Jennifer Nettles would like her latest musical project to mark the start of a new era, both for herself and the theater world as a whole.
The country artist, who is one half of the Grammy-winning duo Sugarland last week unveiled “Always Like New,” a 10-song collection of pieces from Broadway musicals like “My Fair Lady,” “Annie” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” The album’s centerpiece is a gender-swapped rendition of “It All Fades Away” from 2014's “The Bridges of Madison County,” performed in duet with Brandi Carlile.
The new rendition won praise from “Bridges of Madison County” composer Jason Robert Brown, who said it was “the best possible birthday gift I could have gotten.” As for Nettles, the chance to work with Carlile, a six-time Grammy winner, on the track was “life-giving.”
“She’s one of the most important voices, not only in terms of her instrument, but in terms of her artistic voice as a writer in our time right now in current music,” Nettles told HuffPost in an interview. “This piece is so emotional and so expansive. I heard her immediately on this song, and I was thrilled when she said yes.”
Watch Jennifer Nettles perform an exclusive rendition of “It All Fades Away” below.
Longtime Sugarland fans shouldn’t be surprised by Nettles’ venture into musical show tunes. The Georgia-born singer-songwriter has had a lifelong love of theater and in 2015, made her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in the Tony-winning revival of “Chicago.”
Interestingly, she and arranger-producer Alex Lacamoire finished recording “Always Like New” on March 12, 2020, just as all 41 Broadway theaters announced an indefinite closure to curb the spread of COVID-19. By releasing the album 15 months later, she’s hopeful its songs will help usher in the gradual reopening of theaters in New York and across the country later this year.
“Broadway is classic Americana, so the closing became very symbolic of the seriousness of what was going on in the U.S. and around the world,” Nettles said. “We all waited with uncertainty as to the timing of the album, like, ‘When can we share this with the world? When will it possible to go see a show again?’ And as we’ve waited, it became clear that it should celebrate the time when we’re coming back into what I call ‘first-choice living’ as opposed to pandemic living.”
Nettles plans to support the release of “Always Like New” with a concert tour. She’s also adapting the life of Italy’s Giulia Tofana into a musical. During the 17th century, Tofana turned her makeup business into a poison factory, catering primarily to women seeking an escape from their marriages to abusive husbands.
Described as history’s most prolific and deadly female poisoner, she is believed to have been able to murder hundreds of men over the course of nearly 50 years before being caught and executed.
As dark as Tofana’s story is, Nettles could have another “Sweeney Todd” or “Little Shop of Horrors” on her hands if the show succeeds. “I’m always interested in what I call the hidden half of history,” she said. “There were injustices happening for women since the beginning of time. I’m sure they didn’t just stand idly by and accept it as their lot in life. I’m excited for her to be able to sing her story.”
The singer-songwriter went on to describe the project as “a dream as a storyteller and as a performer,” suggesting that she’ll be eager to take on the role of Tofana once her musical gets produced.
“I obviously want it to be able to live its best life as the piece that it is,” she said, “but I don’t foresee myself letting that opportunity pass.”