Amid the sweet, folksy ballads (and many, many corn jokes) of “Shucked,” the new Broadway musical opening April 4, comes a soulful, commanding number performed by Alex Newell that provides the show some unexpected heft — a song full of riffs and modulations and belted notes that seem to reach both ends of the actor’s expansive range.
Roles that showcase the breadth and power of Newell’s voice are familiar territory: The actor made their Broadway debut in 2017 as the maternal goddess Asaka in the revival of “Once on This Island” (1990) and may be most recognizable for their time on “Glee,” from 2012 to 2015, as the transgender teenager Unique Adams. But their character in “Shucked” — Lulu, a whiskey entrepreneur — and that song, “Independently Owned,” offer the chance to inhabit something new: “The expectation of plus-size people is that they cannot be sexy; all my life, I’ve heard you’re either fat and jolly or fat and a bitch,” says Newell, 30. “So to have this dimension of this person, to just exude sex, is so much fun for me because it doesn’t happen often — especially on the Broadway stage.”
“Shucked” is set in a small farming town with a thriving corn crop — until the stalks start dying, spurring a local woman (Lulu’s cousin and confidante, Maizy, played by Caroline Innerbichler) to leave home in search of a solution. Newell heard about the piece through a friend, who did an early reading before the pandemic. But they didn’t see the script, written by Robert Horn, until the show’s musical director and orchestrator, Jason Howland, texted Newell about the role. They were immediately drawn to the show’s humor — nearly every line is a pun or punchline or both, the laughs offset by a warm score from the country songwriting duo Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark.
Newell grew up singing in church in Lynn, Mass., and listening to other big voices, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Holliday among them. They had early aspirations of becoming a gospel artist, but performing in a choir proved challenging — “I mean, I never fit in. I was always loud.” After seeing a local production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” when they were 11, Newell began thinking about a career in musical theater.
When Fox held an open call for “Glee” hopefuls to audition online in 2011, Newell, then a sophomore in high school, submitted a self-taped clip performing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls.” (Starring as Effie, a role in the musical originated by Holliday, has long been a goal.) Newell later started making pop music, including the queer anthems “Kill the Lights” and “All Cried Out,” and in 2020 eventually returned to TV as Mo, a gender-nonconforming D.J. on the musical series “Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist.” But for now, Newell says, they’re content to stay onstage: “The endorphins that are released after you’ve sung and everyone is standing and screaming and that wall of sound is pushing right back at you: It’s beautiful.”
Ahead of opening night, T asked Newell to sing and discuss their favorite song by one of their idols: Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” (1985).
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