Melanie La Barrie Forged a Successful Stage Career Without Giving Up Her Authenticity. Or Her Accent. | Playbill

Special Features Melanie La Barrie Forged a Successful Stage Career Without Giving Up Her Authenticity. Or Her Accent.

The actor on leaving & Juliet after seven years, and why it's important to "say yes to life."

Melanie La Barrie at opening night of & Juliet Michaelah Reynolds

Every night on Broadway, after she had taken her bows in & Juliet and changed out of her costume, Melanie La Barrie would take the subway home. Without her corset and full-skirted costume, La Barrie looked like any other New Yorker heading home after a show. Which allows her to eavesdrop on people holding & Juliet Playbills and to hear what they think. "I love that. It's my favorite thing," the Trinidad-born actor says gleefully. What's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about her on the train?

La Barrie exclaims: "I'm not going to repeat them!" Then here she adds, with her characteristic wisdom that has made her something of a mother figure for the & Juliet cast: "When people call themselves a diva, I always say, 'That is for somebody else to say about you.' So for me, when people say nice things, I'm not going to repeat them! My work is to just make sure that I tell the story right."

Considering that La Barrie originated the role of Nurse Angélique in & Juliet on both the West End and on Broadway,  she's done more than tell the story right. & Juliet is a musical sequel to Romeo & Juliet, using the pop songs of Max Martin. In the show, La Barrie gets to put her own delightful spin on those songs, making audiences laugh in "Teenage Dream" and cry in "F****n' Perfect." 

But after seven years with the show, on December 30, 2023, she played her final performance as Angélique (Charity Angél Dawson has taken over the role). Speaking to Playbill prior to her last bow, La Barrie admitted it's "bittersweet" to finally say good-bye to & Juliet. But she's also amazed at how far she's come, "I'm a child from Trinidad. I never thought that I would do any of this," she exclaims. 

It's not false modesty. Usually, when a West End show transfers to Broadway, its British cast doesn't come with it—unless they're a celebrity well-known to Americans. And it's even rarer for a supporting actor to come along. "I'm not a famous actor by any means," admits La Barrie, who has spent two decades as an actor in London and made her Broadway debut at the age of 48. When asked why director Luke Sheppard wanted her for the production, the ever-humble La Barrie exclaimed, "That would be a question that you'd have to ask him!"

So we did ask Sheppard, who effusively explained: "From the early workshops, Mel shaped Angélique to be a character that led with her heart and soul, bringing wisdom and love into the lives of everyone she met on stage. Of course, that is also Mel herself through and through. When I found out we were coming to Broadway, I wanted her extraordinary talent on that stage, but I also wanted her incredible spirit at the centre of our company. I feel privileged that she said yes, and that she has dedicated so many years to & Juliet. I know I speak for everyone when I say we love her dearly.”

La Barrie was born in Trinidad and Tobago, where she achieved fame and stardom as a calypso singer. In her 20s, Clear Water by Christopher Rodriguez came to Trinidad to cast actors for its London production. La Barrie landed a part and flew to London. Since then, she's been a West End staple; she played Madame Morrible in Wicked and created the role of Mrs. Phelps in Matilda. After & Juliet, La Barrie will play Hermes in the West End premiere of Hadestown.

In the exit interview below, La Barrie reflects on how she's been able to forge a successful stage career while still retaining her Caribbean accent, how she helped influence the creation of Angélique, and what Broadway can learn from the West End. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Melanie La Barrie Heather Gershonowitz

How does it feel to say goodbye to & Juliet?
Melanie La Barrie: I've been with [Angélique] for so long. Since 2017—it was the first U.K. workshop. They'd done a couple of workshops in America before, but it came to the U.K. for a workshop in 2017. And that was when I met her. So she's been a part of my landscape and my skin for a long time. Interestingly, when we came back from the pandemic to do & Juliet in London, that was September 2021, they had asked us if we'd like to renew our contracts for another year starting in March 2022. And I said no. So I was prepared to put Angélique down a long time ago. 

