Over at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre, the power of the pen — or, shall we say, the quill — is certainly mightier than the sword. Once Upon a One More Time is flipping the script on traditional fairy tales, empowering beloved storybook characters such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel to rewrite their definitions of “happily ever after.” Set to the songs of Grammy Award winner Britney Spears, the jukebox musical opened June 22, drawing in summer crowds for a fun-filled, nostalgic evening of songs such as “Circus,” “Lucky,” “Oops!…I Did it Again,” and “Toxic.”
With a book by John Hartmere, and direction and choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid, the musical not only offers a night of lively, high-octane Broadway entertainment, but also examines the layers of patriarchal power dynamics oft at play in fairy tales. Briga Heelan stars as Cinderella, Aisha Jackson as Snow White, Tony Award nominee Jennifer Simard as Stepmother, and American Idol’s Justin Guarini as Prince Charming.
No stranger to singing covers of pop songs, Guarini sat down with Broadway Direct during Once Upon a One More Time‘s final weeks on Broadway to chat about interpreting well-known pop songs as an actor, as well as finding the humor in his character and witnessing the impact of the show’s message on the audience each night.
What initially drew you to the script?
The first time I read it, I thought it was really funny. I loved how Britney’s songs were sewn into these fairy-tale stories. One of the things that I love is standing backstage and listening to the audience laugh and realize how the music works with the story.
For example, in [a scene] we call “Scroll Club,” all the princesses start singing “Lucky.” Cinderella starts by singing “Every morning she wakes up,” and then Rapunzel switches up the lyrics and sings “With a yank, yank, yank on her hair.” The audience doesn’t expect that, and I think it’s genius how John did that.
The script gives a modern makeover to traditional fairy tales. How did you feel about exploring that?
When I started getting the world of fairy tales, I realized I had never questioned what they were really about. It’s so interesting, in light of how we think and what we believe in 2023, to look back and say, “Oh my goodness. These stories really aren’t that romantic, are they?” It’s so great to be able to see these fairy tales that we know and love through a new lens.
Your character, Prince Charming, is so obnoxious, yet funny. It reminds me of Ryan Gosling’s performance as Ken in Barbie. It’s clear you both find the truths of the characters, which then equals the humor. How did you dive into your character?
Charming is an interesting character, in large part due to John and how brilliantly he wrote these characters. I’ve been working on this character for six years, and it’s a funny role! My goal is for people to kind of be uncomfortable with the fact that they like him at first, then root for him by the end.
Originally, he was just a straight-up villain, but then, over the years, we began to play with him. [Creative consultant] David Leveaux came in and had a vision for him, Keone and Mari came in and had a vision for him, and then John’s vision for him evolved.
We ended up with this poor sweet man who has only known one way to behave, because that’s what he was taught, discovering all of these different things and wrestling with them. It allows the humor to really live. He eventually recognizes that, like everyone else, he is also capable of writing his own story. It’s a wonderful journey to have every single night.
It’s also exciting to see you, as a biracial actor, play Prince Charming.
It means a lot to me to play Prince Charming as a biracial actor. When I was growing up, I didn’t really see myself represented in movies, or television, or the stage. Playing Prince Charming, who has traditionally looked a certain way, is really beautiful for me. I hope that there are people in the audience who will see themselves represented in a way that I didn’t see when I was growing up.
How did you initially get involved with performing arts?
I would always sing when I was in the car with my parents. They signed me up for the Atlanta Boy Choir when I was 4 years old, and it never really stopped from there. There were two catalysts that [made me want to perform professionally]: seeing the Jackson 5’s Victory Tour in 1984, which completely changed my life. I was 6 years old and I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. Then, second, I was what we used to call a “latchkey kid,” and at my after-school program, somebody wheeled in an A.V. cart and put in a VHS tape, and it ended up being West Side Story. It blew my mind to watch that and realize that I could sing, I could dance, and I could do all of it at once. It really did inform the course of my life and my career.
You’ve made a successful career both onstage and on screen. Looking back, how do you think they both have impacted your journey and identity?
In 2002, I came to this fork in the road. I didn’t have a manager, I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have anything. I had been auditioning for The Lion King for four years, and I decided to audition for this show nobody had ever heard of called American Idol. I made it past the first round and was set to be flown out to L.A. to join 126 other people in something called Hollywood Week. Of course, the week that I’m flying out, I get a phone call from [The Lion King casting director] Jay Binder saying, “You got the role.”
I felt caught between two worlds, and I had to make a decision. All of these different voices were pulling me in: Like, do I go with the show I’ve never heard of or do I go with a show that I and everybody else love? I was walking down the aisle at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium — it was a beautiful theatre — and I saw my friends and competitors, who were sitting in the orchestra section of the theatre. I looked up at the stage with the smoke, the lights, and the American Idol logo, and I just started crying. It was the stage where Michael Jackson first did the moonwalk for the 50th anniversary of Motown. And a little voice just said, “Go with American Idol.” So, I listened.
