"It always felt like an effort to do what she wanted to do," Heelan, who plays Cinderella in Broadway's 'Once Upon a One More Time,' tells PEOPLE
The 36-year-old actress has been starring as the lead princess in Once Upon a One More Time at the Marquis Theatre in New York City since previews began in May — and not only does the role mark Heelan’s Broadway debut, but the culmination of her lifelong Spears fandom.
Most people have likely encountered Heelan as a television star in shows like NBC’s Great News or CBS’s B Positive, but she’s had a passion for musical theater since childhood and studied the art form in both high school and college. Her acting career has thrived on the small screen for years, but she’s always itched to return to the stage.
“I love doing television, for sure, but as time went on, it was like, ‘Oh, man, I feel like the mothership is over there, and I'm drifting further and further away from it,’” Heelan tells PEOPLE. Determined to land a role in “a cabaret downtown or something — anything,” she informed her booking agent and soon scored the audition to play Cinderella on Broadway.
Once Upon a One More Time, however, is not the classic fairy tale you’ve read before. The jukebox musical (set to Spears’ music) follows the beloved princess as she grows sick of happily-ever-afters centered around men and decides to rewrite her narrative after the original fairy godmother introduces her to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Ahead of the production’s Sept. 3 closing date, Heelan sat down with PEOPLE to discuss her Broadway debut in Once Upon a One More Time, performing Spears’ songs amid the ups and downs in the singer’s life and starring alongside American Idol alum Justin Guarini as Prince Charming.
You've been playing Cinderella in Once Upon a One More Time since previews began in May. How has your experience in the musical been, especially as your Broadway debut?
To have a role like this as your Broadway debut, it's sort of wonderful. There were a lot of things that I could really work on and prep for leading up to the production, but it's the kind of role where it's so full-throttle for the whole two hours and 20 minutes that you throw yourself in. I think as a newcomer, ignorance was bliss in a way because I just went, "OK, let's do it," before you actually have a true, true idea of exactly what it takes to do it. I'm really grateful that it was that kind of role. I think I do better when I have to dive into things quickly.
Before the musical hit Broadway, you did the Washington, D.C. premiere in 2021. What connected you to this role upon reading the script?
Right away when I read it, I said, "Ooh." At this point in my life, I connect to her very much. She's just a beautiful character. I really love that we got to find a character who's so courageous, quite emotionally intelligent, funny and goofy. She has never had an arena to challenge herself, get to know herself or see herself accurately because she's been limited in this small world of only telling her own story and the stories of these fairytale characters. I always love stories where a character learns quickly who they're not, what they don't want to do, or what feels bad, but they don't yet know what to pick up in place of putting those things down.
She says, "I know I don't want this old life anymore. I don't want to marry Prince Charming. I want to have these different relationships with my friends. I don't want to be confined to this restricted world, but I don't know what to do instead.” I love watching characters in the place in between. We worked really hard to make a version of her that knew who she wanted to become and who she didn't want to be, but who got to really be in that unknown place for most of the show, because that's what's most interesting to watch and fun to play as an actor. I think it's what you want to see as an audience member too. You don't want to just see a hero be a hero for two hours.
You don't want to see somebody learn all the answers, and then ace the test. You want to see somebody who knows what direction the ship has to go in, but doesn't know how to sail it. That's interesting, and that was in there from the beginning — all wrapped in humor and so much heart.
Were you a big Britney Spears fan before this production?
Huge. Was I listening to her music actively all the time before this audition? Yes. She's just in the fiber of who I am. We track our lives in different ways, and one of the ways that I keep track of mine is by what Britney album I was listening to at the time that X, Y, Z happened.
As a Britney fan, what's your favorite song that you get to perform in this show?
A favorite deep cut of mine that I'm so happy ended up in the show is “Cinderella.” I have loved that song always, always, always, and nobody ever seemed to know it. I can always feel the audience going, "Huh, what is this?" Because it's not one of her hits, it was certainly never a single. It functions in such a cool way in the show.
It almost feels like the entire musical could have just been written because someone heard that song and had an idea.
I know, and it's so funny, but that couldn't be further from the case. That song wasn't in the show in D.C. It just so happens that she has this plot-perfect song called “Cinderella,” so we have to use it. It has to be in the show.
I'm glad they added it. That would've been a miss.