Because I had continued really working very hard on the show during the pandemic. I was the Equity Deputy [for the stage actors' union in the U.K.] and all the Equity Deputies during the pandemic were still working on keeping the morale of the show high, negotiating with our producers on what we would need to come back. So, I kept working on the show, even though I wasn't performing. So, by the time we came back, I was like, "I think it's time to say goodbye to her." I have prepared myself in all that time to let this character go. And then Luke presented me with the opportunity to come to Broadway. And I couldn't say no to that. Who says no to Broadway? It's really bittersweet, though. 

When I got offered Hadestown, I thought, "I would quite like the opportunity to tell that story. It's good and right that I should leave this show and let somebody else do it." But the closer to the end I get, the more heartbreaking it becomes. I think I might cry all the way through "Teenage Dream." Because to leave my Paulo [Szot, who plays Angélique's love interest in & Juliet]. Oh, I can't even think about it! We are so in love with each other, we're such close and deep friends. He promised to come and see me in London, so I can't wait for that.

How much did Angélique change during the workshop. Because in the musical, she has more dimensions than the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet—she gets a love story and her own arc, which isn't always the case for older female characters.
Older women tend to not get love stories at all. And we tend to always be this kind of supporting character, always really there to facilitate the dreams of the younger person. What did happen was that the part got larger. So the speech, the proposal speech, was written for me, deep into rehearsals for [the pre-West End run in] Manchester. I think it came in week three of rehearsals. 

David West Read said, "We don't hear from you after 'Since You've Been Gone' until the wedding, and I feel like you have something to say." And he wrote it very much with the cadence of the way that I speak in mind. So what's expanded was the independence of Angélique. Because "Perfect," used to be in another place. It used to be Juliet's wedding song as she walked down the aisle. And then they said, "No, we want 'Perfect' to be its own moment where you pass on the things that you've learned—saying that we are flawed, but in that imperfection, we are perfect." And,  so that's what they did, they kind of crafted it in a way that I would have singular moments where the story was really about me. It was nice to be a part of the development of that.

READ: From Pornstars to Shakespeare: David West Read Has Had a Wild Broadway Career

You posted on social media about wanting to be Hermes in Hadestown. And now you're in Hadestown. How do you manifest things?
I really am just open to opportunity. I say yes to a lot of things. I've done a lot of turkeys as well. Because I say, "This is cool, let's do this." And then it turns out to be not too great. And you go, "OK, well, we don't take it personally." I get terrible one-star reviews. A lot of people say unkind things about me. And I go, "That's a terrible thing to say. But it's alright. I'll just make another show." It's because I say yes. And I've said yes to life.

Me going to the U.K. and ending up living in the U.K. was an accident. Because I went for three months to do a play. And then 20-something years later, I'm still there. If I was the kind of person who worried about, "Oh, what does it mean for my life," then maybe I would stop myself. But I went with one bag to the U.K. And I went for three months. And then somebody asked me to do another play. And so I was there a few more months. And then somebody said, "Can we represent you?" And I got my first musical [Ragtime].

I like seeing life as an adventure. And luckily, along the way, I've had people become part of my family who are also part of the adventure and ready for the open road. My partner and I had just bought our house right before the pandemic and when I was moving here, I could have thought, "Oh, gosh, I have a good career in the U.K. I'm coming here as an unknown actor to start at the bottom of the rung of the ladder again, and climb my way up at nearly 50. Who does that?" I could have thought that!

But I thought, "Let's go on an adventure in New York!" [laughs] I just said yes to the opportunity. Who knows? It might work. It might not work. Who cares? At least we tried.

Melanie La Barrie and Paulo Szot at opening night of & Juliet Michaelah Reynolds

What amazes me about your career is, I'm also an immigrant, and I feel like there's like an additional challenge when it comes to doing an art form that's not really native to the culture that you come from. And you don't have any connections when going into the industry and then having to build all that from the ground up. Plus, with the assumptions that if you have an accent, you can't speak proper English. 
I always say, I'm just a jobbing actor. I think one of the reasons that I've gotten to do it is because I didn't know musical theatre, I didn't know the challenges. Because I didn't go to drama school. I didn't grow up in it. And so therefore, I was just going in like: I like to tell stories. I'm going to try to tell a story here. I didn't know that there was supposed to be challenges for me. [chuckles] And I didn't know that it wasn't right or proper to speak the way that I speak. I didn't know that it wasn't right or proper to look in a particular way. I was just like, "I'll just give it a go. And if they say no, that's OK. Because it's their right to say no." I didn't take it personally. 

