it's broadway bitch

The Britney Spears Musical Knows Exactly What It’s Doing

“The show is very self-aware,” says Once Upon a One More Time’s Briga Heelan. “We know what we are.” Photo: Matthew Murphy

Oops! Broadway hit the jukebox again. At the front of the queue is Once Upon a One More Time, a musical powered by Britney Spears’s sparkling collection of hits following Cinderella (Briga Heelan) and her cohort of princesses as they experience an overdue feminist awakening. You see, all is not well in the storybook realm: “Cin” isn’t fulfilled by being forced to reenact her fairytale over and over again, Prince Charming (Justin Guarini) is nothing but an impudent philanderer, and, frankly, our gal wouldn’t mind the chance to stay out past midnight with some flat shoes for a change. It’s a narrative about women discovering what they can and should get out of their lives — that stories can, indeed, be re-written — and has the added bonus using 23 songs recorded by Spears. The singer personally signed off on the production after winning her conservatorship battle, and is the only member of the Spears family to profit from it.

Heelan hopes Spears’s consent to Once Upon a One More Time can assuage the worries of her legion of fans. But, perhaps just as crucially, she knows the musical isn’t an auteur statement meant for critical approval. You’re going to shimmy in your seat, heckle the prince, and leave in a neon-tinted haze. Not everything has to be a Tony contender. “You definitely can’t say this show doesn’t know what it’s doing,” Heelan says.

This is the first project Britney has approved since the end of her conservatorship, and she has called the musical “so funny, smart, and brilliant.” How much relief did that give you when she finally made her appreciation public?
It wasn’t so much of a relief, because we knew we had her support already, but we were waiting to celebrate that moment. My dressing room is on the first floor, and she did that Instagram post during the intermission of our opening night. I heard screams erupt from the floors above me where a bunch of other dressing rooms are. It was wild getting to walk onstage for the second act after that. I know the audience was on their phones too. The top of act two is this moment where all the women come out, stand in a line, and break the fourth wall because we go into concert mode. To be looking at the audience, and the audience looking at us, and we all know this cool thing just happened — it was a proper breaking-news moment.

What were your curiosities about the show when you were first approached for it?
I never had any question about, “Will these pieces be fused together and will it work?” When I read the script, it already did. The second I read it, I went, “This makes total sense.” That was an amazing place to get to start from.

What was it that made immediate sense to you?
Britney’s catalogue. There aren’t many artists who have had a career as long as Britney — the points of views her music has explored. It lends itself so beautifully to a story about these princesses awakening to the possibilities of what life outside their particular fairy tales could look like. Britney’s songs question things. They question boundaries, they question structures. They’re yearning. They’re all “I want” songs. I have a daughter. She was 3 when this started, and she’s 6 now. I’ve always hoped it would become a show that would be great for little girls to see.

From my understanding, Britney had influence from afar about certain creative decisions that went into the show. How did that shade the development of your character?
When I got that script, what was already on the page beautifully captured this spirit of curiosity, innocence, and hope, but also somebody who was silly, brave, and fun. If you’re going to make a show of someone’s music, you want to include things they love. What Britney loved seemed to be very magical. It’s energetically very integral to the piece — the magical world in which the story takes place.

The desire to please Britney, understandably, was a priority in bringing the show to fruition. But was it ever stifling, as an actor, to be so reliant on vague notes that were passed down from her team?
No, I’ve never felt any sense of limitation on anything. Kind of the opposite. I’ve been given a huge amount of space to navigate choices for myself, try things, and change things. It’s a freedom and a trust I didn’t assume I would be given, especially in a Broadway debut. During rehearsal we were allowed to make mistakes and take big swings.

What were some of those big swings?
We ended the show during the D.C. run with “Passenger,” which is not a song a lot of people know. It was turned into this gorgeous choral arrangement. In that context, “Passenger” signified letting the princesses lead the way and that we’re all going to work together to create this new fairy-tale world with all of us in it. Then when we got to Broadway, it became really clear that the ending needed to be, literally, “Stronger.” We had been doing a half-version of “Stronger” toward the end of the show, but you can’t shortchange that song. It’s an anthem. It’s one of her biggest hits for a reason, and the show had to end with a hit. So it became about finding the right arrangement of “Stronger.” We went through four or five different versions. That was the biggest choice. How to end a show is always incredibly difficult.

