Dallas — Audrey Cardwell found herself in a unique position in a unique show.
An actress who toplined the national tour of Cinderella, Cardwell was hired as an ensemble member and understudy for the tour of Steve Martin and Dallas native Edie Brickell’s Bright Star with the knowledge that she would take over the lead from Tony-nominee Carmen Cusack after just a few stops.
That journey not only required stepping into a two-phased role and making it her own, it also meant working around complex choreography—including a spinning house—and singing in a decidedly un-Broadway genre.
TheaterJones caught up with Cardwell before her stop in Dallas, where Bright Star plays June 12-24 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. See info about Industry Night for Bright Star at the bottom of this interview.
TheaterJones: In Bright Star, you play one woman at two very different phases of her life.
Audrey Cardwell: It’s an interesting journey and the transitions happen at quite a rapid pace. We flip back and forth at the drop of a hat. It’s playing a 40 year old, grabbing a sip of water backstage, and coming back on as a teenager. It’s the same woman. It’s the same brain. The same heart. But we carry ourselves so differently before life has happened to us. I had to always remember that what had just happened to her is different from the scene we just played. There’s always something to discover about the depth of this woman. It’s such a juicy script. It’s so smart and so witty and so touching. There are lines that I hear something new in every single time. I wish our run was longer [The tour ends July 1 in Charlotte]. It’s a never-ending reservoir.
When you were understudying the lead, were you encouraged to make it your own or guided to follow closely in Carmen Cusack’s footsteps?
I’ve understudied a lot. I’ve swung before. When you’re an understudy, you don’t want it to be a major adjustment for the rest of the company. You don’t want to make major waves. But once I started rehearsing to take over, everyone on the creative team encouraged me to make it my own. It’s such a beast of a show. It wouldn’t be sustainable to do Carmen’s show.
In my experience as an audience member, when an understudy goes on for a part identified with one actor, there are people who leave for a refund. But those who stay are usually very receptive and generous.
I went on twice and it was quite nerve wracking. But you face your fear and, both times, I felt nothing but love and support. On tours, it’s not always announced. Sometimes it’s just a slip of paper in the program and a note on the board in the lobby. I actually came out afterwards at the stage door once and there were some people we said they didn’t know I wasn’t Carmen until halfway through the show. I took that as a lovely compliment. I will take it. I don’t care if you know my name.
The tour is a mix of returning and newcomers. How did they blend?
The returning folks were so helpful to those of us new to the company. They knew the trajectory and how it wove together and were wonderfully helpful. Nobody was ever pushy. Nobody tried to direct their fellow actors.
In Bright Star, it sometimes seems like the set is as choreographed as the actors.
I don’t think any of us realized how intricate it was going to be. Move this house around? No big deal. But there are at last four people who have to move it and you want it to look natural and effortless. So, yes, it’s the set as well as the actors being choreographed and everything that looks good is owed to Josh Rhodes. There’s a natural quality in his choreography that serves the story so well. It’s my third time working with him and I will follow him anywhere. There’s not a moment or a corner of the stage that’s wasted. In rehearsal, I’d think “I don’t understand how this is going to come together” but every single person had such a specific track and it would somehow come together into this swirling, magical thing.
Bright Star has a different sound than most musical theater pieces except perhaps The Robber Bridegroom, Cotton Patch Gospel, and maybe a bit of Violet. Does traditional musical theater experience and training apply vocally or is this a different beast?
It is very different from anything I’ve done in recent years. Most recently I did Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls—very legit, classic music theater. Right before that it was Cinderella for a chunk of time. To jump to this genre was quite frightening. I had to find the proper voice for this show. It’s got to sound natural and effortless but still have color and life. As I got into rehearsal, everyone said “sing less.” The creative team had never heard anyone besides Cusack sing the material and we had to figure out what effect a new voice would have on the story. The music director still comes in three or four times a week to work. The work never ends. I’ll probably never be satisfied with what it sounds like. The music is so good and gets you right in the gut. I listen backstage when I’m not on and weep and cry.
Do you think it’s a fluke that when Bright Star played on Broadway there seemed to be a wealth of musicals—The Color Purple, Waitress, Beautiful, Fun Home—with women’s transformational experiences at their center? Or is there a trend happening?
I think we are seeing a major shift in the climate of musical theater. Audiences are now wanting and ready to listen to stories of women. For so many years, the woman was the side piece. If her story was tough or gritty or sad or traumatic, we didn’t want to hear it. I don’t think it’s a fluke, thank goodness, that we’re now seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s an honor to play this incredible role. They aren’t many like it but I hope there will be and we continue to see growth.
» Lou Harry is an author, playwright and journalist based in Indianapolis, Ind.
» On opening night of Bright Star, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 12, ATTPAC and TheaterJones present the final Industry Night of the 2017-2018 Broadway Series. The discounted tickets include:
- Best available seat
- VIP Lanyard
- Admission to the opening night cast party
- An evening with fellow North Texas performing artists and friends
- A DJ and dance party
- Chances to win tickets, Bright Star swag, and more. The grand prize is two tickets to every Industry Night in the 2018-2019 Broadway Series, which includes Hairspray (a co-production with Dallas Theater Center), A Bronx Tale, Falsettos, The Play That Goes Wrong, Bat out of Hell, and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.