I know. Huge miss. I totally get the hesitation though, of putting in songs into a musical like this, because no one knows that song, so it's a risk. But I think if you built everything around it really well, you get to throw in some B-side tracks, and that's really fun for then the hardcore fans. I heard the other night, for the first time, two people gasp, and I was like, "Oh, they know the song.” It was really fun to do that.
There has been so much in Britney's life, especially regarding her past conservatorship, that's come to light in the last few years. Did you have any apprehensions about joining a musical that utilizes Britney's music at this time, and how have you grappled with that as her story's developed?
Learning the horror that woman went through, seeing how much she survived and how protective her fans are of her, myself included, that need and desire to be protective of her is so warranted. It's such a testament to how beloved she is. As a society, things morph and change in the way we see and treat celebrities, and then you become an adult and go, "Oh my God. I, now as an adult, know how old that person was when they were surviving." It’s really wild, the way that we treated celebrities, period. It’s morphing and changing throughout time, but now especially that I'm older and see what she went through, she's really a fighter.
I had no apprehension because it was explained to me all the permission that had been given by her in the step-by-step process of making sure that everything aligned with her wishes and all of that. She had set boundaries about what she did and absolutely did not want this show to be about. I know the show certainly respected those boundaries. It always felt like an effort to do what she wanted to do, and then also to know that she loves musical theater. We get to do this in a medium that she really loves and did when she was younger too. We get to sing her songs and hopefully bring some levity right now, and some hope, happiness, joy and all of that, while respecting the boundaries that she set up.
How did it feel then to get her public stamp of approval when the musical hit Broadway?
It was great. It wasn't surprising because we, the cast, knew that she supported the show, but it was really cool on opening night to have that. I think she posted at intermission or something, so there was a big reaction. The audience was on their phones and everything, and we got to start act two knowing that everybody in that theater had seen the post. It was a very cool moment.
In the show, you act alongside Justin Guarini, who's obviously been a pop culture staple since around the same era when Britney debuted. Were you a fan of his before getting cast, and how’s it been working with him?
Oh my God, he is the greatest. I mean, to be coming into [Broadway] for the very first time from a different world, you really are as good as you are supported by the people around you. I just got really, really lucky. This group, at large, just had my back so much, and Justin specifically. I can't imagine this crazy process, the ups and downs of all of this, with another person. Also, just the laughs. No matter what, we're just always laughing, and that's the best thing.
You came from television, and he's been doing Broadway for a bit, but he came from a different world originally as well with American Idol.
That's true. It's kind of interesting, the similarities there. He was doing musical theater, and his life went towards American Idol and then zigzagged back to musical theater. He's been in the game on Broadway for a long time now, but entered it from a different world, really. I've told him this before too, but the thing I remember most about American Idol actually, is the moment that they announced Kelly won. I remember watching his reaction and being like, "Wow." That was the most glorious, giving, generous, honest, deeply thrilled reaction I've ever seen from somebody in that big of a moment that didn't get the prize. I don't think many people are like that.
It was recently announced that Once Upon a One More Time is closing on Sept. 3. What was your reaction to hearing that news?
It has been the time of my life. I'm very grateful because the first wave of feelings — it was like my heart opened instead of closed. The things that this [show] ushered into my life, not to mention the hope, the love and the passion for this project. It was a real lighthouse for me during the pandemic. Before we even knew if it was going to come back, even if it hadn't ever happened again, it still would've been one of the pillars that got me through that experience. It would've been a win, and I would've been grateful to have had it just because of the way that the hope of it lifted me during that time.
There were so many other things that never got to come back after that experience, and the fact that we did — and we got to Broadway after all of that — it's like winning the lottery. It's kind of miraculous how many things have to align, and almost the magic that has to happen for anything to ever make it to Broadway. I just have to remember that it's kind of miraculous, and I'm so sad. I'm so sad. But God, to feel so sad about something because it was so good, what other kind of sad could you want?
Do you have plans for your next chapter? I know the SAG-AFTRA strike is going on right now, but do you hope to continue with Broadway, return to television or venture into film?
Well, I, of course, hope that everybody gets the deals that they deserve, first and foremost. I can't say that I feel done with theater, because no way. It's like opening up a door to Narnia and then being like, "No, I'm good." I'm very excited about whatever comes next in theater, so I do hope that I continue pursuing that, for sure.
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