Interview with Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo
Last weekend British musical theatre star Cynthia Erivo won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. The production originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory in south London before transferring to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York, where it won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
Whilst London audiences are accustomed to Erivo's talents thanks to productions such as Sister Act, I Can't Sing! The X Factor Musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Henry IV, Dessa Rose and Songs for a New World, The Color Purple allowed her to shine on the other side of the Atlantic. She has already won the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for "Outstanding Actress in a Musical" this season, and adds a Tony to her ever growing list of accolades.
Our New York Editor Tom Millward caught up with Cynthia in New York ahead of the Tony Awards to talk about the production and the busy awards season.
Thomas Hayden Millward: Cynthia, you are dominating this Awards Season on Broadway. You must be over the moon?
Cynthia Erivo: It’s a complete whirlwind! I didn't’t expect to be nominated for so many things. I didn't’t know that people would respond in this way to my character and to the show. I’m so thankful and I’m completely overwhelmed and I’m having the best time. It feels like a constant party! But I still wanna make sure I can do the show properly, so I’m trying to balance everything.
THM: And you recently had a big cast change with Heather Headley coming in and assuming the role of Shug Avery from Jennifer Hudson. How has that affected the cast?
CE: Well, I’m really good friends with Jennifer now, so it was hard to lose a friend. But at the same time, we’ve gained someone who is wonderful. Heather is phenomenal in the role and it’s amazing to be on stage with her. She’s a legend. She’s brilliant! I feel really lucky to have been able to work with both of those people. I don’t know how many people can say they’ve been able to work with both Heather Headley and Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks on the same stage. It’s an anomaly that doesn’t ever happen. It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime thing to be able to say that these are the people I have worked with and I’m so grateful for that.
THM: So you’ve worked with [Director] John Doyle over in London and again here on Broadway. As a white, British male, how do you think he has been accepted by the African American community?
CE: I think he’s been accepted completely just because he has a really wonderful way of making the show about human beings. We’re all human beings and we’re on the stage telling a story of human beings. We do right, we do wrong and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. We’re all just trying to live the best way we know how. I think that is what John wants to represent on stage most of all. I think it’s admirable when someone just wants to tell a story. He’s so brilliant at doing that, so we’re all open to him. And he’s my friend now. He’s held my hand right through this whole thing. It has meant the world to me for him to have been here and for me to be able to do this and experience this with him.
THM: Yours must be one of, if not the toughest sings on Broadway right now. How do you personally manage to keep going eight shows a week? Aspiring musical theatre actors take note!
CE: Know your limits. If it’s time to be quiet, be quiet. Hydrate beyond belief. Steam. Eat the right things. I know people think I am crazy because I work out so much, but actually that’s the thing that really helps a lot – keeping your body healthy. If you can’t do a show, don’t do the show. You will probably end up doing more damage to yourself than good. You just have to know when enough’s enough and do the best show you can until then.
For more interviews and coverage from the Tony Awards - check out our New York Theatre Guide.
Our London Editor Dom O'Hanlon caught up with Cynthia post-Tony Awards at the opening night of Aladdin, where she was supporting her partner, leading man Dean-John Wilson.
Cynthia, many congratulations on your Tony Award! It must be amazing to have Oprah as your mentor and friend?
CE: Yes! She just said that I should be unafraid of what might be coming next, to just be open. She said it's great what's happening to me right now and I should enjoy it while I can.
Did she talk about bringing the show back to London?
CE: No we've not talked about that. I really think that it might be nice to move on and do something different. What I don't want to do is make the piece that we're doing now lose its special spark by doing it over too much. There's something really special about it now and I don't want it to lose that
Have we lost you to New York?
CE: I don't think so – I would like to go back and forth, I have fallen in love with New York but this is definitely my home.
How many times have you watched your Tony performance back?
CE: I find it really hard to watch performances back – I can remember the ovation, but I think I lost the memory of it for a second, like it happened but it was all a blur. I didn't expect that to happen. People had sat there for hours in their wonderful suits and dresses and you think they're not going to stand up, they don't need to, but when they start standing you think they're with us.
Did you get to speak with Barbra Streisand?
CE: No, sadly I didn't. I was just happy to be in the same room quite frankly! Let's hope at another point, somewhere I do get to speak to her.
How was it being with the theatre community after Orlando and with James' emotional opening?
CE: Everyone just bands together with love and wants to make sure we're here to promote that love. We need to be more tolerant of each other, we need to spread that love, people working and coming together as a community and I think the theatre community particularly wants to be open to make sure we're helping others and giving each other support.
It was a historic year for actors of multiple races winning in all acting awards - was that particularly special for you?
CE: I hope that's the way that we're heading for people who are good at their work to be recognised, regardless of colour, creed or wherever they come from.
And where do you go from here, what's next?
CE: I don't know! I'd love to do some film, a play. I don't know if I'll get the chance to do another musical, maybe. I'd love to get to do something that I'm involved with from the get go – something completely new and fresh. Whatever you've got for me, I'll try it. I'm excited to see what might come up and what I can try.
What did you say to Dean tonight following the performance?
CE: I said how much I love him, and that I'm astounded by wonderful he is and I'm glad and proud to watch him do that.