Bright Star's Carmen Cusack Embraces the "Darkness" and "Light" of Her Story
The newly minted Tony nominee prepares for her solo concert debut.
Before Carmen Cusack started telling Alice Murphy's story eight times a week in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's southern musical Bright Star, not many people knew she had a good story of her own to tell. But after one of the most acclaimed Broadway debuts of the season and a Tony nomination to prove it, Cusack is putting her own tale front and center for four solo concerts at Feinstein's/54 Below (August 9, 11, 14, and 16).
Before coming to Broadway with Bright Star (helmed by the legendary Walter Bobbie), Cusack had already played London's West End in Les Misérables and toured the country in Wicked and South Pacific. Martin and Brickell's theatrical collaboration, however, gave Cusack her first original role — and one that struck particularly close to home.
"Every morsel of that role I was able to bring from personal experiences," she said, describing her time as Alice — a teenage mother who is forced to surrender her child. As the product of teen parents, she connected to the part from her first reading and followed its "Bright Star" all the way to Broadway.
The musical played its final performance on June 26, but Cusack is still feeling its impact on her life and career, the details of which (both past and present) she's now preparing to share with audiences. Perhaps not every gritty detail quite yet, Cusack says — but now that she's officially planting roots in New York City, there's plenty of time for that.
I'm guessing life has been much different for you since Bright Star.
Yeah, things have changed quite dramatically. I literally shook hands with a manager on the day it was announced that we were closing. I had a few auditions and I also did a workshop of Dave (based on the movie with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver), which they're planning to bring into town within the year, I believe. And then I was on a plane to go to Orlando to sing "What the World Needs Now" with everybody involved in that and as soon as we landed here we got on a bus and went to Philly for the DNC. And then this weekend has been both my husband and I moving our lives to a kind of temporary space. We're home-searching in New York City. I don't think I've ever been this busy in my life.
Is it surprising how quickly everything has been happening?
It's all been a bit of a surprise — a big ride that I haven't gotten off of yet. As soon as these 54 Below shows happen I think [my husband and I] are going to try to make some time back in California.
How do you spend your time on the West Coast?
When I'm in L.A. I keep my head down. I have a band out there that I work with and I just write music and play with my band. I don't really have an agent in L.A. so when I'm there I'm kind of just being creative and I'll send the odd audition tape to New York. That's actually how I got Bright Star.
Will you be singing some original songs for your Feinstein's/54 Below show?
Yes, I'm going to incorporate two songs every night. I'm going to mix and match them and then hopefully by the sixteenth I will have decided what the more favorable songs are. I don't want to bombard people with a ton of originals that they've never heard before. But they are kind of the same ilk as Bright Star in that Americana-type style so I thought they would fit nicely in the set.
What is the narrative arc of your show?
The narrative arc is going to be my story. "If You Knew My Story" [from Bright Star] will be one of those that opens up the set. And then I'll hopefully continue to fill in some blanks and answer some questions on where I've been and what I've been up to, along with songs that have inspired me along the way and roles that I've played through my journey.
Is being yourself onstage and telling your own story rather than that of a character something you enjoy doing?
Trying to write it scares the heck out of me. But I feel better once I'm surrounded by an audience and there's an energy and a magic that flows between us. Then I calm down. But I do tend to like to hide behind a character and speak someone else's words — because I'm really scared I'm going to put my foot in it. I know what I'm like — I worry. I worry and worry and worry and then I get there in the scenario and it all feels good.
What's your main worry when you think about putting a solo show together?
Just that: I'm a bit shy in ways. I enjoy staying in a little bubble and not sharing too much because I'm always worried if I share too much, it's going to get too dark. I have a lot of darkness in my storyline and I don't want it to go down too far one way. I want to keep it uplifted and encouraging and positive, so I really have to edit myself. But also, I embrace that darkness, because that is me too. But I'm always worried. Maybe one of these days I'll write a one-woman show and go through the ebbs and curves and the trials and tribulations but I don't think I'm ready to share everything.
Looking back on your time with Bright Star, what place has that show had in your storyline?
So much light. I feel like I found friends that I will hold onto for forever. It was a real family environment and I learned so much by watching and listening to the whole creative team. How it's OK to make mistakes — to throw it on the wall and see what sticks. I tend to want to be perfect immediately and I've learned to just embrace my flaws and embrace my mistakes by watching the legends that are Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and Walter Bobbie. We all threw things out there together. Sometimes it didn't work and sometimes it did and sometimes there were terrible mistakes, but you finally come up with this beautiful piece of magic that moved people. We got to go through this wonderful journey and I will forever-ever-ever hold it dearest to my heart.
It was a beautiful show and I'm glad it got so much love from the Broadway community.
I am too. One of these days I'll sit down and watch it. I think there's a video at Lincoln Center. I haven't even mourned that it's finished. I've just had to keep going. As soon as I get past these [Feinstein's/54 Below] shows I'll sit down and take a big breather and maybe go watch Bright Star myself. It's so weird being on one end of it and having people from the audience perspective tell you what they see. You can't see what they see, but you feel it. So I'm really looking forward to seeing that.
Do you miss Alice Murphy?
I don't miss her at all. She's part of me.