role. So I went in on my own, auditioned and the rest is history – they really loved me. I just got off the phone with [Miranda] a couple days ago – I’ve been fortunate to work with him many, many times, whether it was The Wiz or In The Heights on Broadway or Hamilton. It really feels like family with Lin-Manuel and that entire crew. We haven’t stopped, we just kept going and going, which is good.
Deadline: Can you describe how different – as an actor, as a performer – doing something contemporary like In The Heights is versus a classic musical like Carousel?
Henry: Totally different. I grew up singing R&B and I love that style of music. But classical singing is totally different. You can’t walk and jog and make a classical sound, or dance like you would in In The Heights and make a classical sound. Even your neck has to be a certain way for you to achieve the sound, Being natural, not stiff, and maintaining that very resonant, deep, rich sound is a really big part of who Billy Bigelow is. It took every one of those six weeks of previews to get where I am right now, and I still work on it every day to try to find other places to take it.
Deadline: And you’re working with Renee Fleming so you have that to sort of…
Henry: Her dressing room is right next to mine and I ask her questions all the time? She’s a master, so that’s my little master class eight times a week.
Deadline: You’ve mentioned your high school voice teacher…
Henry: Birgit Fioravante. She literally just texted me now.
Henry: I brought her up here [from Florida] to train for the show. She used to give me lessons for free when I was 17 years old. She’s the first person who told me that this is a line of work I could actually do. I didn’t even know this was something people did for a living when I was 17, and she encouraged me to pursue it. She helped me to prepare my auditions to get into the University of Miami. So I am always in touch with her. Anytime I talk to anyone about the show, Greg, I mention her because if it wasn’t for her following her impulse that she saw something in this young man and encouraged him to go on… This is a every unpredictable, shaky, scary business, and I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it wasn’t for her.
Deadline: Can you imagine things from her perspective – a teacher seeing someone that she encouraged and mentored and now up for a Tony Award?
Henry: I can’t imagine it. We’ve had a few moments in the last couple of months where she’s told me how proud she is, but I can’t really imagine what this must be like for her. She rolled the dice on me, and she was almost scared to tell my parents that she really thought I could do it.
Deadline: And you have an album coming soon, right?
Henry: I am working on one and I’m hoping to drop it between this summer and early fall. I’m very excited about it – the sound is sort of funk/soul and inspirational. But before that happens I’m doing a little thing that I’m proud of called BigelowFlows, which is basically taking songs from Carousel and putting a different spin on them. I just released one recently on all my social media platforms – “June is Busting Out All Over” from Carousel, basically a funky version I did with [costars] Jessie Mueller and Lindsay Mendez. So I’m going to be doing more of those and it’s caught a little bit of fire already.
Deadline: You’re probably sick of talking about some of the things I want to talk about, and we can even talk about that, but give me a sense of how you approached Carousel. Trepidation? Excitement?
Jessie Mueller: I’d worked on Carousel twice before and had such wonderful experiences that when the idea for this production came around I thought, Should I do this again? Do I redo something that felt so precious to me? Yeah, a part of me was a little trepidatious, you know what I mean? Like why would I mess with that?
But then I had a lunch with Jack O’Brien, our director, that won me over. He and I talked about the spiritual side of the play, and how he was so interested in really investigating that, and that clicked with me. That’s the part that’s always appealed to me about this play – just the scope of it and the investigation of what it’s like to be a human being, this existence here on earth and what if there’s something else, and the big questions that go along with that.
Deadline: Even putting those larger questions aside, the music alone – many of us think this is probably the best musical in Broadway history, at least in terms of the music…
Mueller: As far as scores go, you can’t beat this one. Even now when I hear the “Carousel Waltz,” at the beginning, you can’t help but just sort of take a deep breath and let it wash over you. You know?
Deadline: And you have some of the great songs. I probably know the answer to this but I’m going to ask anyway: Is there a particular song that you approach with special excitement each night?
Mueller: I was so intimidated by “If I Loved You” for such a long time. It was a song that I had known for a very long time – known of it but never really sung it. I almost sung it a couple times, almost touched it in school, almost did it in scene study, and it was just one of those looming sort of scenes that I didn’t feel like I could ever really touch. I think it has this aura around it of being, and rightly so, one of the greatest scenes ever written for American musical theater, and I was so intimidated by it for such a long time. I think it wasn’t until we had to jump into it in rehearsal that I just sort of went Okay, well, we’ve got to do this, let’s crack it open.
It was really thanks to Jack, our director, and [costar] Josh [Henry] who made it possible and seem less scary, because all of a sudden it wasn’t macro, it was micro. We weren’t on the outside of it anymore, we were on the inside, and it became like attacking any other scene.
[Rodgers & Hammerstein] wrote so well for singers. They took care of their singers. The Billy Bigelow stuff is a little more heavy hitting, but the meaty stuff especially for the women is written in such wonderful, healthy registers. You just don’t get that kind of singing much anymore, or get asked to do that kind of singing. It’s kind of yummy to do, you know what I mean? It feels good.
Deadline: Do you have any favorite versions of “If I Loved You?” Have you heard Jo Stafford’s version?
Mueller: No, but I love her. I would listen to her sing anything. I don’t know if I really have a favorite, but I’m telling you, I got to sit backstage hearing Kelly O’Hara sing it when I did a concert version with her, so I had that bar in my head that I was like, Oh no, I’m never going to sing it like Kelly. But of course, I never am going to sing it like Kelly. I’m a different person, I’m a different singer. I wouldn’t begin to think I could touch her technique, and I just had such awe of how she handled the music in that show. But no, I didn’t really have a version in my head – it was just the idea of the song that scared me so much. I just felt like I had to live up to the aura of it all.
