DIVA TALK: Chatting with Dangerous Beauty's Jenny Powers, Plus Celebrating Patti LuPone

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Dangerous Beauty's Jenny Powers, Plus Celebrating Patti LuPone
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Jenny Powers
Jenny Powers

JENNY POWERS
Singer-actress Jenny Powers, whose Broadway credits include the new musical version of Little Women and the most recent revival of Grease, is currently starring as courtesan-poet Veronica Franco in the new musical Dangerous Beauty, which will officially open at the Pasadena Playhouse Feb. 13. Directed by Tony Award nominee Sheryl Kaller (Next Fall), the musical was penned by Jeannine Dominy (book), Amanda McBroom (lyrics) and Michele Brourman (music) and also features James Snyder (Drama League Award nominee for Broadway's Cry-Baby) as Veronica's love Marco; Bryce Ryness (Drama Desk Award nominee for Broadway's Hair) as her rival Maffio; Laila Robins (Broadway's Heartbreak House) as her mother Paola; Michael Rupert (Legally Blonde, The Happy Time, Tony winner for Sweet Charity) as the poet Domenico; Megan McGinnis (Broadway's Little Women, Ovation Award nominee for the Rubicon Theatre's Daddy Long Legs) as Veronica's dear friend Beatrice; John Antony (Broadway's Passion) as powerful senator Pietro; and Morgan Weed (Second Stage Theatre's Next to Normal) as Giulia, who is betrothed to Marco.

Powers, who was also seen Off-Broadway in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Happiness, has been with Dangerous Beauty since its first incarnation, a workshop of the musical at the Martel Theatre on the Vassar College grounds in Poughkeepsie, NY, in July 2005. The gifted artist is also at work on a new recording with her husband, West Side Story's Matt Cavenaugh, which will be released digitally later this month. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Powers about her numerous projects; that interview follows:

Question: I know you've been with Dangerous Beauty for a while. How did you get involved originally?
Powers: I got involved with Dangerous Beauty back in '05. Actually, both Megan McGinnis and I, during Little Women, auditioned for a workshop of Dangerous Beauty that was being done at New York Stage and Film, up at Vassar, the summer of '05. And we auditioned for it not knowing if we were going to be able to do it or not, because of Little Women. Sheryl Kaller, who was the director at the time and she's also directing it now, was wishing ill on Little Women [laughs], hoping it was going to close, and, of course, it did, so the two of us were able to be a part of Dangerous Beauty up at Vassar, and instead of playing sisters, we actually play best friends in this show.

Question: For people who don't know the film or the book, tell me a little bit about the show.
Powers: Well, the show [is] based in Venice, Italy, during the Renaissance, and it's about this woman who … finds the power, through imagination and her artistic endeavors and by educating herself, to transcend the patriarchal limitations of that society. That's basically the core. Veronica Franco was a notorious courtesan that rose to power during the Renaissance — it's based on a true story — and she falls in love with a man whose marriage must be a marriage of state, so she is crushed. It's so hard to tell the plot without … going on the journey, and everything is a surprise in the show. It takes a roller coaster ride, and that's, really, what I love about the show. It's very unpredictable, but she falls in love with a man whom she cannot marry, and she finds that the only option for her in life, because she doesn't have a dowry, is to become a nun or a handmaiden or a courtesan, and because she is an incredibly vivacious soul and [an] ambitious and competitive young woman, and her mother used to be a courtesan, she learns that trait, and that is her way, basically, into that circle of the powerful.

Powers as Veronica Franco
photo by Jason P. Maughan

Question: How would you describe Veronica?
Powers: Veronica is a rock star. [Laughs.] I mean, she really is. What I love about her is that she is not only intelligent and witty and artistically gifted, which makes her very powerful, but she's also an extremely empathetic soul, even though she made it her mission to empower women through her poetry and also educate men on how she thinks men should conduct themselves, back then, in relationship to women... So, to me, Veronica Franco, during that era, embodies both masculine and feminine qualities, which is also reflected in her poetry. She was a proto-feminist. She was not the type of feminist who dug her heels into the ground and declared that women rule and men suck. It was more, "We need to come together, men and women, to create change." She loved men just as much as she loved women. And I think that was such an interesting quality about her, and she was also one of the only female poets to be published during that time. Question: Do you know why that was?
Powers: I think because her poetry was remarkable. It was so honest. It cut to the core. She tried to speak the truth through her poetry, which really resonated, and her mentor and teacher was Domenico Venier, who was a senator at the time and a famous poet. He was basically her patron. But Veronica Franco, in a basic sense, rose to power as a courtesan because she was beautiful, and because she was an incredibly eloquent and gifted poetess, but when the Inquisition came in, because she was a woman and had gained so much power, she was condemned for witchcraft by the Inquisition.

