Krystal Joy Brown’s Gussie Carnegie Is a Diva (Non-Derogatory) in ‘Merrily We Roll Along’

"I think most people who...we call divas and complicated and all of that are truly misunderstood," the Broadway star told Jezebel.

Krystal Joy Brown’s Gussie Carnegie Is a Diva (Non-Derogatory) in ‘Merrily We Roll Along’
Krystal Joy Brown in NYC in March. Photo:Getty Images

There’s more to Gussie Carnegie than wit, the weight of ambition, and a wardrobe to die for, insists Krystal Joy Brown, the actor and singer currently portraying her in the revival of Steven Sondheim’s famed 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll. In the least derogatory sense, she’s just a diva—a deeply complicated woman whose name inevitably winds up on marquees and in history books. Fortunately, she and Brown have that in common.

Merrily follows the story of three fictional best friends, composer, Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff); theatre critic, Mary Flynn (Lindsey Mendez); and playwright Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), backwards through time as they gain success and lose each other’s friendship. Gussie, originated by Terry Finn, becomes the star of Charley and Franklin’s first Broadway show and later, the latter’s wife.

Krystal Joy Brown as Gussie Carnegie, alongside Jonathan Groff as Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along. Photo:Merrily We Roll Along

Last month, Brown, whose past Broadway credits include Eliza in Hamilton and Diana Ross in Motown: The Musical, became the first Black woman ever to star as Gussie. Since the show’s September opening, her performance has been lauded as “crucial” for its “empathy and depth.” Given Gussie, in all of her feathers, flamboyance, and faux-charm, could very easily be played like a cardboard cutout of a villain, the rave reviews are a testament to Brown’s care in the character development department.

Over the phone, Brown spoke to Jezebel about what icons inspired her take on Gussie, why she identifies with the choices of Sondheim’s characters, and how it feels to share the stage with Broadway legends. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve spoken in previous interviews about feeling like you and Gussie are sort of kindred spirits. Any other first impression of the character?

I have felt deeply connected to her as far as our careers. We’re both very hard workers, super ambitious, and determined in a world that’s not easy to navigate. So, I really kind of sympathize with her and empathize with her and I felt like, maybe that’s what the director and everyone saw.

That said, do you think Gussie—who’s often perceived as the story’s villain—is just misunderstood?

It’s so easy to write her off as the villain or cruel or something. No one is the villain in this story. Everyone is super complicated and gets to where they got because of hard life choices. It’s really easy to look at the script and the words and go ‘Okay, well, she’s kind of a bitch, she’s difficult, she’s a diva.’ I just don’t buy that, and I think that’s really one way to play it. That wouldn’t be as compelling to me as trying to find those other moments that really deepen her. I think most people who are, what we call divas, and complicated, and all of that are truly misunderstood.

Photo:Bruce Glikas (Getty Images)

Would you say that’s your favorite part of playing her?

I think, even though she’s a bit larger than life, just trying to find the depth and the reality in that. I love making people laugh and this is the first time in a very long time that I get to really be funny on stage. I’m obsessed with people like Lucille Ball, and I actually have a picture of her and all these other women that I love from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s who I really shaped this character around—Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Marilyn Monroe, a little bit of Holly Golightly. There’s this quote that Lucille Ball says like, “I’m not funny. I’m brave,” and I just love that. I always try to just be more brave and lean into that. Being able to make people laugh is really great—especially in a story that can be kind of heavy because there are a lot of people dealing with a lot.

Speaking of: I think Merrily resonates so deeply with people—at every age—because it poses a lot of important questions about ambition and what a person is willing to sacrifice for it. On the one hand, you want to feel angry at certain characters at certain moments. But on the other hand, do you feel real empathy? What’s your interpretation of what these characters are grappling with and where they ultimately land?

I think the friends have kind of created a life that feels really cozy and comfortable for them. Like, Charlie holds on to it really, really hard. He’s the same person most of the show. He’s kind of steadfast and critical and he has these strong core beliefs that he stays to the whole time. I think Mary is more open to change as long as they can all be together. And Frank wants change, he wants success, and he wants people that are not going to stop him. Some of that, is what Gussie has done. In my opinion, I feel like Gussie being a Black woman of that time…she had to make all kinds of challenging decisions to survive. A lot of what and who she is is about survival. There are some key lines in this show like, ‘One day I just made myself up.’ I feel like that’s a person who’s trying to survive. That’s what they would say or do because to just manipulate themselves into whatever circumstance they think they’ll likely survive in a world where the odds are stacked against them.

These looks Gussie gives in these two and a half hours…sublime. I read you have 10 costume changes and five wigs. Do you have a favorite?

I love to lean into my ridiculous side and my fabulous side, so I have to say I like the sequin dress with the feather trim and the asymmetrical wig. I just find that outfit to be so ridiculous. Then, of course, in my opening in Act Two, I feel very like, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Diana Ross, and Beyoncé. Opening act two is very Beyonce ending her Renaissance tour. Jonathan [Groff] and I are very obsessed with Beyoncé, and he’s like, ‘You’re Beyoncé in this dress!’

This ensemble cast is kind of a dream team, really. I mean, you’re working alongside Harry Potter. What’s been the most fulfilling part of sharing a stage with everyone?

This is one of the most loving and bonded casts that I’ve ever gotten to work with. I think the casting was impeccable. I also think the best glue is that we have is Jonathan Groff at the center of everything. He’s such a warm, loving heart that it just makes you kind of gooey. He wears his emotions so on his sleeve and he’s so open-hearted that it inspires me to be more open-hearted, to be more receptive, and to listen more. That’s something that always comes from the very, very top and I think he’s a great example of that—just helping to bond us together in that way. Getting to create with them has been really one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my career.

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