“The program is very self-aware,” he says once upon a timeof the Heelan Brigade. “We know what we are.”
Photo: Matthew Murphy
oops! Broadway hit the jukebox again. At the front of the queue is once upon a timea musical fueled by Britney Spears’ brilliant collection of post-Cinderella hits (briga heelan) and her cohort of princesses as they experience an overdue feminist awakening. You see, everything is No Well, in storybook realm: “Cin” isn’t satisfied with being forced to recreate her fairy tale over and over again, Prince Charming (Justin Guarini) is nothing more than a shameless ladies’ man and, frankly, a our girl wouldn’t mind the chance. going out past midnight in flats for a change. It’s a narrative about women discovering what they can and should get out of their lives, that stories can, in fact, be rewritten, and it has the added bonus of using 23 songs recorded by Spears. The singer personally signed the production. after winning his guardianship battleand he is the only member of the Spears family to benefit from it.
Heelan awaits Spears’ consent to once upon a time can calm the concerns of his legion of fans. But, perhaps just as important, he knows that the musical is not an auteur statement intended for critical approval. You’ll shift in your seat, interrupt the prince, and walk away in a neon-tinged haze. Not everything has to be a Tony contender. “You definitely can’t say that this program doesn’t know what it’s doing,” Heelan says.
This is the first project that Britney has approved since the end of her conservatorship, and she has called the musical “so funny and smart and brilliant.” How much relief did that give you when she finally made her thanks public?
It wasn’t a huge relief, because we knew we already had their support, but we were waiting to celebrate that moment. My dressing room is on the first floor, and she made that Instagram post during the intermission of our opening night. I heard screams erupt from the floors above me where a bunch of locker rooms are located. It was crazy going on stage for the second act after that. I know the audience was also on their phones. The top of the second act is this moment where all the women come out, stand in line, and break the fourth wall because we’re going into concert mode. To be looking at the audience, and the audience looking back at us, and we all know this cool thing just happened — it was a proper breaking news moment.
What were your curiosities about the program when you were first contacted?
I never had any questions about “will these pieces fit together and work?” When I read the script, it already did. The moment I read it, I was like, “This makes a lot of sense.” That was an amazing place to start.
What made immediate sense to you?
Britney catalogue. There aren’t many artists who have had a career as long as Britney’s: the viewpoints her music has explored. It lends itself very well to a story about these princesses awakening to the possibilities of what life could be like outside of their particular fairy tales. Britney’s songs question things. They question the limits, they question the structures. They are longing. They are all songs from “Quiero”. I have a daughter. She was 3 when this started, and now she’s 6. I always hoped that she would become a show that would be great for little girls to watch.
As I understand it, Britney influenced certain creative decisions that were made on the show from afar. How did that color your character development?
When I got that script, what was already on the page beautifully captured this spirit of curiosity and innocence and hope, but also someone who was goofy and brave and funny. If you’re going to do a show of someone’s music, you’ll want to include things they love. What Britney loved seemed to be very magical. It is energetically very integral to the piece: the magical world in which the story takes place.
The desire to please Britney, understandably, was a priority in pulling off the show. But was she ever stifling, as an actress, relying so much on vague notes that were passed on from her crew?
No, I have never felt any sense of limitation in anything. Something like the opposite. They have given me a great deal of space to navigate options myself, try things out, and change things. It’s a freedom and a confidence I didn’t think I’d get, especially in a Broadway debut. During rehearsal we were allowed to make mistakes and make big changes.
What were some of those big changes?
We ended the show during DC’s run with “Passenger,” which is not a song that many people know. It turned into this magnificent choral arrangement. In that context, “Passenger” meant letting the princesses lead the way and that we’re all going to work together to create this new fairytale world with all of us in it. Then when we got to Broadway, it became very clear that the ending had to be, literally, “Louder.” We had been doing a half-baked version of “Stronger” towards the end of the show, but you can’t change that song. It’s an anthem. It’s one of his biggest hits for a reason, and the show had to end with a bang. So it became finding the right arrangement of “Stronger”. We went through four or five different versions. That was the biggest choice. How to end a show is always incredibly difficult.
