A Steady Rise to the Top
After 11 years of hard work and a stream of roles, Brynn O’Malley is Broadway’s brightest new star.
Brynn O’Malley is about to embark on an extended honeymoon…on Broadway.
The 2003 musical theatre graduate is starring in Honeymoon in Vegas, a new musical based on the 1992 film, now in previews, which opens January 15. With a book by Andrew Bergman (who wrote the film and is an Academy Award-winner for Blazing Saddles) and score and orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown (a three-time Tony Award-winner, most recently for The Bridges of Madison County), it is a highly anticipated show that received rave reviews during tryouts at the celebrated Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey last year.
“The whole thing is a dream come true,” said O’Malley of her first turn at originating a Broadway role. It comes after 11 years of playing lead replacements, understudies, or supporting roles in a slew of shows from Wicked to Annie to Hairspray. “First of all, being a principal on Broadway, all the nuts and bolts of this experience are obviously incredible. But what’s really special about this show is that it’s really good!” She knows that’s what she’s supposed to say, but insists it’s the absolute truth.
“It’s really funny,” said the very funny actress, for whom comedy seems to come naturally. She adds that cast member Nancy Opel, a veteran Broadway actor, put it best: “She said, ‘There’s a difference between musical theatre funny and actually funny, and this is actually funny.'”
O’Malley plays Betsy, the fiancée of the commitment-phobic Jack Singer (Rob McClure). When the couple travels to Las Vegas for their wedding, they meet smooth-talking gambler Tommy Korman (Tony Danza), who falls head over heels in love with Betsy. Complications ensue.
Aside from the comedy factor, O’Malley is ecstatic to be performing music by one of her favorite composers, Jason Robert Brown. She has often said that Stephen Sondheim is the reason she got into musical theatre and Brown is the reason she stayed.
At Michigan, O’Malley was assistant director on the musical theatre production of Brown’s Parade, with which she was “obsessed.” She then discovered and became equally enamored of The Last Five Years, his poignant reverse-chronology musical about the rise and fall of a marriage.
“To do a show with Jason-it’s almost a problem, there are times when I really have choked in rehearsal because I can’t believe I’m singing his music in front of him; I’m so terrified because he’s my idol!”
At the time she auditioned, O’Malley was actually planning to pull away from theatre. She was happily appearing as Grace Farrell in the Broadway revival of Annie, but her agents were encouraging her to do more television and movie auditions. But she couldn’t not audition for a Brown musical.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a show where I was actively looking for reasons to dislike it,” she said. “But by page two I was in love. I was laughing my butt off out loud, and I hadn’t even heard the music yet. And then I heard the music and I was in big trouble.”
But landing the role was only part of what made 2014 the best year of O’Malley’s life. She was also cast in a show written by her other idol, Sondheim, landing the lead, Dot/Marie, in the Signature Theatre production of Sunday in the Park with George, which ran last summer. “I have no dreams left,” she said. “They’re all ticked off.”
Playing a role that she has coveted for years was both thrilling and anxiety provoking. “I grew up watching Bernadette Peters do it and I understudied Jenna Russell in the revival and loved everything Jenna did,” said O’Malley. “Your job as an understudy, truly, is to try to recreate the performance that you’re understudying to maintain the show as rehearsed-you don’t want to mess with it. So I never felt like I got to find my own Dot/Marie in the first show. Because I’m a good mimic, almost to a fault, sometimes that can get in my way. But it sort of just naturally developed, and I was very happy when I realized, ‘This is mine, this is completely mine.'”
The critics agreed. O’Malley was described as “superb” by The Washington Post; The Baltimore Sun said she was a “delectable actress” and “a terrific singer, revealing a natural instinct for phrasing”; and DC Theatre Scene wrote, “…there is something devastating and deep about her performance in the second act.”
The Signature Theatre is one of several venues in the DC area where O’Malley has triumphed in recent years; another is Arena Stage, where her performance as Amalia in She Loves Me earned her a Helen Hayes Award nomination. She loves regional theatre for the creative control and collaboration that it affords. She said that the move from understudying Belle in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast to starring at Arena Stage was startling.
“You get accustomed to being told what to do: this is your costume and this is your wig, this is where you move your arm, this is where you cross the stage, and you say your line with an upward inflection here,” she said of the Disney show. But at Arena, her input on everything was actively solicited. She remembered thinking, “‘You care what I think?'” she said. “It was the first time I ever, ever felt in my life that I was actually creating a character.”
The Michigan native, who grew up in Farmington Hills and Saline, discovered her passion for musical theatre in high school when she played Marian in a production of The Music Man. Soon after, she saw the SMTD production of the same show. She left the theatre, she said, wondering, “‘Who are these people? They’re in college?’ It was better than any touring company I’d ever seen!” Then she learned more about the musical theatre program. “Wait, I don’t understand; they’re getting a degree in this?” she remembers thinking. “Oh, so you can major in lollipops and pony rides; that’s awesome.”
Having a dream college program available just miles from her home was almost inconceivable to O’Malley-she had to make “business sense” of it, which she did when she realized how valuable a BFA from Big 10 “major school” would be. “You’ve still got this incredible degree that you can fall back on. You can get into any graduate program doing anything you want because you get a full course of academics along with your BFA, unlike a conservatory or any other major school I was looking at.”
As it turned out, O’Malley didn’t need a fallback. Since graduating, her career has been on a well-paced, steady incline where she learned, she said, “to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, manage your expectations.” Like most SMTD alums, she also benefited early on from the legendary alumni support network. “I can’t even tell you the number of people who did me a solid and recommended me for recordings or demos or readings because we both went to Michigan.”
She continues to be grateful for her SMTD training, which, she said, offers the safest environment for self-discovery. “The professors are so nurturing and caring, and so understanding of what a weird time it is for a kid. We were just tornadoes of emotion, but somewhere along the line we all learned how to tap, and sing, and act, and audition; they teach you an amazing amount of discipline. The Michigan kids, to this day, have always had such an incredible reputation of having the best work ethic and being so prepared.”
Now, as she takes her place on Broadway as a leading lady in an original production, O’Malley can look back at her time at Michigan and fully appreciate that preparation. “That time in college-everybody says, ‘I wouldn’t want to go back,’ but oh boy, the things I would not take for granted if I could!”
By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.