Deadline: Yes, that makes sense. And I said Jo Stafford was my favorite version but that was before I heard you sing it, and I’m not saying that just because we’re talking…
Mueller: Oh, you’re very kind. It’s a thrill to sing with the orchestra we have and the way Andy [Einhorn] is conducting it, he really stretched us and encouraged us to sort of go farther, go way out of the box of what we’d been doing. I think maybe Renee [Fleming] has had a different experience – we had to rise up, she almost had to come down from where she was [laughs], but I think we all had the challenge of approaching this music in a way that maybe we hadn’t before, and trusting the gloriousness of it so that it could sound approachable and have intent while still sounding beautiful and being fully sung. To me that was the challenge.
Deadline: There’s been a lot of talk about the place of this musical in today’s MeToo age. Let’s talk about what you’re thinking was when you were cast, whether it’s changed, and if that discussion is exciting to you or if it’s just baggage that you would rather not have to deal with as you begin a new production? Do you know what I mean?
Mueller: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s interesting. I feel like the answer to that is meaningful because it’s interesting that now there’s this sort of a name for the breadth of ideas that we’re about to talk about.
But yes, it all was in my mind when the show came up. I know the show, I know the character, I know what the character goes through. It was something that I knew I had to think about, and why I wanted to take it on. I had already signed on to the project when the [MeToo] movement began. I didn’t sign on thinking that I was going to be a spokesperson for a movement, and I still don’t think I am. I don’t think that’s my job, you know My job is an actor, but what I think is fascinating is that there’s finally sort of a name and a lens to view things that women already think about most of the time anyway.
The thing that gives me great hope is that I think, if anything, our world now is ready to be, like, “This stuff happens.” We’re not trying to pretend like terrible things don’t happen, that uncomfortable situations, uncomfortable behavior, unhealthy behaviors don’t occur in our daily lives. I think the job of art and drama is to hold a mirror up to those things and say, What do you think about it? So that was sort of the scope of how [Carousel] was in my mind and how I looked at the piece in general.
For me, getting inside a character approaching the turn of the century, what did she think was her right? What was her point of view? What was her education? What had she been told, and what had she not been told? These are the kinds of questions as an actor you ask yourself all the time, and that’s what I think is fascinating. To look at a piece like this and actually see the strong women and how strong the women are. Whether or not a woman in 2018 would make all the same decisions I’m not sure, but certainly, I think you can see how a young 18 year old in 1873 would make some of the choices that Julie makes knowing what she knows. There’s so much to be learned from looking at where we’ve been and and how it informs where we’re going. You know?
Deadline: I’m guessing from what you’re saying that when your character says the line about it being possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt at all, you really have to approach that as the character.
Mueller: Absolutely. I’m approaching it from the inside. The thing that I’ve always loved about this piece is that it doesn’t give answers, it asks questions.
But actually – and it’s such an odd thing to speak about this on the record because I never know whether like I am revealing too much – but actually, in our production, those specific lines are cut, at least from Julie’s perspective.
Deadline: Ah, you know, I thought I’d just missed those lines, but you’re absolutely right – your characters doesn’t say those lines in this production. But Julie’s daughter (Louise) makes reference to it.
Mueller: That was something that we talked about at great length because we felt as though…many of us, actually…Jack and I had conversations about it, and we were trying to wrap our heads around, Well, what did the character mean by that? What could she have meant when it was originally conceived in ’45? What were the writers trying to say? And we actually felt like the more important message was sort of Julie’s belief in the ability of Billy’s redemption and the goodness of his soul that she had seen from the beginning, and also, the affirmation that she gives her daughter. Her daughter says, This strange, strange thing that I can’t explain has happened to me, mother. Do you believe me? And her mother says, of course, I believe you, I hear you and I believe you, and that was the message that we now are more interested in presenting to modern audiences, the idea that these women are listening to each other and speaking to each other and holding each other up.
But because those lines do occur in the original production, Julie answers her daughter and says yes, it is possible [to be hit and feel no pain], and because I didn’t know those lines were going to be cut I originally tried to wrap my mind around them. I just sort of tried to come at it from the immediate perspective of a mother trying to explain to her daughter something that’s unexplainable because what Louise experiences is literally, whether you believe it’s a ghost, an angel or someone from another realm making physical contact with her, it actually makes all the sense in the world that it would have no impact [i.e., it “wouldn’t hurt”]. Do you know what I mean?…Like if you actually think about the nuts and bolts of the situation, of course, Louise would experience like, I heard a sound but I didn’t feel anything, I didn’t feel pain. Billy can no longer inflict pain upon anyone on earth because he’s on a different plane.
Deadline: What kind of response have you been getting at the stage door? What are you hearing?
Mueller: I think people are just so moved by it, and I think what’s also fascinating is I find that I’m talking to a lot of people who have never seen the show before and don’t know the show, so they’re really coming at it with fresh eyes, and I think what they’re experiencing is just so moving, and the story and the beauty of the production, the music, the orchestration, the incredible dancing that [choreographer] Justin Peck has created and this sort of movement vocabulary that moves throughout the show. You know it’s not everyday you get to go to a Broadway show and see a ballet three-quarters of the way through. Just this sheer beauty of something like that.
Deadline: Let’s move onto another project. You made your first movie this year – Spielberg’s The Post with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep (Mueller played pre-Miss Manners reporter Judith Martin). What’s the first memory when I bring that up?
Mueller: Steven Spielberg’s smiling face. I had only a few shoot days, but they were sort of spread out, and did the scene where I had lines my first day out, and then I was gone for a week maybe, came back, came out of the makeup trailer, and Steven was walking with one of our producers and he said, “Jessie, hi, we missed you,” and I was like are you kidding me? I just couldn’t believe it. I mean, I just could not believe it.