Broadway has seen its fair share of mainstream influence in recent years, with the hip-hop infused Hamilton becoming a worldwide phenomenon and the more recent stage favorite, the pop radio-friendly Dear Evan Hansen. Making it’s way to Broadway next is country — well, sort of.
Jennifer Nettles, best known as one-half of superstar country duo Sugarland, is putting her own spin on the Wicked romance ballad “As Long As You’re Mine” with the help of Wicked star Annaleigh Ashford. The two teamed up for the latest installment of the musical’s “Out Of Oz” video series, which sees artists perform unplugged versions of songs from the show. If it seems a bit odd to hear a country crooner like Nettles in a Broadway setting, it’s actually not strange at all: Not only has Nettles been doing stage work since she was a little girl, but this is her second “Out Of Oz” appearance (she sang “No Good Deed” in September). In fact, she even starred on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago in 2014.
“Having spent time on the Broadway stage definitely helps one’s confidence in terms of feeling just validated in that world,” Nettles tells Billboard. “Most people only know my voice as a country artist. If all you hear are songs are played on the radio, you get a very branded, commerced, marketed, specific limited sound. For me it’s a big treat when people get to discover me as a vocalist in a new genre.”
Nettles will be balancing both of her worlds this year, as she has some Broadway shows in the works and is also planning a Sugarland tour, the pair’s first since 2012. Billboard caught up with Nettles to chat about her latest “Out Of Oz” venture, what she learned from her time on the Broadway stage and whether it’ll have an impact on what she does on the road with Sugarland later this year.
Check out the “As Long As You’re Mine” performance and our chat below.
When did you first see Wicked, and what initially made you so intrigued about the show and Elphaba as a character?
I first saw the show maybe 10-12 years ago — I fell in love and was blown away. I loved the fact that it was a woman’s story and where I was in my life at the time, I loved Elphaba and the fact that she was going against convention and living her truth and living authentically. I love that message so much. I’ve seen it five times [since]!
Once singing Elphaba became a reality when you did “No Good Deed,” were you feeling intimidated at all?
I wasn’t intimidated in terms of a vocalist, but I was intimidated of the fandom. Wicked has such a wild fan base, like a voracious fan base. And sometimes when that’s the case, when there is a huge and strong fan base, it’s proprietary for how things should be and how they think things should be. So to do an arrangement of a song they have heard, I was like, “Oh man I don’t want to screw this up for the people who are going to be sticklers who are stuck on the original version of this.” But I like to think we did a good job.
This time around, you got to duet with Annaleigh Ashford on “As Long As You’re Mine.” What do you love about the song and why did you choose to do it with two female parts?
I love it within the show. It’s such a beautiful moment where you get to see their romance really bud within all of this chaos that’s happening in her life and she’s trying to figure out what she wants to do and trying to escape everybody. I think it’s a beautiful moment for them and a really poignant moment that kind of sets up the arc of their relationship. And melodically, just from a music standpoint, it’s gorgeous.
That [version] was what I was invited to do. Getting to sing with Annaleigh, who is amazing and has done such wonderful work on stage, that was an honor and a treat for me to get to sing with her as well on this song. You talk about a wonderful re-imagining of a song – I think it’s refreshing that it is two women.
You got the chance to sing with Idina Menzel on CMA Country Christmas in 2014 — what was it like to share the stage with her?
In having had the soundtrack to Wicked and having sung along with her for so long, to be able to sing with that voice, I was of course thrilled for that. And then, as a person, she is just as lovely and intelligent and kind and gracious. So I really just enjoy her as an artist and as a woman. Big time fan-girling! [Laughs.]
You’ve actually starred on Broadway yourself in Chicago — what did that experience teach you about the ins and outs of being a Broadway star?
I was impressed by just the level of talent and also the community that happens within every production. It is something that I had missed since I was a girl in terms of working in theater. You get some of that community whenever you’re in a band, but it’s different because you can be in a Broadway production and regardless everybody goes home that night and the decisions that one makes does not affect the other. You might be the star, but you’re not the boss. So the kind of comradery that can be there is a little different and becomes familial in a very specific way. Being on the road, that’s familial too, but I made friends there that I will have for the rest of my life and I’m very grateful for that experience. It’s beautiful, really.
What would you say are the similarities and differences of singing on Broadway and singing country music?
Where differences are concerned, musical theater allows for a lot broader of a vocal dynamic. In terms of range and melody, and in terms of composition, it allows for a lot broader and diverse range. At the same time, country, on the other hand, they tell different stories in different ways – so while each of them are about the story telling in and of itself, they approach it musically in very different ways. Even modern pop music runs in the realm of a chord progression that’s like a 1, 4, and 5 chord of every key signature and it’s much more narrowly structured. But when you get into musical theater, much like in classical or jazz, it just opens up the world musically a bit more.
Sugarland hasn’t toured since you were on Broadway… do you think your experience with that kind of performing will play into Sugarland’s show this year?
The fun thing about Chicago is that there’s so much dance and very specifically Roxie. So you might see a little bit of Roxie on the Sugarland stage, who knows [Laughs].
Even with the comeback of Sugarland, are you still pining to eventually play Elphaba on stage?
We’ll see. I sort of have my sights set on, right now, an originating role. So I’ve been seeding and watering my relationships within the community and having a lot of fun doing readings and workshops for new productions. So I’ve got my sights set on that next.
That’s the beautiful thing about what we have done and what we will continue to do. As artists, there are times when we’re together and do what we do and then there’s times that you do other things. I think you have to go and fill your cup and do so diversely, otherwise then you burn out.