Tonys 2018: Joshua Henry on Playing a Thorny Character in 'Carousel' Amid the #MeToo Movement

CAROUSEL Production Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Julieta Cervantes

The best actor in a musical nominee describes singing the famous "Soliloquy" after the birth of his first child and playing an abusive husband in the current climate.

Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1945 classic musical Carousel contains one of the most memorable solo numbers in musical theater history. It's "Soliloquy," in which carnival barker Billy Bigelow sings with tremendous feeling about the impending birth of his first child.

The show's Broadway revival features Joshua Henry in the role, and if he seems to be investing the song with even more intensity than you'd expect, there's a good reason: During previews in March, his wife, Cathryn, gave birth to their first child, Samson Peter Henry.

The actor's performance is distinctive for another reason: He's the first African-American to star in a major production of the show, tackling the challenge of finding sympathetic shadings in a character that is also physically abusive to his wife, Julie Jordan (played by Jessie Mueller). That plot element inevitably causes discomfort, perhaps never more so than now, as the #MeToo movement rages on.

Henry is nominated for a Tony Award for best actor in a musical, one of 11 nominations for the production, including best musical revival; choreography for New York City Ballet wunderkind Justin Peck, making an exhilarating musical theater debut; lead actress for previous winner Mueller; and three contenders in the featured acting categories: Renee Fleming, Alexander Gemignani and Lindsay Mendez.

Reviewing the production for The Hollywood Reporter, chief theater critic David Rooney wrote: "Henry's staggering, soulful performance is this revival's smoldering core."

The actor recently spoke to THR about his perspective on the role and also about his career, which includes Tony-nominated turns in the musicals The Scottsboro Boys and Violet; playing Aaron Burr in the first national tour of Hamilton; and featured roles in such Broadway shows as In the Heights, American Idiot, Shuffle Along and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

It's safe to say that most Broadway musical leading men didn't start out wanting to be accountants. How did you wind up in show business?

(Laughs) My mom worked at an accounting firm and I wanted to do what she did. Then, in my very small school, graduating class of about 20, I had a music teacher who was putting on a production of The Music Man and she cast me as Harold Hill. I had so much fun doing that show. After that production, she told me I could do this for a living. I remember she had tears in her eyes when she said it. She helped me audition for the conservatory at the University of Miami. I got in, and from that day I knew I would be obsessed with music, dancing and acting.

Another mentor of yours is Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I love that guy! In the Heights was my first musical in New York. It was about things that I knew. Hip-hop, R&B, people coming from another country. It was everything that I was! Then came Hamilton. And there's a thing coming down the pike that I can't talk about. ...  

Hey, Joshua, I have to answer to editors! Please tell me that thing you can't talk about!

You have to tell the editors I can't tell you! I don't mean to tease you.

Do you have a favorite role?

This role is so special because I had my son during the preview period, and I'm up there singing about having a child. That's what this musical is all about. But I have to say that Aaron Burr is my favorite so far. That role has a huge arc as well. I got to sing two of the best songs in musical theater, "Wait for It" and "The Room Where It Happens."

Had you ever seen a production of Carousel or the film?

I had seen the film, but never saw it onstage. I'm actually really happy about that. Once I get a role I just want to research it for myself and see how I connect with the story. It's so easy to get influenced by what's been done before.

Were you already aware you were going to be a father when you were offered the part?

I didn't know. We weren't pregnant at that time. It couldn't have happened at a better time, both for my stage life and my offstage life. I'm getting to work through a lot of the things I'm feeling in real life onstage, especially with "Soliloquy." This moment is an incredible one. I can't put it into words. I try all the time.

In this revival, Act 1 ends with "Soliloquy," which it doesn't normally. Is that the production's way of saying, "We can't top this; we're going to intermission"?

(Laughs) Well, you'd have to ask [director] Jack O'Brien about that! It is a big moment in the show, and that was a decision made in previews. Taking myself out of it, I like that move. After Billy makes that determination, we want to know what happens next.

Did you have any trepidation about playing an abusive character in these days of the #MeToo movement?

I thought about it for a while, yes. It's a hard character to portray. Some of the things he does that are so horribly wrong, I cannot connect with at all. And audiences have a hard time watching. But believing in the story so much, and the main theme, which is love and redemption, I had to connect with Billy Bigelow somehow. And thankfully for me, I was having a son. There's the big moment where Billy determines, come hell or high water, that he's going to do something great for his family. So that was the way I connected to Billy.

Are you playing Billy as an African-American man or is this color-blind casting?

That's a really good question. Honestly, we grapple with it from show to show, week to week. I'm playing him as me, who is an African-American man. I think this material is so great that whoever plays these roles can bring themselves to them and the story makes sense. And sometimes more things are brought to the forefront because I am African-American. I'm honored and grateful to be telling this story right now. After this, I think other doors are going to be opening up for men of color because of me doing this role right now.