The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Leslie Kritzer on Playing Carol Burnett on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Countless Broadway stars made guest appearances on the fifth and final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Darren Criss, Sutton Foster, Hank Azaria, Kevin Cahoon (Tony Award nominated for Shucked). Several actors from the Beetlejuice cast, including Rob McClure and Kerry Butler, were featured in roles. And then there is their Beetlejuice costar Leslie Kritzer, who literally belts out the eleven o’clock number on the series’s final episode. It comes right in the nail-biting countdown, with a few minutes remaining to find out how comedian Midge Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan, who is currently starring on Broadway in The Sign on Sidney Brustein’s Window) finally gets her big break.

Kritzer was tapped to play Carol Burnett as a young newcomer. She’s one of the few real-life comedians who were characters on the fictional series. Comedian Lenny Bruce was played by Luke Kirby.

The timing of the episode, airing May 26, comes on the heels of Burnett’s 90th birthday and the subsequent NBC TV special honoring her storied career. For plot purposes on Maisel, Burnett was a guest on The Gordon Ford Show, where Midge works as a writer in the final season. Burnett was on the show singing “Shy” from the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress in which she played the character of Princess Fred. (The musical marked the Broadway debut of the now-legendary actress, TV variety show host, and comedian, in 1959.) Mattress aired on TV in 1964, which is around when Maisel takes place.

Leslie Kritzer behind the scenes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Leslie Kritzer behind the scenes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

For Kritzer — a comedian herself — playing Carol Burnett might come as no surprise to her fans and those who have followed her career. She’s been seen on stage in roles from Delia in Beetlejuice to Serena in Legally Blonde:The Musical and Fannie Brice in Funny Girl, and she has a history of TV guest spots, including on Younger, Difficult People, The First Lady, and New Amsterdam.

“I had a picture of Carol Burnett in my dressing room that a fan from Beetlejuice had made. It’s a beautiful sketch photo of her with a quote next to it, that [Burnett] said about dealing with hard times,” Kritzer told Broadway Direct over Zoom before a matinee performance of Spamalot at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Kritzer played The Lady of the Lake in the musical that ended its limited run last weekend.

The quote from Burnett seems to resonate with Kritzer more than ever these days. Right before tech rehearsals for Spamalot were about to start, her mom, Luz Selena Rodriguez, passed away at 76 from advanced dementia, or what’s known as frontotemporal dementia (FTD). She was diagnosed seven years ago while Kritzer was in D.C. during the out-of-town tryout for Beetlejuice. Only days after her mother’s passing, Kritzer’s grandmother on her mother’s side died in Puerto Rico. She was 100 years old.

“We had our last day in the rehearsal two weeks ago. Monday was my day off, so I went to visit her. I just knew it was time,” she said. “Then Tuesday, I held my mom in my arms with my sister, Lauren, and she passed away with us right there. It was a profound experience. She passed very peacefully. I sang to her and it was very beautiful. Wednesday morning, I got in my car and stepped on stage Wednesday afternoon at the Kennedy Center with my Spamalot family, who have been incredible.” Kritzer continued: “My mom suffered for so many years, and I had been a primary caretaker. I had already grieved a thousand deaths of her over the years, so I was prepared for this. I’m relieved that she’s out of pain.”

On the heels of sad news comes exciting news — this guest star spot on Maisel, along with celebrating Kritzer’s birthday two days ago. It’s been “bittersweet,” as Kritzer put it. “It’s been a really crazy time. But also some good things have happened. I have something that is coming up that is a new job. I can’t talk about it yet, but it is a very big deal in New York for me. I got that call about two hours after I got the call about my grandmother.”

Broadway Direct spoke to Kritzer about how she booked playing Carol Burnett on Maisel and how she is honoring her mom.

Leslie Kritzer (center) on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Leslie Kritzer (center) on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

How did you book the role?