The only prevailing skepticism that I have come across when discussing the show is that there is this dichotomy of wanting to support Britney without being sure if it benefits her. How would you respond to that line of thought?
What I do know is that she set a very clear boundary of, “I don’t want any of this to be about my life,” which the show 100 percent respects. The Broadway contract was negotiated after the end of her conservatorship, and she was sent our rehearsal videos of her choreography. The information about accepting her is out there. It’s like people are willing to read that and then decide how they feel or not. That is totally understandable. I hope it will make Britney very happy.
Britney fans have proudly assumed the role of activists over the years, even before your guardianship trial began to unfold in public view. Do you also see this musical as an example of activism for your life?
In honoring and celebrating her, the whole effort of the musical is to embody the things that she embodies. I’ve been a Britney fan my whole life. I love her deeply and am deeply grateful to her. So I guess it’s activism, I think it’s the way people fiercely protect her. There is a reason for that. The show’s effort to protect the material in terms of honoring her is in line with that.
In what ways have you all been protective?
We have always tried to keep the show tied to hope, strength and joy. Whenever it seemed like the show was deviating from any of those things, whether it was in a scene, or a wrong song choice, or a tone that felt too heavy, we always stopped and said, “Wait, does this work?” ?”. Do you feel like it authentically aligns with Britney’s spirit? So that was always a guiding light. And if it wasn’t, it was like, “Okay, well, we’ve got to change that.”
Can you give me an example of that kind of change?
We originally had, at the beginning of our previews, a big change in tone between the first act and the second act. Something like In the woods. It turned out not to be resonating with people. We thought it made sense in the rehearsal room, and then when we put it in front of an audience, it was like, oh oh no. Post pandemic, we have to respond to a need. That need is to be elevated. That is very healing right now. I think the version we created in the studio at a different time would have resonated more, but right now it’s like, That is art. We needed to inject more of the Britney spirit in terms of song choice and fun into the second act, as well as make it a more cohesive piece.
That’s not to say you’ve sacrificed depth. Those are two different things. We added “3”, which is a real bop. It’s so ridiculous and wonderful, and it gives us a beautiful boost in the second act. And then the power of “Stronger” at the end felt much more true to Britney herself.
And it gives the show a much more deserved ending.
So many things are accomplished through that song: Cinderella breaks a cycle. She fractures a world to start a new one. The princesses are released. It is also used for all the characters to participate and start rebuilding their fairy tale world together. “Stronger” accomplishes all of that beautifully.
This role was his Broadway debut. What has the expectation versus the reality of criticism taught you about the world of theater criticism?
I don’t know if I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t already know. This is a fan show. It was never a show for critics. This is a show that will hopefully have an incredibly long life across the country and internationally for different age groups. That was always very clear to me: when you believe in something, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter much. I deeply believe in this. I believe in why we are doing it. I believe in what is. I believe in my place in it. The show is very self-aware. We know what we are. We know what we are doing. We know how we are doing. If that’s not for you, that’s fine, but it certainly is a program that knows what it is.
You nailed what I think is a crucial calibration for a musical: and juliet you know you’re self-aware, and it will be running for years. bad cinderella I didn’t get that understanding, and closed in a few months.
A self-aware work of art tells an audience, We will take care of you. You are fine with us. Sit down. We know what this is, we know what we want you to leave with and we know how we will do it. Whether you like what is or not, no one can say.
What do you hope people walk away with?
There’s generosity about it, there’s an exchange between us and the audience that’s very heartwarming. I hope people feel restored. That’s what Britney’s music does for me.
Have you had any communication with Britney yet?
No, I haven’t.
If you could send him a message, what would it be?
I would just say “Thank you very much”. Being, in some way, a conduit for the joy that she has given me, and giving it to other people, is a gift.