After decades delighting audiences in Trinidad & Tobago and Great Britain, Melanie (Hudson) La Barrie makes her Broadway debut. Caroline Taylor learns more. Published in the November/December issue of Caribbean Beat
It’s what the Independent called “a gloriously silly, unexpectedly poignant” jukebox musical that — using the music of Grammy-winning songwriter and super-producer Max Martin — envisions a world in which Shakespeare’s Juliet actually survived. Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway has insisted on a rewrite, you see.
The result is & Juliet, and among its stellar cast is a talent many from Trinidad & Tobago are sure to remember — former radio personality, calypso and soca singer Melanie La Barrie (née Hudson).
La Barrie originated the role of Angelique or Nurse in the West End production of & Juliet in 2019, and now makes her Broadway debut as the show — which began previews last month — prepares to open on 17 November at New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
A child star in Trinidad, La Barrie has been in the public eye for 40 years. Her 1990 song “I’ll always (be there for you)” — co-written by calypso legend David Rudder — received heavy rotation both on radio and television, with its Banyan-produced music video.
“My first foray onto the stage was at the age of eight, as a calypsonian. I sang the music of Carnival, hung out at the mas camps, played in strips of fabric, glitter and glue,” she said in 2015, ahead of the premiere of Trinidad-born playwright Mustapha Matura’s Play Mas at London’s Orange Tree Theatre.
“I have had my music played by a few 100-strong steel orchestras and performed in front of audiences of tens of thousands all waving flags and partying,” she remembers. “I have sung for eight hours on a music truck accompanying the costumed revellers. Trinidad Carnival is in my blood, as much a part of my genetic make-up as the language.”
Her first major foray into theatre was in Trinidad: a 1998 staging of the play Clear Water by Trinidad-born playwright Christopher Rodriguez. She was 24 at the time, and it was then she realised just how good she was at comedy.
“For a long time I wanted to be a serious actor, but I do comedy better. It’s more fun!” she told Official London Theatre in 2008, as she took on one of musical theatre’s most treasured comedic roles — Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables.
Her life would change when London’s Oval House Theatre sought to mount a production of Clear Water in 2000, with a mix of Trinidadian and British talent — and in which she and her then-husband were cast. It was, in effect, a rare Trinidad to London theatre transfer.
What began as a three-month stint in the United Kingdom for the production became a permanent move to London, a place she’s described as her “spiritual home” — full of rich cultural life, myriad professional opportunities…and refreshing anonymity.
“You can entertain over 1,000 people nightly, get cheered mightily at the curtain call, then take the train home with the very audience who appreciated you,” she says. “You can even eavesdrop while they talk about you, even as you are sitting right there. I’ve heard many interesting things about what people think of me on the train!”
She’s entertained a great number of audience members since moving to the UK, amassing a slew of impressive theatre credits. She’s originated roles in hits like Matilda, Mary Poppins, & Juliet, and Daddy Cool (she can be heard on the original London cast recordings for all, as well as the Broadway equivalent for & Juliet);and appeared in iconic productions on and off the West End — from Les Misérables and Wicked, to Fiddler on the Roof, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She’s also had television roles in the long-running Casualty and EastEnders series.
In some of those performances, she’s been able to draw heavily on her Caribbean roots, as in the role of Mama Euralie in Once on this Island, a musical inspired by the novel My Love, My Love: or The Peasant Girl — a Caribbean-set retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and written by Trinidadian-American author Rosa Guy.
“I rely heavily on my own Caribbean-ness to fuel my performance,” she told WhatsOnStage during the show’s 2009 run. “And the beautiful thing about theatre is that we can introduce the unfamiliar to a wider audience.”
She has also been able to bring her West Indian roots to roles like Mrs Corry in Mary Poppins, and her current role as Angelique in & Juliet. Both characters have infectiously familiar Caribbean accents, cadences, and humour.
Irresistible comic timing has become one of La Barrie’s trademarks, along with powerful vocals and commanding stage presence. And she gets to show them all off to full advantage in & Juliet.
The show’s score features many of Max Martin’s hits — ones he’s worked on for stars like Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, the Backstreet Boys, and others.
La Barrie’s shining moments come with renditions of bops like Spears’ “Oops I did it again”, Lovato’s “Confident”, Robyn’s “Show me love”, and Pink’s “F—in’ Perfect” — in turns playful, profound, and powerful.
Much like she did in Clear Water, La Barrie now makes the transfer across the ocean — in another role she originated — as new North American opportunities await.
& Juliet completed a pre-Broadway run in Toronto last summer — picking up eight Dora award nominations, including one for La Barrie in the category of Best Performance in a Featured Role (Angelique had also earned her a 2019 WhatsOnStage Awards nod for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical).
“While I’ve made several original West End shows, many of which transferred to Broadway, I never in my wildest imagination thought that I would one day be here,” she posted to Instagram in late August as she began rehearsals in New York. “I cried, at every step I cried. So grateful for the opportunity. I promise to always do my very best and to work hard. That’s the very least I can do. Broadway debut, here I come!”
And it seems certain New York audiences are set to fall in love with La Barrie — just as Trinbagonian, British, and Canadian audiences did before them.