Krystal Joy Brown is currently playing Gussie in the hit Broadway revival of Merrily We Roll Along. The critics and audiences are loving the show. But when Brown’s grandmother saw it, she had a more complex reaction, “My grandmother saw it and she said, 'I thought musicals were supposed to make you happy.' Literally, that's the only thing she said about the musical,” Brown says, chuckling. But to the actor, that’s part of the appeal of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical. “What I love about this piece—and what I find so different than most other shows where there's a clear victim and a clear villain—is this is gray, everybody is gray.”
Merrily We Roll Along follows three friends—Franklin Shepard, Charley Kringas, and Mary Flynn (played by Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez, respectively). They come together as idealistic young artists. The show tracks them through 20 years of their lives as they find success, failure, fall in love, fall out of love, and break up with each other. Except it’s told backwards, starting from the dissolution of the friendship and rewinding back to see all the disappointment and betrayals that led to the present moment, while asking, “How can you let it slip out of gear? How did you ever get there from here?”
And no character is perhaps more gray and, previously, more easily villainized than Gussie Carnegie, a Broadway star who sees potential in the composer Franklin and encourages him to chase fame. The two of them cheat on their respective spouses to be together—though when we meet them at the top of the show, their relationship has soured considerably. It’s been easy to dismiss Gussie as the Yoko Ono of the show, the reason that Franklin loses sight of his artistic goals and falls out with his friends (though that blame is rooted in chauvinism and gives the men involved an easy out). When Brown auditioned for the role, she wanted to give this oft-disliked character more dimensions.
“If you just look at the page, you can go, ‘Oh, she says such crazy things.’ But there’s a current underneath that is so vulnerable,” says Brown emphatically. “It's easy for people to just assume, ‘Oh, a diva’...I feel very responsible to give that vulnerability and depth, regardless of the complicated things that she does. I want there to still be that level of, well, she's a human and she's doing what she can to survive.” Brown's no stranger to playing a diva, she was a replacement for Diana Ross in Motown the Musical on Broadway (her other credits include Hamilton and Big Fish).
In fact, if you follow Gussie’s story arc in the show, it becomes almost a mini-Sunset Boulevard—a look at the price of fame and the dark side of show business. Gussie first enters the industry as a secretary to a Broadway producer named Joe (Reg Rogers). They eventually marry and he casts her in his shows where she becomes well-known but not yet a star. She then asks Franklin and his collaborator Charley to write a show that will truly show off her talents. The musical is a hit, it propels her and Franklin to stardom and to Hollywood. But in doing so, it leaves everyone else in their lives in the dust. She leaves Joe to marry Franklin. And then at the top of the show, it is revealed that Franklin has not cast her in his new film, saying she is "too old"—because for female actors, aging is a liability. Franklin also cheats on her.
Though she is not part of the core trio, Gussie is the instigator of many of the important moments of the show. And when Brown is on the stage, you can’t take your eyes off of her (it helps that in her floor-length dresses and platform heels, Gussie is usually the most fabulously dressed person in the room).
At one point, Joe describes Gussie as, “She changed her nose. She changed her clothes. And look at what was underneath.” Remarks Brown, "That is so heartbreaking to me, that this woman had to augment herself in multiple ways to be palatable for the audience, for what she thinks an audience would want…It’s something that all of us do as artists do, in a lot of ways, feeling that we can't come in as our most authentic selves. And we feel like we have to create that being that will be hireable, or palatable for the masses.”
And with Brown playing her, Gussie has been given the additional dimension of being a Black actor trying to make it in the 1960s and ’70s, in a time when there weren’t many Black stars. So when Gussie tells Franklin she’s sad and lonely, it has a deeper resonance. “Gussie is so alone in her success as a Black woman,” remarks Brown. “She has even more fears, even more challenges, and even more loneliness. And being misunderstood and feeling other layers of rejection. So, I find it to be so compelling to add the components of race.” And in adding these nuances to her character, Brown wanted to make sure that she didn't play into preexisting stereotypes of Black women as aggressive or as temptresses. "I'm really trying to fight against that by making sure that people understand that we have as much vulnerability and hurt and fragility as everyone else."
This treatment of Gussie is also indicative of the new direction that this Merrily has taken with a musical that many Sondheim fans thought they knew well. Besides the diversity in the cast, the musical is now positioned as a memory play, with Franklin looking back at his life. While this new interpretation has been widely praised, Brown admits that she has encountered a fair share of skepticism—especially from people who have trouble seeing a Black actor play a role that has always been played by a white woman.
“I definitely have heard resistance and negativity, even diminishment, of the fact that I am a Black Gussie,” she admits with a sigh. “I wish I could say that it hasn't affected how I come into work every day.”
But despite the naysayers, Brown has also encountered audiences who've told her that they saw themselves in her performance, that the show made them think of their own regrets. Merrily We Roll Along may not be as merry as the title suggests, but it has a poignant potency.
“Before I walk out on stage, I just pray that people can see me, take away as much bias as they can and actually just see the humanity in the story, because it's such a lovely, beautiful human story,” Brown explains. “I think it has the potential ability to do some healing. If one person can connect with another person that they may have lost or thought they lost, or even apologize, I think that would be really incredible.”