Julianne Hough on her Broadway debut in POTUS

Julianne Hough is learning what it means to be a New Yorker. Following last month’s opening matinee performance of POTUS, Julianne Hough walked across the street with her co-star Julie White to Junior’s in Shubert Alley for a taste of Brooklyn’s finest delicacy: a pastrami sandwich.

“I absolutely loved it. But the whole key is to get it on rye bread with mustard,” Hough told Time Out New York about her first bites of the traditional Jewish style nosh. 

It’s not something the dancer and singer has ever tried while living in Los Angeles. Her mission after permanently moving to New York City has been all about new experiences. “I will say, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to experience restaurants and stuff like that yet,” she said alluding to a busy few months rehearsing for her big Broadway debut. “I know once we get on a normal schedule, I’ll start exploring a little bit more.”

RECOMMENDED: Review: A starry cast lights up the Broadway comedy POTUS

One of those new experiences is Broadway — something she’s been eyeing for years. It’s not surprising after countless years on Dancing With the Stars, starring in the films Footloose and Burlesque and playing Sandy in Grease Live! on FOX. Hough is currently making her Broadway debut as Dusty, a pregnant, slushing-drinking farm girl personally invited by the president to the Oval Office in POTUS Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying To Keep Him Alive. It’s a new farce comedy by 28-year-old Selina Fillinger now playing at the Shubert Theatre. Hough along with Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty), Rachel Dratch (SNL) Lea DeLaria (Orange is the New Black), Lilli Cooper (Tootsie), Julie White (Nurse Jackie) and Suzy Nakamura (Dr. Ken) are bringing audiences into fits of laughter eight shows a week. 

While it’s not a musical, Hough does get to show off her singing and dancing chops thanks to Tony Award winning director Susan Stroman (The Producers). And she’s learning what it means to be part of the close-knit theater community. For example, when Hough was out of the show for a few days due to COVID-19, she says she felt the love from her co-stars. White offered to bring over her dog for some comfort. “The thoughtfulness is just there,” Hough said. I don’t know, maybe I just haven’t been surrounded by these kinds of supportive women.” 

Time Out New York spoke with Hough all about why she chose POTUS to make her Broadway debut with, the camaraderie off stage with her co-stars and some of her favorite parts about living in New York City. 

Photograph: Courtesy Paul Kolnik

Most people, including myself, would imagine your Broadway debut in a big, flashy dancing musical, but you chose a comedy play. How come?

I’ve been thinking about what I could be lucky enough to do. I’ve always asked my managers and agents to keep an eye out on what’s happening. I put it out in the universe and it came back. Last October, I decided I needed to put myself in proximity and move to New York. And I decided to move in March. In February, I got the script. Within the first page, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is hysterical! I have not read anything like this. This is amazing.’ I liked the idea of not doing a musical right away because a lot of people know me as a dancer and discovered me that way. They don’t really understand the level of commitment that I’ve put into acting whether it be the school that I went to in London or the things that I’ve done in LA. I just really wanted to get back to the core and this is where I felt like it was a great opportunity. 

This move to NYC is the real deal and not just temporary? You actually moved to New York?

Yes. [In the past] I’ve moved to different places for projects. This is a different phase of life and a different chapter. I want to immerse myself. There’s the saying that the heartbeat of New York is Broadway. This isn’t just about a project. This is about clearing out the things that don’t serve you anymore. That’s how I landed here.

What was it like to make your Broadway debut?

I feel like we’ve done it like three times because the first preview was one version of it. Yesterday, we opened during the matinee, but then we also had a show that night. Every time we finish our curtain call, it’s Suzy Nakamura, Rachel Dratch and I that come off stage on the same side. We hug each other and there are tears in our eyes because we can’t believe we’re here. All three of us get to share this special little moment because it’s all our Broadway debuts.  We always say something whether it’s a memory or a reason why we wanted to be here. 

What do you say about why you want to be there?

For me, it’s the respect of the theater community and the passion for the actual craft. When I think back to when I was a kid, going to theater classes were my most familiar and fond memories of believing that I could one day be up on stage. It’s this feeling of being a forever student. The other day I said to Susan Stroman that I was getting a masterclass every single day and I’m the luckiest person in the world. I feel like I’m 18 again. I have lived experiences but it’s the energy, freshness and curiosity that I did when I was 18.

I saw your first show back after having COVID. I’m glad you’re better. It was like you didn’t miss a beat at all. It was incredible.

Wow. Thank you for saying that. It was definitely a little out of body when I first came back because I had been in every rehearsal, every tech rehearsal, did six previews and then was out for six previews. The best part about it is that every single one of those women on stage have your back. I have never felt so supported by people that I’ve worked with — whether it’s the cast or [director] Susan Stroman and [playwright] Selina [Fillinger]. Honestly, I’ve never been around such supportive people.

I saw you write in an Instagram story that the Broadway community is so welcoming. Is that unusual for you to see coming from all the work that you do in Los Angeles?

It’s a community where it’s about everyone and everyone is a star. Everyone is celebrated for that. In my other experiences – there is no good or bad, right or wrong, one’s not better than the other — it’s just different. My experience has always been that I have to take care of myself. I continually have to fight for my spot or place to be seen or recognized. It feels very isolated and solo, in my past experiences. Granted, I have wonderful friends in the business, so I’m definitely generalizing. I feel that I have created some really deep roots in a short amount of time. I feel lucky that I have this group of women around me who are brilliant, hilarious and hysterical….but it also kind of goes hand in hand with what our show is about.

Photograph: Courtesy Paul Kolnik

Which is? 

Being a woman where you need to be what everyone else needs you to be. It feels so timely, I think with what we’ve experienced in the world over the last few years and also the heaviness of what the world is experiencing. 

What drew you to this role of Dusty? 

You could play her very Disney because of the female representation of what that kind of character has been like in the past. That’s not her at all. She’s sort of the consciousness of the young Gen Z who are really informed while also not being jaded and still really hopeful, bright eyed and bushy tailed. 

How do you make your tongue blue from the Slushie every night?

I thought I was going to have to have a Jolly Rancher, a popsicle or something like that. But it’s a little drop that I put on my tongue. I have a toothbrush that I brush on my tongue. [Before I go on every night], one of our stage managers has a checklist for me. She’ll ask me to stick out my tongue to make sure I have my blue tongue. Then, she’ll point to my points to her left breast to make sure that my ultrasound is also tucked into my bra.

Which actors do you have to hold in the laughter for the most during the show? 

Rachel doesn’t have to do anything and you crack up from her choices that she makes. One of my favorite moments where I lost it and I actually broke was during our friends and family rehearsal. It’s when I do the “Dusty rap.” Every time I look at Julie, we want to laugh so hard. [That night], we couldn’t stop laughing.  Lea had to look down and turn her back. Hopefully, I will never laugh again.

Besides Broadway, what’s been your favorite part about being in New York so far?

Well, my only real New York experiences are basically black cars and [appearing on] morning shows from all the press I have been doing [for this show]. The best part is realizing that when you’re in a car, it takes forever to get anywhere. When you walk, everything is so close. The best part is actually experiencing the city that is so rich in culture and history. There’s a lot of [people] observing, too. I think I love watching people. 

If you could do a musical next, what would it be on Broadway?

I would do anything that anybody would have me do at this point. One of my dreams would be either to originate something or to revive something that hasn’t been done for a while. 

Susan Stroman is planning on a Crazy For You revival…

So I have heard!

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