LSD is not considered a gateway drug – a substance that opens the door to riskier experiences. But it did coax Carmen Cusack to the large-scale adventure that is Flying Over Sunset. When James Lapine, the musical’s writer and director, approached her about playing Clare Boothe Luce in the show what initially intrigued Cusack was the acid angle.

But then, the actress said during a recent conversation in an LCT rehearsal room, she began researching Luce and LSD became only a part of a potential larger exploration. “I thought how crazy it was that I’d never heard of her,” Cusack said. “She was a trailblazer in style and had exquisite taste, but beyond that she was an ambassador to Italy and for a few days to Brazil. She was a playwright and she dabbled in acting. She was an editor and journalist. She told powerful men what to do at a time when there weren’t a lot of women doing that.”

For all Luce’s allure, however, Cusack, who grew up in the southern United States and whose previous Broadway show was a Tony-nominated turn in Bright Star, still wasn’t completely sold on doing Sunset. “This was in 2019,” she said, “and a lot of other political stuff was going on.”

What Cusack learned during the covid hiatus from the show made her grateful that Lapine hadn’t taken no for an answer. “With all the unfortunate things that happened during the pandemic we were also forced to take a moment to be quiet and to contemplate things.” The actress said she was able to understand better the larger message of the show: “the desire to understand ourselves and the larger community. The desire to make the human connection.”

During the covid break the show hovered over Cusack in various ways. “The dialogue went out of my memory a bit. But Tom Kitt’s music never left. It’s beautiful and haunting. His music and Michael Korie’s wonderful lyrics don’t necessarily go where you expect them to go and I like that. The songs aren’t formulaic.”

Cusack said that it’s the formulaic aspect of many musicals that makes her, as a theatergoer, prefer watching them less than she prefers watching plays. “I’m very picky about what I do and what I like. The way the songs arise out of dialogue has to be very good. Otherwise, everything becomes unnatural.”

One of the masters of writing seamless dialogue-to singing transitions was Oscar Hammerstein II, who did the lyrics and co-wrote the book for South Pacific, in which Cusack, as Nellie Forbush, made her LCT debut. (Nellie was from Arkansas, and it was in that state that, just before the current Flying Over Sunset, Cusack did Designing Women, a play based on the hit TV comedy.)

Cusack was with the South Pacific production on tour so it is only with Flying Over Sunset that she has her first opportunity to navigate the vast expanse of the Vivian Beaumont. Because, for me, seeing a terrific performer solo on the Beaumont stage when it’s shorn of scenery is one of the thrills of New York theatergoing I couldn’t help but ask Cusack what it feels like to do just that in her second-act Sunset number “How?”

“You imagine it would be overwhelming and scary,” Cusack answered. “But every single moment of the song insists that you be absolutely present so I’m not really scared. I see only my shadow on that huge stage but it doesn’t frighten me; it delights me. It’s a huge dark space except for some lighting. I feel like I’m in galaxy somewhere. It’s thrilling.”

Brendan Lemon is the editor of