Justin Guarini knows how to take a role over the top. He made Lil' Sweet, his Diet Dr Pepper TV persona since 2015, a household name in 30-second commercial spots. Now he's taking his campy skillset to a whole new level in the new Broadway musical, Once Upon A One More Time, based on the music of Britney Spears. Guarini plays Charming, a prince who loves a "happily ever after," even when his princess is having an existential crisis.
"He means so well and is really good at saving the day," Guarini says of his shiny and sequined on-stage alter-ego. "But even heroes need to be saved." The American Idol alum, who's been steadily working since his appearance on that little competition series more than two decades ago, explains why everything he's done since then has prepared him for this role.
EBONY: What drew you to this fun exploration of fairy tale characters?
Justin Guarini: I had worked with Nederlander, the producer of Once Upon a One More Time, before on Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. When they asked me to be a part of this new musical featuring Britney Spears’ music, I jumped at the opportunity to read the script. As soon as I saw how brilliantly Britney’s songs were woven into the fairytale storyline, I was hooked.
You are perfectly cast as Prince Charming! How do you describe the character in your own words?
I’ve been fortunate to be with this project for six years, so I’ve had six years to grow with “Charming” and explore so many of his iterations. “Charming,” to me, is this wonderful man who has lived a privileged and charmed life. He really does love Cinderella deeply. His big challenge is understanding the old dynamics of relationships—and the stories we’ve been taught about love—don’t always lead to a happy ending for all. Heavy stuff, but all done through humor and the genius of Britney’s music! He is so much fun to play each night.
This show is all about recognizing that we have the power to write our own stories.-Justin Guarini
What's the most charming part of the show for you?
The big number where I get to come out and perform the hit song “Circus." It is where “Charming“ gets to show the very best of who he is; how he can command a room and how much fun he can have while doing it. It is a huge production number that screams "Broadway musical" and the audience goes wild for it every single night because it’s such a phenomenal number to watch. I hope that people can see how much fun we are having performing it, too.
What's your favorite Britney song?
“Circus!” Selfishly, because it is my absolute favorite number to perform and I have so much fun on the stage with the cast, making the magic of the number happen!
We don't get to see many fairy tales where the Prince is a prince of color. Why is that so important in this show, and for storytelling in general?
Representation matters to me a lot, especially now that I have kids of my own. My father broke so many color barriers as a police chief and a county commissioner chairman in a Georgia county where my grandfather wasn’t allowed to walk on the white side of the street after a certain time of the day. Growing up, I didn’t see myself represented on the stage or screen as a person of mixed heritage. So the fact that I get to play a beloved character who is traditionally White and knowing that there will be people in the audience who can finally see themselves represented makes my heart sing. I hope the audience understands that just because a story has been written in a certain way for hundreds of years doesn’t mean that it can’t be rewritten and improved upon!
So many people still remember you from that first season of American Idol. How did that experience and your whole career prepare you for this opportunity?
For the better part of two decades, I had been working and hoping and dreaming for an opportunity like American Idol to come along. Then, when it happened, I took every chance I could to learn as much about every facet of the business, from stagecraft, directing and dancing to acting and what the producers do—everything! I’ve had a lot of ups and downs along the way, but all the while I’ve kept my eyes and ears open. Now, with Once Upon a One More Time, I finally get to do all the things I’ve worked so hard to be good at, all at once! The past 21 years have led to this moment where I finally get to show what I’ve learned, and how much I love being on stage and giving my all in front of an audience. I love this show, and am so thrilled that audiences are loving it too!
Once Upon a One More Time, now playing at the Marquis Theatre in New York City.