New Year, New Show: An Original ‘& Juliet’ Star Heads Home

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Laura Collins-Hughes

Melanie La Barrie thought she would make it through her last performance of “& Juliet” without succumbing to tears.

She was mistaken — though contributing factors include that it was the end of a nine-show holiday week; that she originated the role of Angélique, Juliet’s nurse, in this British jukebox-musical riff on “Romeo and Juliet” in 2019; and that she made her Broadway debut in it, at 48, in October 2022.

On Saturday night at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, where “& Juliet” is one of Broadway’s poppiest hits, La Barrie sailed through her comic Act I duet with Paulo Szot, who plays Angélique’s long-lost love. But her poignant Act II solo, sung to Juliet (Lorna Courtney), undid her. Embracing Courtney at the finish, La Barrie kept her eyes shut tight against the audience’s ovation, needing to stay rooted in the show.

A Trinidadian Londoner whose West End credits include Mrs. Phelps in the original production of “Matilda,” La Barrie is about to play Hermes in the West End premiere of “Hadestown,” whose first week of rehearsal, in December, she attended on a vacation from “& Juliet.” During her Broadway sojourn, her partner of 15 years, Martin Phillips, a translator, was more often the one traveling back and forth.

After La Barrie’s final bow in “& Juliet,” which Szot marked with an eloquent onstage tribute, thanking her “for giving life to the adorable Angélique,” she changed out of her costume and put on a Hermes pendant: a gift from Jeannie Naughton, her “& Juliet” dresser.

La Barrie sat for photos, communed with fans at the stage door, declined offers of Jell-O shots from her young colleagues. Then she returned to her dressing room to talk, packing a bit as she did, because she had a New Year’s Eve flight to London the next day. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How are you doing?

I feel so satisfied. I’ve been with this show for such a long time. I did the first workshop of it in December 2017, in London. It was right after Liverpool, where I had played the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet.” [The director Luke Sheppard] said, “Will you come and read something for me? I can’t really explain what it is, but it’s kind of top secret.”

How did having played the Nurse affect your approach to Angélique?

The thing that was the most important to me was for people to know how much I loved Juliet. They had to know that my entire being was to be an adjunct to Juliet’s wishes. To facilitate them, even reluctantly. Which is Shakespeare’s intention, you know. Everything I do is for Juliet. But this one then veers off and gives me my own story. Which is quite something.

It’s a fizzy, funny, midlife romance. Tell me how you made that work so beautifully.

Grown-ups don’t get love stories. They say to me at the stage door all the time — it’s always the mamas — they go, “Can my kid have a picture, and then can I have one?” A new love, or a re-sparked love in older people, they eat it up because they say, “I don’t know this. I don’t know this in the context of a jukebox musical or in the context of any musical at all.” I think that is the first thing: the audience’s desire for that. You put me with somebody that I love as deeply as I love Paulo Szot ——

Whom you had never met before this show.

Never met before. And when I came, I was so clear that I didn’t want to bring any of my experience of the [dynamic from the] London production. It would be very unfair, I thought, to come here and try to make Tony Award-winning Paulo Szot do what Broadway debutante Melanie La Barrie wanted to do. So why don’t we make it anew? He’s an acclaimed opera singer. He runs in serious circles. But he lives in a spirit of collaboration.

When I first moved here, Paulo took me out. He took me to see a Brazilian symphony at Carnegie Hall. Then we went to Birdland afterwards, to watch some jazz. It was the best date — [laughs] sorry, Martin — one of the best friend dates that I have ever been on. And he knew that I had never been here before.

You had never been here before?

I probably, maybe, had a layover once or spent one day.

And then you just moved here for over a year.

I know. Isn’t that fun?

In March, when “Hadestown” tweeted that it was going back to London, you tweeted, “I am available.”

I’d never even seen the show.

Had you heard it?

No, not really. But I knew that it was amazing.

How much freedom do you have to make Hermes your own?

One, I’m using my own accent. That brings its own music and its own sensibilities. And the way that I tell stories comes from a deeply cultural place. There’s a [Trinidadian] music called rapso. It’s social commentary, all in rhyme, in time to music. That’s the thing that informed me when I did my audition.

We have taken the gender out of Hermes. Hermes is now just Hermes. It was something that I felt very, very deeply about. When I went in to audition, I just dropped all the “Mister” and “Missus.” I didn’t say it. I put in other words. Because I was like, I don’t feel like a Missus Hermes. I just feel like Hermes. And they’re so game for this kind of genderless god from the Caribbean. [laughs]

What of your “& Juliet” experience will you take with you?

This show and this part has changed my life. I probably never would have gotten Hermes if I didn’t play Angélique. People regard me differently. I had to wait until I was nearly 50 years old for that to happen. I think people would have still just had me in those smaller supporting roles if I hadn’t done this, and if I hadn’t done this on Broadway. Which then jumped it up a few pegs in the hierarchy of things.

Will Broadway see you again?

I hope so. I love Broadway, and I love New York. That’s also now a part of me, that’s like another lobe of my heart. I didn’t expect when I was growing up in Trinidad to ever be given anything like this. It’s like, not miraculous, because I have done the work. But still it’s wondrous. That wonder has been given to me. And that is why I am satisfied.

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