Krystal Joy Brown and Jonathan Groff
Krystal Joy Brown

Krystal Joy Brown on Building a New Gussie in Merrily We Roll Along

The Broadway revival of Merrily We Roll Along has been playing a much-lauded extended run at the Hudson Theatre, and Krystal Joy Brown has enjoyed the whole ride.

First making her Broadway debut in the 2009 revival of Hair, Brown has been seen by audiences as Diana Ross in Motown: The Musical and Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton. She now has captured theatergoers’ eyes with her redefining portrayal of Gussie in Merrily We Roll Along.

Krystal Joy Brown. Photo by Christine Dipasquale.
Krystal Joy Brown. Photo by Christine Dipasquale.

Infamously known for being a Broadway flop in the 1980s, Merrily We Roll Along has been given new life in this revival, and the same could be said for the character of Gussie. Brown and the production were aligned on the goal of changing the audience’s perspective of Gussie, often seen as the villain of the piece, this time around.

She is first introduced as a fading star and the neglected wife of Frank, the musical’s leading man, played by Jonathan Groff. It is later understood that their relationship began as a long-drawn-out extramarital affair that led to the demise of their former marriages. “Everyone can say, ‘Oh, Gussie is a home-wrecker,’ but she had a home too. Frank is a home-wrecker as well,” says Brown. “It takes two to tango!”

As the revival prepares to complete its Broadway run this July, Broadway Direct caught up with Brown to chat about her journey with the show, building a new Gussie with director Maria Friedman, and her and costar Jonathan Groff’s shared love of Beyoncé.

You’ve been with the character of Gussie for nearly two years now, first performing the role in the 2022 New York Theatre Workshop production. How has your interpretation of her deepened?

When I first read the script and I really read her sides for the audition, I was like, “Wow, I get her.” There were obvious things that were kind of similar — feeling hardworking, but not quite sure how to turn that page. That desire to really make a career of this and for people to get the passion, drive, and love that she has for this. Then also just adding the layer when we were downtown, of her being a Black woman in that time.

It is just the amount of stuff that Gussie has to grapple with and internalize and swallow and also put on an air of being better than grander than above and beyond it. It’s really, to me, kind of tragic in a way, but also poetic for what so many people have to do to survive and how we just swallow our pain and be larger than life and mask it in that way.

She could so easily be seen as a villain, but that’s not the feeling you leave with after seeing this production and your performance. What kind of discussion went into building Gussie with your director Maria Friedman?

When I started, I was so worried about being the villain, and I was so worried about being perceived that way and how easy it is for Black women to be seen as aggressive or divas. These easy kind of monikers that we can get, especially when we play someone larger than life or someone who does things that seem against the perfect mold of a human being, there’s not a lot of leeway for Black women. And so, I was so worried that that was going to be her story too.

The first thing that Maria did say was there are no villains in this because we could look at any one specific character and go, “That’s an unlikable quality.” Why is Charley [played by Daniel Radcliffe] yelling at Frank? Why is Frank cheating on his wife? We can easily point to their flaws, but they’re just humans. I think that’s why the show works: People can look at their own lives in a way, good or bad, and their own life choices, and figure out who they are and where their choices have led them, for better or for worse.

But I think with Maria, one of the things we always wanted to do is make sure that Gussie didn’t get too “arch,” which is a Maria word for me, because it’s a very British term. Meaning that she doesn’t get too angry, too bitter, too this, too that, and become a caricature. It was important that this person exists in the reality of the world that they’re living in. And I mean, it is New York City, it is Broadway, so we can have an elevated kind of almost campiness to a degree in certain moments, but just making sure that we’re always mining for the vulnerability and the depth.

Krystal Joy Brown and Jonathan Groff in Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Krystal Joy Brown and Jonathan Groff in Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

You’re surrounded by this lovely cast, and most of Gussie’s development occurs with Frank, played by the lovely Jonathan Groff. How has your relationship on stage and off evolved throughout the run?

