For Lorna Courtney of '& Juliet,' New York has always been her stage

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For Lorna Courtney of '& Juliet,' New York has always been her stage
Lorna Courtney, center, as Juliet, in “&Juliet,” at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York, Oct. 26, 2022. From LaGuardia High School to Broadway, this Tony Award-nominated star has traveled many miles on her journey to theater stardom. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- To pursue her dreams of stardom, Lorna Courtney didn’t have to move far away from home. But she did have a lengthy daily commute. In her teens, she would take a bus and two trains (or three, “depending on how long I wanted to walk”) from her home in South Ozone Park, Queens, to the prestigious LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

“That’s not even bad, because there were people that commuted from Staten Island,” said Courtney, the young, Tony Award-nominated star of the new Broadway musical “& Juliet.”

The real distances, however, were not measured in miles. At LaGuardia, Courtney was thrown into a new world. “I realized that I was with people who had free lunch and people whose parents had yachts,” she said recently at a cafe near Union Square.

She made the most of her years studying voice at LaGuardia, performing in student productions and taking on the roles of Nina in “In the Heights” and Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” (in which her fellow Tony nominee Micaela Diamond played Mrs. Potts.)

Fast-forward eight years, and Courtney, 24, is portraying another strong-willed ingénue, Juliet, on Broadway. That would be Shakespeare’s Juliet, except in this musical flight of fancy, the protagonist is not a 14-year-old killing herself for love but a young woman eager to experience the world and figure out who she is. Oh, and this Juliet is belting hits written by pop mastermind Max Martin, including “Stronger,” “Since U Been Gone” and “Roar.”

It’s a “blow-you-away performance,” as New York Times critic Jesse Green put it in his review. Courtney said that she was shocked to hear her name listed among the other Tony nominees for leading actress in a musical, and “got to eat cake as a celebration at 9 o’clock in the morning.”

Courtney was born in New Jersey in 1998, the same year Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time,” the first song she performs in the show, was released. She grew up in an ethnically and religiously mixed family; a DNA test informed her that the highest percentage in her ancestry “was 18% for Nigeria, followed by Ireland, Jewish-Eastern Europe, and then it was Mali, and I also have Mexican mixed in there, too,” she said.

Little predestined her to show business. Her parents were not particularly interested in music, though when her mother saw a segment on “60 Minutes” about Vy Higgensen’s Gospel for Teens program, she encouraged her daughter to join. At 15, Courtney was performing in Higgensen’s long-running musical, “Mama, I Want to Sing!” with the choir in Japan.

“It was then that I decided that I could see myself doing musical theater instead of opera, which I studied in high school,” Courtney said. She was off to the races, and proved to be not just gifted, but also enterprising.

“All throughout my life, if I had an idea and I felt strongly about it, I was always working to get to that goal,” she said. “I didn’t have many resources easily available and easily accessible but I would use what I had.”

While many of her peers at the University of Michigan enjoyed spring break during what she called her “junior-slash-senior year” (she graduated early), Courtney traveled to New York for non-Equity auditions. Waiting to meet with a regional theater for a summer-stock gig, she spotted a call for a “Dreamgirls” revival and managed to pass along her headshot and résumé, even though she didn’t have an agent. She earned a callback, but was not cast. (The production ultimately did not happen, either.)

Around graduation, Courtney was back in New York, auditioning for “Dear Evan Hansen” and the Ivo van Hove revival of “West Side Story.” She landed both, starting as a standby in “Hansen” before moving on to “West Side Story” as a member of the ensemble and the understudy for Maria.

This was a bracing time for Courtney, who said she relished working with van Hove and avant-garde choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on their boldly staged revival, even when they tested her comfort zone. “That particular process was challenging only because in the ensemble, dancing isn’t my forte,” Courtney said. “Particularly, Anne Teresa’s style is very specific, and I had no idea how to move in that way.”

The pandemic shutdown — a time when Courtney, like most actors, felt in limbo — put a definitive end to that experience: “West Side Story” was not among the Broadway shows to reopen. Once things crawled back to life, she sent what she estimated to be around 100 video auditions. (And she landed a part on the pilot of the Queen Latifah series “The Equalizer.”)

Then “& Juliet” materialized.

The show premiered in Britain in 2019 to lukewarm reviews but received nine Olivier Award nominations the following year. By the time the director, Luke Sheppard, conducted auditions for a pre-Broadway run in Toronto, he was very familiar with the role of Juliet. And yet Courtney took him by surprise.

“She was able to find a version that was distinctly her version,” he said in a video interview. “It was joyful and eccentric, wonderfully naive but also incredibly intelligent — this special intelligence that just saw the best in the world around her.”

It didn’t hurt that she could sing, too.

Betsy Wolfe, who plays Anne Hathaway in the show (and who is also nominated for a Tony), remembers that she and Courtney had back-to-back appointments for their callbacks. “Before I even saw Lorna or heard her speak, I heard her sing through a thick wall in a studio rehearsal room,” Wolfe said in a phone interview. “I’ll just never forget hearing her unbelievably beautiful, powerful pipes. Meeting her a couple of minutes later, I thought, ‘Well, this is their Juliet.’ It’s very, very hard for me to even separate the two of them at this point.”

Courtney received the good news in December 2021. At the time, she was working behind the desk at an Equinox in Hudson Yards. “I get a call from my agent and manager and they say, ‘You got the role of Juliet,’” she recalled. “Because so many people that work there were also actors, singers and dancers, they were all so excited for me and we were jumping up and down, screaming.”

Between the runs in Toronto and on Broadway, Courtney has spent about a year with the musical. She said it’s helping her “grow as a person,” and she values its message. “It’s about staying true to yourself, and finding your own voice, and not being afraid to speak out,” she said. “It’s also about love — multigenerational love, love of friends, love of people who may not be your biological family, and relationships.”

And though her family has been an invaluable “support system,” she is at last ready to move into her own place after staying with relatives either in South Ozone Park or in Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan.

In mid-May, her application for an apartment had been approved and she was anticipating the move — because it was in Harlem, a neighborhood she was familiar with from her days in the gospel choir, but also because this savvy New Yorker knew her commute to the theater district in Times Square would be a cinch.

“The 2 and 3 is one block away, and then the B and C is another,” Courtney said with obvious relish. “It’s a straight shot.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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