The one prevailing skepticism I’ve found while discussing the show is that there’s this dichotomy of wanting to support Britney while being unsure of whether it benefits her. How would you respond to that line of thought?
What I know is that she laid a very clear boundary of, “I do not want any of this to be about my life,” which is 100 percent respected by the show. The Broadway contract was negotiated after the end of her conservatorship, and she’s been sent our rehearsal videos with their choreography. The information about her acceptance is out there. It’s sort of like, Are people willing to read that and then decide how they feel or not? That’s totally understandable. I hope it’s going to make Britney very happy.

Britney’s fans have proudly taken on the role of activists over the years, even before her conservatorship trial began unfolding in the public eye. Do you also see this musical as an example of activism for her life?
In honoring her and celebrating her, the musical’s entire effort is to embody the things that she embodies. I’ve been a Britney fan my entire life. I deeply love her, and I’m deeply grateful to her. So I suppose it’s activism — I think it’s the way people are fiercely protective of her. There’s a reason for that. The show’s effort to protect the material in terms of honoring her is in line with that.

In what ways have you all been protective?
We have always tried to keep the show tethered in hope, strength, and joy. Anytime the show felt like it was veering away from any of those things — whether it be in a scene, or a song choice that was incorrect, or a tone that felt too heavy — we would always stop and go, “Wait, does this feel like it authentically lines up with the spirit of Britney?” So that was always a guiding light. And if it didn’t, it was like, “Okay, well, we’ve got to change that.”

Can you give me an example of that type of change?
We originally had, at the beginning of our previews, a large tone shift between the first act and the second act. Kind of like Into the Woods. It turned out to not be resonating with people. We thought it made sense in the rehearsal room, and then when we put it in front of an audience, it was like, Oh, oh, no. Post-pandemic, we have to answer a need. That need is for being uplifted. That’s very healing right now. I think the version we created in the studio at a different time would have resonated more, but right now, it’s like, That’s what art is. We needed to inject more of the spirit of Britney in terms of song choices and fun into the second act as well as make it a more cohesive piece.

That’s not to say that was at the sacrifice of depth. Those are two different things. We added “3,” which is a real bop. It’s so ridiculous and wonderful, and buys us a beautiful momentum in act two. And then the power of “Stronger” at the end felt much more true to Britney herself.

And gives the show an ending that’s much more earned.
So many things are accomplished through that song: Cinderella breaks a cycle. She fractures a world to start a new one. Princesses are freed. It’s also used to get every single character onboard with beginning the rebuilding of their fairy-tale world together. “Stronger” achieves all of that beautifully.

This role served as your Broadway debut. What has the expectation versus reality of reviews taught you about the world of theater criticism?
I don’t know if I’ve learned much that I didn’t already know. This is a show for fans. It was never a show for the critics. This is a show that will hopefully have an incredibly long life across the country and internationally for different age groups. I always felt very clear on that — when you believe in something, not much else matters at the end of the day. I deeply believe in this one. I believe in why we’re doing it. I believe in what it is. I believe in my place in it. The show is very self-aware. We know what we are. We know what we’re doing. We know how we’re doing it. If that’s not for you, that’s fine, but it’s certainly a show that knows what it is.

You nailed what I think is a crucial calibration for a musical: & Juliet knows it’s self-aware, and it’s going to be running for years. Bad Cinderella didn’t grasp that understanding, and it closed within months.
A self-aware piece of art tells an audience, We’re going to take care of you. You’re good with us. Sit down. We know what this is, we know what we want you to walk away with, and we know how we’re going to do that. Whether you like what that is or not is not up for anyone to say.

What do you hope people will walk away with?
There’s a generosity about it — there’s an exchange between us and the audience that’s very restorative. I hope people feel restored. That’s what Britney’s music does for me.

Have you had any communication with Britney yet?
No, I haven’t.

If you could get one message to her, what would it be?
I would just say “Thank you so much.” To be, in any way, a conduit of the joy that she has given me, and to give it to other people, is a gift.

The Britney Spears Musical Knows Exactly What It’s Doing