Krystal Joy Brown brings her own flair to Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. (Photo: Show)
No one gets inside the mind of a character with the same depth as Krystal Joy Brown, the scene-stealer in the Broadway revival of Merrily We Roll Along
Brown doesn’t take any of her roles lightly, and her current performance as Broadway diva Gussie Carnegie in the Stephen Sondheim musical is no exception.
Brown (Hamilton, Motown the Musical) did extensive research as she prepared to be the first black woman to embody Gussie, and the result is a multi-layered, dynamic performance that exhibits as much pain as it does charisma.
Merrily’s story, written by George Furth, goes backwards in time from 1976 to 1957, as it follows the friendship and rising careers of three artists (Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez).
At the top of the show, audiences are offered a window into Gussie’s failed marriage to Frank Shepard (Groff). As the play unfolds, Brown delivers vulnerability in tandem with the bold choices for which Gussie is often defined.
Brown spoke with The New York Independent about how she created her unique version of Gussie, the experience of getting to know the character, and the longevity of the hit musical that is famously remembered as being a flop in its original incarnation.
Krystal Joy Brown is making history for her latest role in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’
The New York Independent: Your performance as Gussie is quite nuanced. In which ways did you decide to make her your own?
Krystal Joy Brown: Before we even started rehearsing, I wrote a really detailed, nine-page back story for Gussie. There is a lot on the page about her, but I wanted to create depth for her. When I have gotten to play real people I loved studying them: seeing their interviews, reading their books, watching YouTube videos to see how they talk and think… For Gussie I watched Eartha Kitt videos and I read passages from the Dorothy Dandridge autobiography.
I saw these women and their [mostly] tragic stories, so I thought I could pull from that. Merrily’s first scene is very All About Eve. I have a little bit of Bette Davis in Gussie. I want some Katherine Hepburn because she can command a room, and then it turns into Diahann Carroll where she’s stern but flirty and easygoing. I think about really strong, standout women who were up against a lot in that time period. I wanted her to be someone who invented herself. There are secret little layers, and if any of that can seep through, then I feel like I have done my job.
NYI: Between your portrayal of the character and your race, this Gussie allows for more compassion and understanding for her journey, rather than a simple disdain. Audiences definitely have empathy for her despite some of her less favorable actions.
Brown: That’s always the goal. I want people to see people in the grey because I think it’s very easy to look at someone and judge. A lot of things people say and do come out of hurt. I think of her as just as deserving of compassion and empathy as anyone else. In the first scene, she has been pushed to a brink. Everyone is the worst versions of themselves in the beginning. You want what’s best for them and start to root for them. I think Gussie has a big hurdle to overcome because she can easily come off as the villain, the diva, or the home wrecker, but she sacrificed so much to be in her relationship with Frank.
Krystal Joy Brown strikes a pose in a scene from ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
It’s very easy for this character to be seen one way. I always think that in people’s own lives they should examine their first prejudice towards anyone. They should say, “Maybe I should look closer. Maybe what that person says is the opposite of what they feel.” That’s the fun thing about this show. Even Frank says, “I’ve been saying yes when I should have said ‘no.’” That is the same with all of the characters. Mary doesn’t tell Frank how she feels about him. Charlie explodes finally when he says, “I can’t work like this.” Things that aren’t being said bubble underneath the surface. For Gussie, it’s the things that she can’t say because she’s always presenting this person who she thinks will survive. Gussie is in survival mode. She created this person to survive, to be palatable, and to be successful.
NYI: Merrily now depicts a black woman working her way to the top of the ladder in a time when that was much more difficult. Your being cast in the role gives it a whole new meaning. How do you think your race changes the show?
Brown: It changes a lot of elements. We know the history of this country, and we know how few and far between you found a black star like Diana Ross and Eartha Kitt. In rehearsal, it is not something we addressed a lot. I can’t help that everyone sees that I’m a black woman; it’s going to be glaringly obvious and there’s always going to be connotations in history with that- especially alongside people that don’t look like me. It is another layer of messaging. I want to give her as much vulnerability as she can get, because I never want black women to be depicted as any type of stereotype when we’ve been forced to be strong, resilient, and super independent in a lot of ways.
Cast members in an ensemble scene from the Broadway musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
I also think just being in that room in that role informs the story in such a different way that we don’t even have to say. People just see it and feel it differently. Think about one of her lines: “I made myself up.” People had to assimilate and become extraordinary human beings and undeniable talents so they could survive and live a dream. They had never seen anyone be what they were. I imagine what that must have been like, operating as the only one in a lot of those spaces, and how lonely and isolating that could be, but also how powerful a person in that situation has to be. It’s paying homage to those women who overcame and tried so hard to fulfill their dreams. I think of them every single show and I chant their names.
NYI: What does making a change like this say about the way theater makers are re-imagining shows?
Brown: I hope it brings people to the theater. We have so much diversity in our show. It is such a gift when you sit down as a person of color and you see people that look like you or you see a New York that looks like New York. It feels very inviting and like the world that you live in. When you have a good enough story, it’s a human story, and race doesn’t matter. It’s about experiencing the choices we make as we grow up, the relationships we foster, and the relationships we lose. Everyone can connect to that in any way. People of color or nontraditional casting just allow people to see the depth and vulnerability that all people share.
It’s all about being a diva for Krystal Joy Brown’s character Gussie in Broadway’s Merrily We Roll Along. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
NYI: Merrily famously flopped the first time around. Why is this time different?
This cast is undeniably fantastic, both as friends and as co-workers. As far as individual performances, I am literally wowed by everyone, even the understudies who step up and kill. Sometimes things have to mature. It might have been ahead of its time back then, and it was a beautiful concept but it didn’t have the ability in that moment. It was too young. It’s interesting that it has been 40 years; the show only takes place over 20 years, but I found that to be a weird, funny parallel. You think, “Oh wow, if these choices were different, maybe that would have been different.” But I truly think this was the right time and right people, and we were able to add even more empathy. Now these characters feel complex, and they feel lived in and grounded. The only thing that makes me sad is that Sondheim isn’t here to experience it. We come in with so much love and legacy on our shoulders for this, so we always want to show up as authentically as we can. This is my first Sondheim show. I am always saying thank you for this gift.
NYI: Merrily is about aspiring artists and their zest for their craft; that must resonate with you in such interesting ways. Which character’s journey do you feel is most similar to your own?
Brown: Obviously, I have to say Gussie, because when I got the audition material, it said, “My first love is singing, my second love is acting, I’ve been in five Broadway shows.” Those words felt like I wrote them. I feel like I understood her on a molecular level. I think there’s a little bit of me in all of these characters and a little bit of them in me. We all make these choices. Joe (Reg Rogers) is the pragmatic gambler, he’s enthusiastic about what he loves and he’s willing to help. Frank is geniously talented, but also a bit trapped in his own journey and ambitions, and Charlie is pretty steadfast in who he is. Mary is a great supporter and friend. They cast people who are so similar to these characters. We all have something we connect to the people we’re playing.
I love that Gussie has moments of pure light heartiness. She wants to create amazing things and live in the moment. After opening Act II, she says, “Isn’t that why we do all of this? Wasn’t that just heaven?” That’s how I feel every time I get off the stage; I ask myself, “Isn’t that why we do all of this? The heartache, the pain, the tears, the failures? Isn’t that just heaven?”
For more information about Merrily We Roll Along or to purchase tickets, click here for the show’s website.