I had almost been on Maisel before, but it never worked out. So I thought, It’s the final season, I’m never going to get on it. I got a call from my manager that they’re going to put Carol Burnett on The [Gordon Ford] Show. He said she’s going to perform, but it’s really going to be [one note of Burnett singing] “Shy” and that’s it. It’s not big. They didn’t even think I was going to want to do it. So, I thought about it. Nothing’s by accident. I have a picture of her in my dressing room. I’ve always idolized her. I’ve always been told that I’m like her. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. I was about to go on vacation to Barcelona. I put myself on tape singing “Shy” from Once Upon a Mattress and thought it is what it is. If they want me, great. So, I’m in Barcelona eating tapas and I got the call that they wanted me [for the part].

And that role turned into what subsequently is a minute-long sequence in the final, pivotal moments of the entire series.

Amy Sherman-Palladino said, “Let’s film a minute and 10 seconds of the number.” All of a sudden, it wasn’t Carol Burnett standing at a microphone on the television show. It was Carol Burnett in full costume with three dancers doing the number with choreography. That opportunity totally changed. They modeled the costume after her 1964 television appearance doing “Shy.” Amy, to her credit, loves a live performance. So I sang it live when we were shooting with the pre-recorded band. It was so cool. Tony Shalhoub was there. It was a bucket-list moment. Of course I nailed it, because theater people know how to do things live and that’s what we’re trained to do. The entire number will be on the soundtrack for Maisel. It was really a dream job. It is a testament to actors out there going, “Oh, I don’t know [about this small part]; it’s going to be nothing.” You just don’t know. Sometimes, just say yes, and see what happens.

You were in Barcelona when you booked it. How long before you were in rehearsals?

I landed in Newark and went right into a Zoom rehearsal with the music team. Two days later, we were in a studio recording it and with the band. Then, I went into blocking rehearsal with Marguerite Derricks, the choreographer. Then a costume fitting. They made an outfit for me. Amazon spared no expense on that show.

How did you prepare to play Carol?

In Barcelona, I was drinking, eating, watching Carol Burnett videos, listening to Carol Burnett, learning the song and making sure I knew it. I had to get certain mannerisms and vocal things down in a week and a half. Amy didn’t want an exact impression, so we married the two.

How many times did you watch the video of Carol singing “Shy”?

A ton of times. There are two different ones. The one that’s in black-and-white is the one from 1964. It’s interesting, because what I recorded in the studio was way more “dead-on” Carol than I think what I did when I sang live.

Leslie Kritzer behind the scenes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Leslie Kritzer behind the scenes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

What did this mean to you, to play Carol Burnett?

I’ve met her once, but she’s never seen me be funny. She saw me in a show on Broadway, called A Catered Affair, and it was a very dramatic show. She is just so unique. She really means so much to female comedians, female comedic actors, and people in general. She is beloved. That’s a testament to who she is as a person. I admire her as a woman, not only as an artist, and I think that’s why people are quick to celebrate her and her life or legacy. People have said in reviews of me that I’m like a young Carol Burnett. I’ve been told that for years. So now to be able to kind of see it through is amazing.

Is that why a fan sent you that Carol Burnett quote to your Beetlejuice dressing room?

Yeah, because they knew I loved Carol. I’ve kept it ever since and put it in my dressing room.

What was your mom’s reaction when you told her you were playing Carol Burnett?

She was nonverbal at this point, so she couldn’t have an actual, normal reaction. But when I told her, her eyes widened and you can see that she was processing it. It’s funny: I do believe in signs. There’s a bookshelf at my mom’s nursing home with a lot of books people have left. I happened to glance over, and Carol Burnett’s biography was right there, which is so random, out of all of the books and all of the things that I could have just clocked.

How were you able to process everything?

After I got the call about my grandmother, I went to get my nails done because I didn’t know what to do with myself. My agent and manager called and said I got this job that I’ve been wanting. Of course, I’m hysterically crying with people all around me. Now it’s just about honoring my mom’s legacy, and that is how I’m moving forward. I’m not in a room crunching numbers somewhere. I get to be creative, expressive, and use my gifts that are partially from her. And that’s how I honor her. When I take a bow every night [in Spamalot], I look up to the sky and I point and say “Thanks, Mom.” Next week when I get home, it will feel different. You take all the good, take all the bad, and try to remain grateful for the time that you had. You carry on their legacy and not sit in the sadness too long. But grieve.