Back to her roots

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday November 21, 2017
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A brick thrown from a window nearly ended Carmen Cusack's previous San Francisco appearance as she made her way to the theater for a rehearsal of "South Pacific." But she's happily returning to the city with the chance to bring the underappreciated Broadway musical "Bright Star" to the Curran Theatre beginning Nov. 28, and she is also glad that it's in a different neighborhood. "Bright Star" was Cusack's first musical on Broadway, and it got her noticed in all the best ways.

An unknown to New York audiences when "Bright Star" opened, it was hardly her first starring turn in a major musical production. She had toured the UK as Christine in "Phantom of the Opera," played Fantine in "Les Miserables" in London's West End, traveled the United States as Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific," and starred as Elphaba in "Wicked" in Australia and across America.

But there is something about her role in "Bright Star" that more musically connects with the roots behind a versatile voice and its story with personal resonance. Playing a woman in North Carolina at two stages in her life, a rebellious backwoods teen in 1923 and an emotionally restrained magazine editor in 1945, Cusack earned a Tony Award nomination for her "simply gorgeous Broadway debut," in the words of The New York Times.

Written by singer-songwriter Edie Brickell and actor-comedian-author-musician Steve Martin, the show's score is an amalgam of pop, folk, country, and bluegrass. "I have all these different styles in my voice that I'm able to use just like a hat I put on," Cusack recently said from Los Angeles, where the "Bright Star" tour debuted. "This particular vocal style takes me back to my southern roots, singing gospel in church at 5-years-old. It feels like the comfiest jeans in my wardrobe, even though it is a challenge to do eight times a week, because of the emotional journey that my character goes on."

Despite an ardent fan-base, "Bright Star" had a disappointing Broadway run. It was always going to be a tough sell, an intimate show competing with the big-name musicals that are always first to lure in casual theatergoers. "It's a challenge because we can't tell people what the story is about without giving too much away," Cusack said. "I wish I had a dime for every time someone said to me, 'I had no idea what I was going to see, and I am totally blown away.'"

What can be said of the plot, which shuttles between 1925 and 1945, is that we learn of the hard knocks that Alice Murphy, Cusack's character, takes on a journey from impetuous youth, which includes a fling with the mayor's son that takes a tragic turn, on to the self-contained editor of a literary magazine who agrees to mentor an aspiring writer recently returned from the war.

More than half of the original Broadway cast is present in the tour, which will travel to Salt Lake City after SF with Cusack, then beyond featuring a new leading lady. "I've been with the show since 2013," Cusack said, which is when a series of pre-Broadway workshops began before the show arrived on Broadway in 2016. "Anytime a workshop would come along, I dropped everything because this show had an organic family feel. But now it's time for me to move on. I have other fish to fry."

This would include a Broadway musical based on the movie "Bull Durham" in which she has signed to play the Susan Sarandon role. "And there's another really exciting musical with really exciting people assigned to it, but I can't go into that," she said. "I have noticed a lot more offers on the table for new projects."

Yet a career in musical theater was never on her radar as she grew up in Alabama and Texas after her teenage parents split, and her mother remarried and gave the young Carmen three half-sisters to watch over. A gig on a cruise ship led to a shipboard romance with a musician and an invitation to live in England. "We got along and he asked me to marry him, and I thought, yeah, I don't want to go back to Texas. I thought it could be fun and we could put a band together." They were living in Manchester when circumstances changed in major ways.

"Of course, the marriage didn't last," Cusack said. "But it did go on for four-and-a-half-years." (She is now married to Scottish actor Paul Telfer.) While her first marriage was unraveling, she took a long shot on an open call for the UK tour of "Phantom of the Opera." She stood in line in the rain, and walked away as understudy for the leading female role of Christine Daae before taking over the role. Then she was asked to audition for Cosette in the West End production of "Les Miserables," and she shook things up by auditioning with a Whitney Houston song. "I think they were shocked because they expected me to do something soprano-y, and I gave them my belt range." Cusack opted to take an understudy role for the haggard Fantine rather than go for the fulltime job as ingenue Cosette. "Everybody thought I was crazy, but I knew what I was doing because I wanted to change things up." Again, the role soon enough became hers.

And again, back in the U.S., the understudy role for Elphaba in the touring "Wicked" turned into the role itself. Next was the "South Pacific" tour, playing the normal-as-blueberry-pie Nellie Forbush. It was during the tour's 2009 stop at the Golden Gate Theatre that Cusack had a near-death encounter with a brick. Running late for a rehearsal, she was taking hurried strides to the theater. "Lucky for me I was moving incredibly fast when I felt this wisp of wind on the back of my head and the clay splattering on my heels."

Playing the Curran does promise fewer encounters with building supplies, and also offers more of the intimacy in which the show can best thrive. "We're now at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, and I thought our show might be swallowed by its bigness. But it's held up very well, but we're very much looking forward to the Curran. It's a much better fit for the show."

Carmen Cusack stars as a Southern woman sorting out a complicated past in "Bright Star," recreating her Broadway role in the tour coming to the Curran Theatre. Photo: Craig Schwartz

Carmen Cusack first played San Francisco as Nellie Forbush (with David Pittsinger) in "South Pacific" in 2009. Photo: Craig Schwartz