Lorna Courtney was barely out of the University of Michigan when Broadway first came calling. A native New Yorker – Queens, to be exact – and graduate of Manhattan’s performing arts LaGuardia High School, Courtney was a standby in Dear Evan Hansen in 2019 and 2020 before being cast in director Ivo van Hove’s boldly reimagined West Side Story, a production that did away with the iconic Jerome Robbins in favor of the riskier, more avant-garde stylings of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Both shows, but particularly the short-lived 2020 West Side Story – which closed due to the Covid pandemic shutdown and never re-opened – were learning experiences for Courtney, who now draws upon those earlier shows for her Tony-nominated performance as the star and title character of & Juliet. The musical, which features songs written by hit-maker Max Martin (“Since U Been Gone,” “Roar,” “Baby One More Time,” “Larger Than Life,” “That’s The Way It Is,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” to name a selection), has become one of Broadway’s most successful crowd-pleasers, routinely pulling in weekly grosses well in excess of $1 million and filling seats at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
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Deadline spoke this week to Courtney as she gears up for Sunday’s Tony Awards (her nomination is one of nine received by the production, including Best Musical). She’d just taped an appearance for The View and seemed to be operating on a combination of excitement, pride and maybe a jitter or two. She spoke of & Juliet, the Tonys, West Side Story, and the responsibilities and joys of leading a Broadway production night after night.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: So, congratulations. What has this week been like for you?
LORNA COURTNEY: This week has been challenging in the best ways and also tiring in the best ways. Today I got up at 4:30 and performed on The View, and I met Whoopi Goldberg.
DEADLINE: Is it just the crazed schedule that’s challenging or are there other things weighing on you?
COURTNEY: Because this is my first lead role I didn’t know what to expect. I knew what it took to be a leader, but I didn’t know all of the expectations and all of the press things. It’s more than just doing the eight shows a week, and that I didn’t know, and I didn’t know how it would affect my body. First and foremost, I want to be as healthy as possible so I can do my job every night.
DEADLINE: I thought you were going to say “First and foremost I want to sleep.”
COURTNEY: Well, that too.
DEADLINE: You said you know how to be a leader. But I’m wondering how you learned that. This is your first lead role on Broadway.
COURTNEY: I like to think it’s because I take everyone into consideration and have everyone’s thoughts in my mind, that way I don’t not include anyone’s voice, by making sure everyone is heard, their concerns even if it’s like something in their personal life, I’ll talk to them and I’ll check in with them. I also like to bring a positive attitude to work, an uplifting one because we’re all tired these past couple of weeks. If one of us or some of us can at a ten while others are maybe at a a six or a seven, then it balances everything out.
DEADLINE: You were working at an Equinox Health Club when you got the news that you’d been cast in & Juliet. What a ride this must have been. How do you think coming so far so quickly impacts your performance as a leader?
COURTNEY: I think that because of all this great press and publicity that there are certain expectations of excellence, right? Well, this is live theater. Anything can happen, particularly with my character. The reason I love my character so much – and she’s a lot like me – is that she learns there is no such thing as perfection and it’s in the imperfections that we find grace and that we learn and that we grow as human beings. That’s what I love about my job, knowing that I don’t have to carry all of the burden because it’s really not about me. It really does take every single person in our production to make this show happen every night, and every single person was specifically picked for a reason that’s so individual, even in the way that they move. We don’t all move the same.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the Max Martin songs. Did knowing these hits beforehand give you any trepidation in performing them?
COURTNEY: I think initially the thought came into my head that, oh my gosh, these are songs that everyone knows and everyone knows so well. There is a bit of fear associated with that if you think of it as doing a cover version, but we are not doing covers of the songs. We’re actually storytelling using the lyrics, and even though a lot of the songs are recognizable, I think because of the new orchestrations they’re a bit different than what people expect. So you might not realize what the song is until certain lyrics come up, and then some people chuckle or giggle or laugh because they’re like, Oh! I know this song. Then they really listen because they’re hearing the words in a completely different way. And that’s how I approached them as an actor. Who am I talking to with this song, what am I trying to say? And that’s how I was able to disassociate them from the fact that they’re so famous. And it works.
DEADLINE: So there wasn’t the pressure of thinking, Ok, I’ve got to sound like Britney Spears here.
COURTNEY: I could try and sound like Britney Spears if we were doing that type of, like, impersonation, you know, that type of musical, but we’re not, and there’s so much freedom in that. Not once did Max say to me, ‘You need to sound this way.’ Maybe he gave me a little, like, ‘Oh you can scoop up on this part,’ but I think that’s why they chose me – they liked all of the musical experience and background that Lorna has, which comes from gospel music, jazz, R&B, pop, and studying opera in high school and musical theater in college.
