Justin Guarini, Briga Heelan honor music of Britney Spears in ‘Once Upon a One More Time’

Justin Guarini, left, and Briga Heelan, stars of the musical Once Upon a One More Time, pose for a photo at the Marquis Theatre in New York on June 7, 2023. (AP Photo/John Carucci) (John Carucci)

NEW YORK – Performing in a fairy tale musical with songs by the Princess of Pop can be both magical and daunting. That’s the way Justin Guarini and Briga Heelan, who star in “Once Upon a One More Time,” see their roles in the jukebox musical that features songs by Britney Spears.

The musical debuted at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., in 2021 and now it’s on Broadway with Heelan and Guarini reprising their roles as Cinderella and Prince Charming.

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On a recent two-show day, fans of all ages were wearing Britney-themed attire waiting to be seated and both actors are well aware that Spears' dedicated fan base has high expectations.

Guarini, the runner-up to Kelly Clarkson on the first season of “American Idol,” said Spears’ music reminds him of the “iconic moments of growing up.” So honoring the Princess of Pop was “a huge honor” for him, the chance to share "in the joy and so much of the fun that she has created for millions of people across the world.”

As a veteran of the Broadway stage with seven shows under his belt, Guarini still finds the line between performer and fan a bit more challenging on this one. And so does his co-star.

Heelan, who starred in the sitcom, “Great News” is making her Broadway debut. A self-proclaimed hard-core Britney fan, she says her mission for each performance is to “do justice to her spirit.”

“You want to make sure that it infiltrates every nook and cranny of what you’re doing. And we’ve all worked very hard to hopefully make that true,” Heelan said.

She hopes that Spears comes to the show, but also admits she would be nervous. “I can’t let myself go there because it’s too deeply exciting,” Heelan said.

Heelan recalls it wasn’t that long ago that she would blast “Oops... I Did It Again” on her CD player. Now, that’s something that carries on to her daughter.

“I am a mom of a 6-year-old and we’re listening to Kidz Bop sing, ‘Oops... I Did It Again’ on the way to drop her off after kindergarten. And I’ll just be driving like, ‘I can’t believe this is reality. I can’t believe this moment,’” she said.

And that excitement translates to the stage in a show that Guarini calls a nonstop party that’s unlike anything he’s ever done before.

He says he sees the audience “moving in their seats and grooving, having a good time” and hears "gasps of enjoyment and recognition when they hear a song that they love set in a way that they didn’t expect it to be set.”

In a twist, “Once Upon a One More Time” isn’t the only Broadway show with Spears’ songs. The Tony Award-nominated “& Juliet” also has a few, including “Baby One More Time” and “‘Oops... I Did It Again.”

Before getting ready for a matinee performance, Guarini passes a framed jacket in his dressing room from the Jackson Five’s Victory Tour. He explains how his parents took him to the show at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium when he was 6.

“I remember being there and seeing the lights and the smoke and the costumes and the dancing and all the things that we love about the Jackson Five, pointing to the stage and saying to myself, ‘I want to do that,’” Guarini said.

Not long after that concert, Guarini outgrew the jacket, as 6-year-old’s often do, and it was relegated to the closet until taking on his role of Prince Charming.

“I had to frame it and put it up on the wall because it is just a part of what we’re doing here,” Guarini said.

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