NEW YORK — Krystal Joy Brown has planted her flag on Broadway — first professionally and now personally.
The singer and actor just bought an apartment a few blocks from where she’s earning a living at the Hudson Theatre, making one of the biggest commitments of her life. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” she says. “This is the place, I think, where dreams happen.”
How perfectly appropriate that Brown is co-starring in a musical love letter to Broadway — a critically acclaimed revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”
“This is my first ever Sondheim show, so that feels like a very big milestone in my career. It’s like Shakespeare and Sondheim and August Wilson. Those are the things you want to hit and it’s such an honor.”
This new “Merrily We Roll Along” is a redemption of sorts for a musical that was considered a flop when it arrived in 1981, a show whose story by George Furth goes backward in time from 1976 to 1957 as it examines the friendship of three artists.
The show — starring Jonathan Groff,Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez — starts with unhappiness, broken marriages and hurt feelings, only to end with hope. It’s a bittersweet tale about youth and dreams and how we all eventually careen off the tracks.
This is tricky show business: Alcoholics become teetotalers as the show progresses. Divorces lead to secret assignations, which lead to previous marriages.
“The devil is in the details with all of Sondheim’s work. You have Easter eggs in every single song and every single show,” Brown says. “I just would want Sondheim to be proud of me and to be proud of what we’ve done with the piece.”
Brown plays Gussie Carnegie, a Broadway diva married to self-centered writer Frank Shepard. Their marriage is breaking down when we first meet her and then we watch as she leaves her devoted first husband for Frank.
As we go back in time, we learn she was a secretary for her first husband and through sheer force of will — changing her name, taking acting classes and undergoing plastic surgery — remade herself into a diva.
“This opportunity to represent and be the first Black Gussie is huge and it feels powerful,” Brown says. “There are going to be children and kids and teenagers and college kids who are listening to the cast album or seeing this and will be able to see themselves in a Sondheim musical in a way that they may not have before.”
The new revival directed by Maria Friedman has been cheered for its ability to hone in on the sadness and regrets in the story, and Brown’s Gussie digs deep to show the woman’s tortured soul, usually portrayed as merely avaricious.
“I when I was creating this particular version of Gussie, the first thing I thought of was all of the Black women in the ‘50s and ’60s and ’70s who were breaking barriers,” she says. ”You were making yourself up to be whatever was the most presentable and whatever would be the most palatable, whatever it took to survive.”
Groff, who plays Frank Shepard, was at Brown’s first audition and says that when she left the room afterward, everyone started high-fiving each other, knowing they’d found their Gussie.
“I think it’s the hardest role in the show because you have to believably be a Broadway star, you have to have an insane instrument to be able to sing the things that she sings,” he says. “And you have to dig so deep to get to that layer of tragedy and vulnerability.”
“Merrily We Roll Along” represents Brown’s sixth Broadway show. She was in “Hamilton,” playing Eliza, when she landed the gig, and her other credits include “Hair,” “Big Fish,”“Leap of Faith” and “Motown the Musical” as Diana Ross. She also toured with “Rent” as Mimi.
“I’m just like every other actor who’s like, ‘Well, this is my last show. No one’s ever going to hire me again. I have Imposter Syndrome. They’re going to figure me out.’ But every time I get a job, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. This is terrifying.’”
To get into Gussie’s character, Brown watched videos of Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll and Dorothy Dandridge. She also went back to a previous role: “There’s sprinkles of Diana in this character, of course.”
Sondheim’s original “Merrily We Roll Along” lasted just 16 performances after opening four decades ago, but its revival will easily blow past that, becoming one of the hottest tickets of the season.
“He was ahead of his time. I think the audiences needed to catch up,” says Brown. “As an audience, we’ve grown more mature to understand more complex storytelling.”
Her show joins another Sondheim revival on Broadway — “Sweeney Todd” — and the late composer’s last musical has just opened off-Broadway, “Here We Are.”
Brown hopes audiences who leave “Merrily We Roll Along” are moved but also that they pick up the phone and reach out to an old friend.
“What I always hope is that people go home and call someone that they love and miss and that they think about someone that maybe they lost contact with.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits