Actress Krystal Joy Brown is best known for her portrayal of Eliza Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and Diana Ross in Motown: The Musical on Broadway. Currently, she can be seen reprising her role as Gussie Carnegie in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim‘s Merrily We Roll Along, which opens October 10 at the Hudson Theatre. Brown first stepped into the role in 2022 for the New York Theatre Workshop revival which earned her a Lucille Lortel nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Brown also stars as Renee Timmons on the Starz series, Power Book III: Raising Kanan. We spoke with Brown on the occasion of Merrily We Roll Along‘s opening night to learn more about this lifechanging role.
Something that comes up a lot in the show is: How did you get to be here? So, how did you get to be here, on Broadway, in Merrily?
Oh man, it has really been a journey. I have always loved Sondheim but I really didn’t know the history or full story of this show until I auditioned in May 2022. I saw the audition material, and I just knew that Gussie Carnegie and I had a lot in common, which is scary, because Gussie is extremely complicated. But when the sides for the audition said ‘I’ve been in five Broadway shows… I’m inches away from the top… success isn’t happening fast enough’ something really resonated with me and this character. My audition was an hour and I was with Jonathan Groff doing the scenes and just laughing and crying and having the best time. When I walked out, the casting director said ‘unless I’m crazy you booked this.’ Two days later, I booked it! Now Merrily will be my sixth Broadway show, which I can’t even believe. So many things have happened to get to this moment, some amazing and some heartbreaking but this is my first Sondheim show and it feels like a true manifestation a year and a half in the making. But when I really think of it, it’s a lifetime in the making. I think Gussie, this cast and this role is a once in a lifetime experience and it’s taken a lot to get here, but there’s nothing I would change to be where I am now.
The show is a lot about success, failure, the roads we didn’t take, the roads we did. What feeling does that bring up in you every time you perform it?
It is so deeply personal. It is about an artist trying to make it in New York City and the friendships that we have, the friendships we lose, true determination, the price of success, and it does make you reevaluate every choice you’ve ever made. It can be very cathartic to experience this every day, and find new ways to dig in deeper, but it can also be very emotionally exhausting because this show is so intimate in a lot of ways. It questions our perceptions of success and love. To me, Gussie is a woman, who had to fight very hard for everything she has. She’s had to make a lot of non-emotional decisions to gain success. She’s had to sacrifice a lot of who she was to create who she is now, a person who is palatable for the general public and who is profitable for all of the people around her. That is a very heavy crown to wear especially in a world where, as this is set in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, we are in the civil rights era and Black people are very rarely seen for the depth and humanity that we have.
What’s your relationship like with Sondheim’s canon of music? Do you have a favorite song of his?
I’ve always loved his work, the complexity and the depth of his compositions. I grew up, watching the PBS specials of shows like Into The Woods, Company and, of course, Westside Story. His music is infectious, intoxicating and thought-provoking and always makes you see that musical theater can be extremely complex. I have to say “Being Alive” from Company is my favorite Sondheim song. It was actually my audition song for college. I just think that the music and the words of that song are so beautiful, moving and poignant. My second favorite would be “Not a Day Goes By” because of the drama!
What are some of your cult classics: movies, books, theater that took the public a long time to appreciate?
I truly love that Purlie Victorious is getting another life. I was blown away when I saw this new on Broadway production in previews. It is so amazing and to think that Ossie Davis wrote that script in 1961; it is astounding for how much it resonates now. I always find it amazing when things that are seemingly of a very specific time resonate in today’s landscape. That can be wonderful and it can also be slightly jarring when you see the same issues occurring today. Even Merrily is based off of a play that was written in 1934 and the themes hit today just as hard…and that’s almost 90 years ago!
How are things different between performing the show off Broadway and on Broadway?
I think we tried to keep the show pretty similar, and as intimate as possible, even though we’ve multiplied the space times five. Off Broadway, our theater was 199 seats and our backstage space was incredibly tight. Katie Rose Clarke, Lindsay Mendez, and I all shared a dressing room. Reg Rogers, Jonathan Groff, and Daniel Radcliffe all shared a dressing room. And then the entire women’s ensemble were in one dressing room, and the men’s ensemble was in another, and they were separated by barely a curtain, so we were really all in it together. I think that’s where the deep bonds were created. When you’re just that close to one another in that amount of time you can’t help, but become very close personally. I think that the connections with this cast are really special. I really do hope
that I have made some lifelong friends here. I definitely think that doing the show off-Broadway first created that foundation.
Has the cast become more familial because you’ve been together so long?
This cast is very connected. There is a level of depth that is created in these relationships. I believe that we are very protective over each other in a lot of ways, and I have felt so supported by this company, in ways that I could never express. In this time, people have gotten engaged, had babies, some castmates have become roommates, we have dealt with family/personal loss and other challenges, but I hope that my castmates feel just as supported by me in the ways that they have supported me through all kinds of endeavors that have happened in the last year that we have known each other. The show and the story is so
unique for a musical, we’ve had to be extremely vulnerable and express so much of ourselves to each other.