The next 10 years was American Idol, and music, and going all across the country and world and singing and hosting, and a lot of this television stuff. Then I had the opportunity to make my Broadway debut in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Patti LuPone is playing my mom and Brian Stokes Mitchell is playing my dad; Danny Burstein, Sheri Renee Scott, and all these wonderful who’s who of theater were in it. The opening-night party was held in the Millennium Hotel in one of the conference rooms where I first auditioned for American Idol. It was so full-circle.
I feel like there was something about going away from musical theater and moving into the pop world to gather whatever lessons and fame I needed to gather, so I could come back and leverage all of that to get some really wonderful roles [for the stage]. I’ve gained amazing experiences and have gotten to work with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with in any medium. It’s been such a special part of my identity and my career. The Broadway community has embraced me, accepted me, and educated me in a way that none of the other communities have. This community has been the most loving and the most embracing. I will forever be grateful for the Broadway community.
Can you give an example of how you feel like the Broadway community has embraced you?
For my Broadway debut, I was this kid from the pop world coming into a situation with legends. I was playing the child of Patti LuPone and Brian Stokes Mitchell! Some of my first scenes in rehearsals were with the two of them. I didn’t really consider myself an actor. I had done it, but my strong suit was more singing pop music. Patti was so kind to me, and taught me the old-school etiquette of theater. She took me under her wing and said, “Hey, this is what you do.” Like how to communicate with other actors in rehearsal, or, when we got to the theatre, she taught me why it was important to learn every single name of the crew. Stokes and I went out to lunch so many times. We had very similar upbringings, so he talked to me and answered questions. They were both like, “Hey, we see you, we see that you are really passionate about this, and we want to encourage that. We will give you all of the lessons and the experience that we’ve learned from.” I’m forever grateful for the two of them for teaching me so much that I, now as a leader in my company, not only use, but teach the younger generation.
I love that you’re passing those lessons on to the next generation. As an audience member, you can see the cast chemistry.
We all love working together. There is not a bad apple in the bunch with this cast, which you can’t always say. Most of us went through the out-of-town experience together with [COVID-19 variant] omicron, which was a very traumatizing yet bonding experience. We have spent so much time together; I feel like we’ve been running a marathon. This show is so physically demanding, and we all have stepped up to the challenge together. It’s really beautiful. I love each and every one of them. The joy we share, the fun we have, and our willingness to play up on stage — I hope that gets translated to the audience.
It certainly does! It’s a very interactive show for the audience. Does that come across to the cast?
In theater, there have always been the three directives: to be quiet, to clap, and to laugh when you’re supposed to laugh. But this show is really special, where audiences have felt free to gasp, free to say “Mm-mmm,” and free to participate respectfully. The audience has really become another participant, because when we have an audience that gets it, it blows the roof off the place. We absolutely love seeing the visceral and personal reactions to this show. It is such a unique experience, and it is by far the most favorite and cherished thing that I’ve done on Broadway in 12 years and seven shows.
Have there been any particularly compelling audience reactions?
There are a couple of people who have seen the show 31 times, and that’s really special. I’ve seen how joyful they are and how they feel positively influenced by the show’s message. It’s also special to see parents, especially mothers, bringing their daughters. They’re sharing the music that they loved and have so many memories with, while also creating new memories with their daughters who might not even know who Britney is. That’s really special. That’s the power of theater, and that’s the power that this show has beyond its entertainment value.
Thinking of your experience on American Idol, you have a lot of experience singing covers and putting your own interpretation onto a song. How did that process go with this show?
It comes down to character. John has written these characters so beautifully, so the character gives me so much information. Charming has given me the opportunity to play. I’m someone, in rehearsal and onstage, who has no fear of playing and making a choice that may flop. My willingness to play fearlessly has taught me so much of what works and what doesn’t work. It’s what I try to teach my students all the time when it comes to auditions: If you can play fearlessly, you’ll fail sometimes, but you’ll win more often than not in the long run. And then working with people who are so grounded in truth, like Briga Heelan, who plays Cinderella, and Aisha Jackson [who plays Snow White], there are so many people who I get to sing across from who they give as much as they can. They respond and keep the ball in the air. It’s a beautiful dance. All of that helps to inform my choices and my take on these really iconic songs.
Which song do you look forward to performing every night?
I love “Circus.” I love when 98 percent of the people are on the stage and we’re all dancing together doing the same exact movement. It’s so much fun because it’s just one of those big Broadway production numbers where every light is turned on, everyone is dancing this San Diego street hip-hop number and singing their hearts out, and the fact that I’m just blessed to be standing at zero when it happens is a thrill. Then we go directly into “Sometimes,” doing a semi-balletic dance with Briga, then go into an early-aughts boy-band style with “Oops!…I Did It Again.” We do these three separate and distinct dancing styles in a row. It’s my sprint in the show. I love it and I look forward to it every single night. It’s a joy to be able to do this amazing choreography that I didn’t think that I would ever be able to do, much less still do at 44 years old every night. I love being able to hear how much the audience loves it, and how good it feels to do it on the stage with this amazing cast.
Now in its final weeks on Broadway, you can catch Once Upon A One More Time at the Marquis Theatre through September 3, 2023.