DEADLINE: Yes, I suppose the songs have to be recognizable for the show but at the same time you have to bring yourself to them, or what’s the point?
DEADLINE: Speaking of bringing yourself, let’s talk about the shows you did before & Juliet. What did you learn from Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story. Especially West Side Story, which I think was a really interesting production that should have lasted longer.
COURTNEY: With Dear Evan Hansen, I went into that show a week after I graduated from U Mich and I was thrown into a show that had already been set, a show that was a commercial success. The direction was very specific and particular because they knew what worked and what didn’t. So there was some room for creativity but not much. But I will say that working with a smaller cast was really amazing and you become like family, which I love.
And then on the flip side of that, there was West Side Story, a revival. We all know West Side Story, but that version completely turned everything on its head and really looked at it with a different lens, literally because they integrated film into the musical and that was the first time that I’ve ever experienced having mixed media with theater. I thought it was beautiful. I mean, it took all of the elements of why we love film, the close-ups and the things that we normally wouldn’t be able to see sitting in a large Broadway theater.
And the dance was all new choreography, and the fight scenes looked like actual fight scenes because they weren’t doing ballet. They had knives. So it was dark, but it was human, and it was beautiful. We had two months of rehearsals figuring out what to do and creating a show as if it was a workshop, but we were going to Broadway. The cast was huge, and the orchestra was huge, and it was an amazing experience.
But Mia [Pinero] – the other understudy for the role of Maria – and I were put in an uncomfortable position. I didn’t even have a dance call for the show and I was thrown in as a dancer. It was completely new to me. I had no clue what style of dance [choreographer] Anne Teresa creates, and I didn’t know how to move my body like that, so it was very challenging. I think in the end it helped push me into expanding beyond what I think I can’t do, if that makes sense.
DEADLINE: What you think you can’t do that maybe you actually can.
COURTNEY: Exactly. Exactly. I can do it. And with this show, & Juliet, I mean, it is pretty impossible to do eight times a week. It’s very, very hard. Physically and of course vocally, it’s very challenging. The way I’m able to do it is when I’m not on stage I spend time working on my body and working with [movement consultant] Marcia Polas, who does craniosacral therapy and myofascial release techniques, and with Matt Farnsworth, our voice consultant for this show, to ensure that I’m keeping myself as healthy as possible. I haven’t had an injury. Yay!
DEADLINE: That’s really good to hear. People who are do eight shows a week, injuries are pretty common.
COURTNEY: After the show I get home as quickly as I can. I run a bath with Epsom salt. Heat up my prepared meals from CookUnity, and to save time I eat in the tub. Then after that I get on the ground and use different Pilates balls to release tension and reset my spine before I go to bed. Sometimes I’ll put on magnesium lotion and arnica gel. Cool down vocally. And then do it all again the next day.
DEADLINE: What’s the day like before you go into the show?
COURTNEY: It changes every day but as of late I haven’t had a day off really for the past month. Today is a Monday and I’m working. I’m doing performances whether it’s singing or interviews, which I’m happy and I’m blessed to do. I’m so blessed that this show is what it is and that people react to it the way that they do. The crowd goes wild, they absolutely love it, and they have the best time and they come back. They often message me or I’ll see them at the stage door and they’ll tell me, especially little girls, that they look up to me and are inspired. I’ll see them in the audience and that’s all that I want to do, to be there for them. I want them to be able to see themselves on stage and to see themselves as a lead and as a person of color who’s a lead.
DEADLINE: And Juliet is, finally, a lead in her own story. She’s not the plus-one anymore.
COURTNEY: And she let’s girls see that there is no such thing as perfection. As Mel [Melanie La Barrie, who plays Juliet’s nurse] sings, ‘You’re f’ing perfect to me.” It’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to pick yourself up and to try again. Juliet realizes that she loves herself, and that maybe the people who you think you should love the most, when they’re not there for you, it’s okay. You have your friends. You have the people in your life that are not your biological family but are family to you. She gives so much of her heart and supports everyone in the show, and by the end when she needs the support everyone comes to her, and she’s able to rise up on that platform and sing.
DEADLINE: One more question then I’ll let you go. The Tonys are this Sunday. What do you plan to do that day?
COURTNEY: You know, I don’t even have a dress yet, I really don’t. But I’m not worried about it. I’m hopeful everything will come together. I’m taking it as an opportunity to celebrate Broadway, to celebrate my peers, and I’m really glad that it’ll be happening and that it’s happening at the United Palace theater, such a historic theater, such a beautiful venue and space. And I will be performing at the Tony Awards! Like, I could cry. I will actually be performing on the Tony Awards, and that in and of itself is it for me. I’m so glad that I’m doing it with this show and with this cast. And then we’ll just see how the rest of the night goes.
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