[We had met before, but] my first time having what I would consider quality time with him was my audition. It was an hourlong audition, and we laughed and cried, and it was just such a cathartic moment. I was like, “Oh, this person is going to be a part of my life for a long time.”

There was one day when we were doing the show, and Gussie says, “I think it’s fate that brought us together.” He is prone to crying, but one day he really cried when I said that line. Afterward, he was like, “I cried because I really do think it was fate that brought us together.” He’s like, “When I think of everything and how we have become friends and all of that, I do think it was fate that brought us together.”

And it’s crazy because, honestly, Beyoncé is the glue that keeps us together as well. The fact that Beyoncé has a new album out, there’s a lot of texting going on about every little teaser that’s come out. Anyone who has an equal or greater — I don’t know if he has a greater love than me — for Beyoncé is really, really well marked in my book.

What moment do you look forward to performing each night?

The world of “The Blob.” It is just fun. It’s fun having everyone on stage. I am from Virginia, and I would always watch movies about New York as a kid and thought about the ritzy parties, or I think of Holly Golightly, I think of that party scene in her house in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I think of those old movies, just the glamour and the artiness of it all.

The cast of Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The cast of Merrily We Roll Along performing “The Blob.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Then also transitioning from the bigness of “The Blob” and going into the smallness of the greenhouse scene with Frank, where Gussie unveils that she’s not happy. That’s the first moment when we really see Gussie just crack open and shed the persona that she’s created for the world. She has to pretend like she can’t see Mary [played by Lindsay Mendez] and Charley giving her dirty looks all the time. It’s a very complicated dynamic, and so she can finally drop all of that when she’s with him.

The audiences have been loving this show. What reactions have stuck with you?

I love when people reach out and say, “I love seeing the diversity in the show.” That was unexpected for them. It’s my goal to do theater that reaches a larger audience and to be an ambassador for people to come in and see art and feel as though they are reflected. We just have a lot in this show that really encapsulates what New York is. So that is always very heartwarming.

And selfishly, I love when people are like, “I thought I was going to hate Gussie, but wow, I really ended up liking her in the end. I feel so bad for her.” I’m always like, “Yes!” I love converting people to Team Gussie.

And so many famous guests have come to see the show. Was there anyone you were most excited to meet?

Oh, man. I mean, one of the biggest guests was Meryl Streep. That was huge. Beyoncé, I’m begging you, Beyoncé. We are begging you to come.

But then you and Groff wouldn’t be able to do the show — you’d die!

No, we would be dead. I mean, that would be it. There would be no more us, but we would’ve had that experience.

Krystal Joy Brown, Reg Rogers, Natalie Wachen, and the cast of Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Krystal Joy Brown, Reg Rogers, Natalie Wachen, and the cast of Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

As the show enters its final months on Broadway, how are you feeling as you near the end of this experience? 

It’s bittersweet. Of course, it’s just difficult because you’re like, “Oh gosh, eight shows a week.” It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of dedication. It’s grueling. But then also I love what I do so much, and it’s the culmination of almost two years of this show being in my life. I first auditioned in May of 2022, so it’s been around in my world for a long time.

I’ve grown tight bonds with these people and friends, and it’s just been a really beautiful journey. But I’m really grateful that we get to end it together as a group, as this cast. So it’s always bittersweet. But I’m excited to see what everyone’s gonna do next. I mean, God, what do we do next after this beautiful gig?

Is there a lyric from the show that sums up your journey with this production?

“It started out as a song.” For me, everything is music. Just as I imagine this show is around Frank’s love of music, and he hears his past as a song, you can say a word to me and I can connect it to a song.

The other one I would just say is “Dreams don’t die, so keep an eye on your dreams.” I do think even though dreams change, understand that as you get older and as life happens, your dreams may change, and that’s nothing for you to feel ashamed about or feel like is a failure. This is the first show that I’ve ever been in that really exemplifies that dreams do change. And I think, also, as you get older, your dreams don’t die. They’re still in you and they’re still with you, and they can morph, but you can also always pick them back up.

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