I've also been very fortunate, I recognize that not everybody gets to be that fortunate. I think it always goes back to the fact that I really, really like to tell stories. And I was very lucky that the stories that were being told required my unique and particular voice at the time. Or maybe because I stuck to my guns and remained truly my unique self, when I put myself in particular spaces, they think, "Oh, we could have somebody like that in our show. That was brand new!"

And I also love making connections. It's no secret that a lot of the people that I work with, I've worked with before—many, many years Luke Sheppard, who is my director on & Juliet, was my resident director on Matilda 14 years ago—little baby boy director. We had a good relationship then. I had a lot of respect for him. He had a lot of respect for me. And so when he called so many years later, it was no great shakes to go and do something for him. So yeah, I enjoy making relationships, as well.

What can Broadway learn from the West End?
That is a good question. I am a union person, first and foremost. I feel that there is work to be done in the U.S. about the pastoral care of the workers. I feel there isn't enough holiday time. There isn't enough downtime. I feel there isn't enough paid sick leave. I know that we make a lot of money. But also, there is a lot of mental and physical pressure. Performers, sometimes they work when they are unwell because they've run out of the sick days. They don't want to suffer financial loss so they come back and work sick or injured.

And I understand the way the world works in terms of making money. This is a commercial venture. I also understand that it costs so much money to put these shows on, and it breaks my heart. I have never seen so many closures of shows. I have been on the West End for a long time. And I have never seen anything like it. And it is heartbreaking. Because it's already a tenuous situation being an actor. And to see so many people put out of a job—I mean, a lot of them land on their feet and end up in other jobs. But from our season [the 2022–23 season], by the time I leave, we will be one of five shows that remained open from our season [Eds note: though Kimberly Akimbo and Shucked are closing after La Barrie leaves]. And they are excellent shows that are closing, Some Like It Hot deserves to be on Broadway forever and ever. Amen.

Lorna Courtney, Betsy Wolfe, Justin David Sullivan, and Melanie La Barrie in & Juliet Matthew Murphy

It seems things run longer in the West End because there's less financial pressure.
But one of the things we can learn in the U.K., from Broadway, is the transparency. The fact that the grosses are published. It's brilliant. I know how much it costs for a show to be made. And I know how much it costs for a show to run. And I know just because the producers posted it doesn't mean that that's what they're putting in their pockets. Our production did really good things in terms of offering us workshops and whatnot that we could come to, so that we could be privy to real numbers. I did not go. I wish I did. I can't remember why, I think I chose sleep instead. But I think that that's a really, really admirable thing for a company to do.

What are you going to miss the most from Broadway?
I've got so many things! So, so many things. I'm going to miss my & Juliet family and all my friends that I made there. I am going to miss the community. That's one thing that Broadway has that the West End doesn't have: that kind of fans. We have amazing fans in the U.K., so this is not to disparage them. But the way that they all love Broadway. 

I remember, we went to do the autographs for Broadway Cares. Nobody knows who we are. But people came in and they brought old Mary Poppins programs for me to sign, pictures of me as Madame Morrible. Wow, where you get these things from?! Like, I am nobody. I literally just landed on Broadway a year ago‚ with a good career in the U.K., but not like a big famous person. And these people are still coming here because they care about Broadway so much. And I am on Broadway, so therefore they care about me. I love that the Broadway community here makes you feel that your contribution matters. 

I am well-loved on the West End, I know that I am. And I thought that that was all there was ever going to be for me. I'm a child from Trinidad. I never thought that I would do any of this. This is so amazing. To get a chance in my lifetime to make even the smallest contribution on Broadway. Yeah, I will never forget that.

Photos: & Juliet Celebrates 1 year on Broadway

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