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New year, new show: Original ‘& Juliet’ star returns home

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Mélanie La Barrie thought she would survive her final rendition of “& Juliet” without succumbing to tears.

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

Saturday night at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, where “&Juliet” is one of Broadway’s biggest pop hits, La Barrie performed his Act I comedy duet with Paulo Szot, who plays Angelique’s lost love . But his poignant Act II solo, sung for Juliet (Lorna Courtney), undid him. Kissing Courtney at the end, La Barrie kept her eyes closed to withstand the audience’s ovation, needing to stay grounded in the show.

Picturea co-star of the show, dressed in a white and black suit, pays tribute on stage to mélanie la barrie, her lover of the show.  the rest of the cast watches in the background.
Paulo Szot, who plays Angélique’s lost love, paid an eloquent tribute to La Barrie on stage.Credit…Emily Soto for the New York Times

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

After La Barrie’s final bow in “& Juliet”, which Szot eloquently marked on stage tributeThanking her “for giving life to the adorable Angélique”, she took off her costume and put on an Hermès pendant: a gift from Jeannie Naughton, her “& Juliette” dresser.

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

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“What was most important to me was that people knew how much I loved Juliette,” La Barrie said.Credit…Emily Soto for the New York Times

How are you doing?

I feel so satisfied. I’ve been with this series for so long. I did the first workshop in December 2017, in London. It was just after Liverpool, where I had played the nurse in “Romeo and Juliet”. (Director Luke Sheppard) said, “Do you want to come read me something?” I can’t really explain what it is, but it’s sort of top secret.

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Jeannie Naughton, the dresser for La Barrie’s “& Juliet,” gave her an Hermès pendant as a nod to the role she’s about to play in “Hadestown.”Credit…Emily Soto for the New York Times

How did playing the Nurse influence your approach to Angélique?

What was most important to me was that people knew how much I loved Juliette. They must have known that my whole being must be a complement to Juliette’s wishes. To make them easier, even reluctantly. That’s Shakespeare’s intention, you know. Everything I do is for Juliette. But he walks away and tells me my own story. Which is something.

It’s a sparkling and funny midlife romance. Tell me how you made this work so well.

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Adults are not entitled to love stories. They tell me all the time at the stage door — it’s always the moms — they say to me: “Can my child have a photo, and can I have one?” A new love, or a rekindled love in old people, they devour it because they say, “I don’t know. I don’t know that in the context of a jukebox musical or in the context of a musical at all. I think that’s the first thing: the public’s desire for it. You put me with someone I love like deeply how I love Paulo Sot ——

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“The way I tell stories comes from a deeply cultural place,” said La Barrie, a Trinidadian Londoner.Credit…Emily Soto for the New York Times

Whom you had never met before this show.

Never met before. And when I arrived, I was so clear that I didn’t want to bring my experience of the (dynamics of) London production. It would be very unfair, I thought, to come here and try to force Tony Award winner Paulo Szot to do what Broadway newbie Melanie La Barrie wanted to do. So why not do it again? He is an acclaimed opera singer. He runs in serious circles. But he lives in a spirit of collaboration.

When I moved here, Paulo took me out. He took me to see a Brazilian symphony at Carnegie Hall. Then we went to Birdland to watch jazz. It was the best date – (laughs) sorry, Martin – one of the best dates I’ve ever had. And he knew I’d never been here before.

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You’ve never been here before?

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

And then you just moved here for over a year.

I know. Isn’t that fun?

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“Adults don’t hear love stories,” La Barrie said. “They say to me all the time at the stage door – it’s always the moms – they say, ‘Can my child have a picture, and can I have one?’” Credit…Emily Soto for the New York Times

In March, when “Hadestown” tweeted that he was returning to London, you tweeted: “I’m available.”

I had never even seen the show.

Did you hear it?

Not really. But I knew it was incredible.

What freedom do you have to make Hermès your own?

First, I use my own accent. It brings its own music and its own sensibilities. And the way I tell stories comes from a deeply cultural place. There is a (Trinidadian) music called canola. It’s a social commentary, all in rhyme, to the rhythm of the music. That’s what I was told when I auditioned.

We removed Hermes’ gender. Hermes is no longer just Hermes. It was something I felt very, very deeply. When I went to audition, I just dropped all the “Sir” and “Missus”. I didn’t say it. I put it in other words. Because I was like, I don’t feel like a Missus Hermes. I just feel like Hermes. And they’re so attracted to this kind of asexual Caribbean god. (Laughs)

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“I love Broadway and I love New York,” La Barrie said. “It’s also now part of me, it’s like another lobe of my heart.”Credit…Emily Soto for the New York Times

What will you take away from your “& Juliette” experience?

This show and this part changed my life. I probably never would have gotten Hermes if I hadn’t played Angelique. People look at me differently. I had to wait almost 50 years for this to happen. I think people still would have had me in these little supporting roles if I hadn’t done that, and if I hadn’t done it on Broadway. Which allowed him to climb a few notches in the hierarchy of things.

Will Broadway see you again?

I hope so. I love Broadway and I love New York. It’s also now a part of me, it’s like another lobe of my heart. I never expected, when I was young in Trinidad, to receive something like this. It’s not miraculous, because I did the work. But it’s still wonderful. This wonder was given to me. And that’s why I’m satisfied.