By Steve Schonberg (@CntrOnTheAisle)
“I’m just going to do things that I like to do, sing songs that I like to sing,” Carmen Cusack said, sounding carefree, in a recent interview about her solo concert debut at NYC’s Feinstein’s/54 Below. She’ll perform there for four nights this month, starting on the 9th. “Hopefully everyone will enjoy listening as much as I’d like them to.”
Cusack will sing songs from “Bright Star,” the show she headlined this Spring—making her long-overdue Broadway debut—but which sadly shuttered in June after just 139 performances. She’s promised songs from the show, including some that were cut before they made it to Broadway, as well as numbers from other notable roles (“Wicked,” “Ragtime”), and some original material.
“Just bits and bobs,” Cusack said, using a phrase uncharacteristic of the American South, where she spent her formative years.
Cusack’s voice is a lot like her resume and it says as much in its sound as in her words. Her charming Southern accent, a souvenir of her upbringing and the rhythm, or cadence, of her speech—sounding ever-so-slightly British—an affectation earned, likely, during her years already logged as a leading lady in London’s West End. It’s complemented by a subtle rasp that not only further distinguishes her from her fellow actresses, it hints to the fact that while Cusack may be new to Broadway, she isn’t an ingénue. She’s already a major star, but in choosing her path to Broadway she’s simply taken the scenic route.
Born in Denver, CO, Cusack’s parents were 15 and 16 years old when she was born and they, “tried to play house,” she shared. “They attempted to do the right thing and raise a child. It was clearly not going to work out. My grandparents then raised me for a bit alongside my mother who did come, but she was going to school full-time and working. I didn’t really see her, but we moved in with my grandparents who then, at that point, moved to Panama City, Florida. They raised me until I was about eight,” Cusack said.
Her mother then got a job in Alabama, and Cusack was soon being raised there alongside three younger siblings, born from her mother’s second marriage. “I was mommy’s helper,” she remarked.
Some years later, they moved to Houston, TX, where Cusack stayed until college. She couldn’t finance her second year at the University of North Texas though (where she was studying opera) and she realized she’d need to quit and get a job.
Cusack did just that, and it began her journey across the pond—both literally and figuratively—when she was hired on the Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner.
“I was working as a singing waitress at an Italian restaurant in Fort Worth [Texas]. My friends were going to go to this audition in Dallas and asked me to come with them. I just walked into the audition and sang ‘Summertime’ [from ‘Porgy & Bess’] and got offered a job on the QEII. So I took it. That’s what then led me to England,” Cusack explained. “That’s pretty much where I stayed. I got married instantly to one of the guys on the ship. A guy from Manchester… I got married way too young. I was a child bride.”
“That marriage didn’t last very long but the work kept coming in, in the West End, so I stayed in the UK for over a decade.”
But, sorry gents. She’s married again: to hunky Scottish actor, Paul Telfer (“Hercules,” Xander Cook on “Days of Our Lives”).
That glorious sound? “Well, I grew up in the church. My mother was highly religious. I was singing at the age of five for big congregations,” she said. “The first music that came to my ear was gospel… I used to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with a very strong southern accent and a vibrato already at five years old.” From there, Cusack says she took a liking to choral music outside of church too, joining school choirs, which led her to start her training in opera. All detectable elements when evaluating Cusack’s unique and powerful sound.
“I’m just so glad to have all of those different facilities to draw from with all the different styles of music that I enjoy singing,” she said.
Bit by the bug of having created a role from scratch (Alice Murphy in “Bright Star”) that fit her talents perfectly, Cusack says that’s where she wants to keep her focus for now. “I’m so blessed and proud that I got to be a part of ‘Bright Star’ because it was so new and so fresh.”
But that’s not to say, like any performer, that she doesn’t have other dream roles. She’s already played some that are on many actresses’ lists: Dot in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of ”Sunday in the Park with George,” Nellie Forbush in the national tour of “South Pacific,” Christine Daae in “The Phantom of the Opera” and of Elphaba in “Wicked,” among others.
“Do I want to redo something that’s been done before? Maybe when I get a bit older, I think I would like to try the Norma Desmond role in ‘Sunset Boulevard’. Maybe the mother [Rose] in ‘Gypsy’. Those roles won’t get to me until a while down the line,” she said.
But Cusack makes it clear that for now, she remains focused on creating characters anew: “Really my head space has just been creating new things, fresh new things, because it’s so ballsy to do that in this climate. I just like to live on the edge.”
In addition to the upcoming series of shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Cusack’s been planning a solo album intermittently while she was working on “Bright Star” and while now moving more permanently to New York. “That is in the making,” she shared. “I kind of has to put it on hold… I have about five songs that I’ve put down in kind of an EP… There’s five more. I am trying to put together, at least, a ten song album.” No release date has been set.
For more information about Cusack’s upcoming shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below (August 9 and 11 at 9:30 p.m. and August 14 and 16 at 7:00 p.m.) visit www.54Below.com.