BWW Interview: Audrey Cardwell of BRIGHT STAR at Winspear Opera House
It was exactly three years ago that I first spoke with Audrey Cardwell. At that time, she was in the ensemble of CINDERELLA on tour, often stepping in for the title character opposite her boyfriend, Andy Huntington Jones (who later starred in CATS on Broadway). Since then, her life has continued to play out like the fairytale she performed, now bringing her back into town as the leading lady of the new Broadway musical, BRIGHT STAR.
Kyle Christopher West: Last we spoke, you were understudying the title role in CINDERELLA opposite your then-boyfriend, Andy. Can you catch us up to speed on any major life events since Cinderella?
Audrey Cardwell: Yes, of course! We got married, actually, in the fall of 2015 a little later that year. I think it was about a month after we were in Dallas that we got engaged; we got married in November of that same year and it's still going great!
Kyle Christopher West: With Andy on the road now with THE BOOK OF MORMON, tell me about life as newlyweds headlining two wildly different shows.
Audrey Cardwell: It is a nonstop adventure. We met in college, and we did not go to the same college, so we got used to doing long distance from the start of our relationship. It certainly has its difficulties; there are days that go by where we can barely catch each other...especially if one of us is working on the East Coast and the other on the West Coast. But we're both doing what we love and we're both so supportive of one another's careers: it does nothing but good things for our relationship. We're both so happy and joyful doing what we've always wanted to do. We really can't complain!
Kyle Christopher West: With your crazy schedules, have you been able to see each other's current shows?
Audrey Cardwell: We have! He came out and saw me [as Alice in BRIGHT STAR] in Houston, and I visit him on MORMON as frequently as I can. I think I've seen his show now 8 times, so I'm a bit of a super-fan [laughs]!
Kyle Christopher West: BRIGHT STAR is probably best known for its unique bluegrass music, famously written by Steve Martin and Oak Cliff native, Edie Brickell. Was bluegrass a style you had experience singing, or was there a learning curve working on this material?
Audrey Cardwell: Well, it's actually more Americana...that's the term we like to use to describe the score. We do have elements of folk and a bit of musical theatre/pop sensibility thrown in there. I had never sung in this style before. I am from Alabama and so I have that southern sensibility to my speaking voice, but it's been trained out of me, which is why you don't hear it now. I grew up listening to Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Alison Krauss, so I definitely had the foundation and love for the style, but I hadn't explored it in my own voice, and certainly not to this extent. It's been a journey; it is unlike anything I've ever explored and it requires different things in my voice that I've never used and I didn't even know were there. The creative team has been so supportive as I discover my voice for Alice, singing and speaking. It's been really fun to get to play with those colors and that style.
Kyle Christopher West: As only the second actress to lead this new musical, did you have the opportunity to work with the writers and the original creative team?
Audrey Cardwell: I didn't get to work with the writers, but I did get to work with the original creative team. I started the show in the ensemble and I was understudying Carmen [Cusack, who originated the role on Broadway and the tour] then, but from the beginning I knew I was going to take over, so as soon as we started, I was watching and paying attention to Carmen and the direction she was getting and how they were working on Alice, because I knew I was going to take over. I did get some rehearsal time with Walter Bobbie, our director, and our choreographer Josh Roads came into town to work with me and a couple others who were taking over. I also worked with our music director pretty extensively because Alice is a beast! Just to have those minds that have been working on the piece for so many years impart their wisdom on me was so beneficial. I care so much about the show and I want to do a good job, so to have so many hands on deck has been helpful for my journey.
Kyle Christopher West: What can you tell me about the audition process and how you joined the show?
Audrey Cardwell: I actually originally auditioned for the role of Lucy and, as I was reading the sides, I watched Walter change his mind about me. Halfway through the side, it was like he became disinterested in me, and at first, I thought, "He hates me. I'm terrible. I'm not getting this job!" and then he handed me the Alice sides and said, "Work on this." At that time, I thought it was just to understudy the role of Alice, and then I got a call that said, "You're in the ensemble and you're going to understudy, but when Carmen leaves, you're going to take over." It was just so, so wild.
Kyle Christopher West: In New York, the word-of-mouth for BRIGHT STAR was unanimously praising Carmen Cusack's performance, so I imagine filling her shoes was a unique challenge. What can you tell me about creating your version of Alice Murphy?
Audrey Cardwell: You're right; it was quite frightening and very daunting. I actually saw the show in New York and was just obsessed. At intermission, I turned my phone on and bought the cast recording. I thought, "Who is this woman?! This music is unbelievable." So to now be a part of the show is amazing because I was just such a fan of it in New York - and of Carmen. But as soon as I got the phone call that I got this job, I became anxiety-ridden, to be completely honest, because of the pressure of replacing someone who, like you said, has been so highly praised. It's so unique and magnetic. What she did was magical. Because I'd seen it and because I'd experienced her in the theatre, I knew I had some big, big shoes to fill. Almost immediately, I had to begin working on the mental game of just releasing that pressure from myself. I knew that if I was constantly obsessing over how Carmen played the role, I wasn't going to be coming to the piece honestly or with my heart open: I was going to be afraid, and you can't do anything when you're afraid. Of course, there are going to be elements of Alice that Carmen created and I want to honor. But there's that weird balance of honoring what someone made, but also having to say, "My Alice is going to be different." What's weird is nobody has heard any other human other than her sing these songs or read these lines [laughs], so I knew it was going to be difficult for all of us because it's a big change. But, once I gave myself permission to figure it out for myself, it became really fun. I found different elements of Alice that I didn't know were there and, every show, there's something to discover. It's just so beautifully written, and I feel like I have now found my version of the role. It's a constant work-in-progress, but I continually explore the role.
Kyle Christopher West: Your previous touring experience (CINDERELLA, ELF, ANYTHING GOES) is with titles that audiences were more likely to be familiar with. How have audiences been responding to BRIGHT STAR?
Audrey Cardwell: It's been wonderful, really. Everybody that comes and sees the show leaves with a smile on their face and loving what they've seen. I think that speaks to the writing and the wisdom within the script. There's something about the story that is relatable to everyone. I can't tell you how many people, well...I don't want to give it away. But, we have people coming up to us after the show saying how the related to the story in one way or another and that is a beautiful thing.
Kyle Christopher West: Since you've toured through Dallas a handful of times now, is there anywhere you're looking forward to visiting when you're back in town next week?
Audrey Cardwell: Well, first of all, I am obsessed with the Winspear Opera House and that gorgeous chandelier. It's so beautiful. This will be my 4th time in Dallas - the first time I played the Winspear and the other two times I played Dallas Summer Musicals. The Winspear is just one of the most beautiful theatres in the country, so I'm really excited about that.Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy Photography