Question: You've played the role in different productions. What's been challenging about the role for you?
Powers: Whenever I hear that Dangerous Beauty is going to be worked on again or another incarnation is going to be done, I run to it. I love this piece. I love playing Veronica Franco. It is, for me, to date, the greatest physical, emotional, vocal and spiritual challenge I've ever undergone. I mean, it's a marathon of a role. … It's both professionally and personally challenging, and always rewarding. And people say, "Oh, is it fun? Are you having a blast?" And, yes, certain parts of it are fun, [laughs] but I don't think I've ever worked harder in my life, and it's more, on a deeper level, fulfilling.

Amanda McBroom and Jenny Powers

Question: What's the score like?
Powers: The score is thrilling. I am psyched about how far the score has come. Michelle Brourman, our composer, and Amanda McBroom, our lyricist — the two of them together with [vocal designer] AnnMarie Milazzo from Next to Normal and Spring Awakening have really created this innovative and new sound. They've taken these Renaissance chord structures and given them a rock edge, so it's much more in the vein of a Spring Awakening than a Les Miz, even though it's a period piece. Our orchestrations are full of electric guitar and electric lute. It's really cool, and the score — it hits you. It really hits the audience. It hits home.

Question: It's such a great cast — you and James Snyder and Michael Rupert and Megan McGinnis. Is there talk of bringing this to New York?
Powers: Yeah, I'm sure. I mean, that that's always the hope. I love this cast. There are magnificent performances being given. I mean, we have a long way to go. We just started previews last night, and it's a big show. I think we're making big changes this week and next, but I really do have all the faith that we will get there on Feb. 13. Our producers ... and, obviously, Sheryl Kaller as our director … they have great hopes that this piece will come to New York. I really want it to because I want this story to be told. … It's a thoroughly entertaining piece, and I think it's entertaining for both men and women. Of course, it's a female empowerment piece, but for men, it's a political piece and it drips with sex. [Laughs.] So, I think they'll find it very entertaining as well — it's a powerful story.

Question: You mentioned director Sheryl Kaller. What's it like to work with her?
Powers: Oh, Sheryl's a dream. She's such an actor's director. She really knows how to speak the language, and she's incredibly detail-oriented and is deeply invested in this show. She's determined to bring it home, home being New York City. She's so collaborative and is always open to us just breathing life into the piece, rather than, "Oh, let's set that beat. Let's set that moment." It's always about, "Okay, what's the next layer? Try this, now try that," which I think makes for a very rich show and an alive show. It's always new every night.

Question: Did you go back to the film or did you try to avoid it?
Powers: I tried to avoid it. Actually, I saw the film back in college. … At Northwestern, one of my sorority sisters, on a rainy night, said, "Let's rent 'Dangerous Beauty.' Have you ever seen it?" And I said, "No." She said, "Oh, my gosh. It's my go-to therapy piece," she said, "because it's so empowering." And so we rented it, and it started off just being the two of us watching it in the sorority house den, and by the end of the film, there were about 30 of us around the TV, weeping. It sort of became all of our therapy piece. [Laughs.] So that was the last time I watched the film, and I love Catherine McCormack in the film, Rufus Sewell and Jacqueline Bisset. But, yeah, I definitely had to move away from it so I can make it my own.

Powers and husband Matt Cavenaugh
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: You're also working on a CD with your husband.
Powers: Yes! And I'm so excited about that! I think you guys are going to be really — well, New York City, who knows Matt and I and our voices, I think you'll be really surprised. It's a real departure from anything that we've ever done or sounded like. It's not a musical theatre album, it's more a pop album, but we're not really labeling it. We are thrilled to release that. Because I've been immersed in the Dangerous Beauty world, Matt has really taken the lead on [getting it finished]. Right now, it's being mixed, and we just have a few more songs to be mixed and then we'll be ready to release it. I am psyched. [Laughs.] We've been keeping it a secret, all the tracks and everything. I want to share it with the world soon.

Question: When do you think it will be ready for release?
Powers: We're hoping for Valentine's Day, and if not Valentine's Day, definitely by the end of February.

Question: Will you be releasing it digitally? Is that the plan?
Powers: Yes.

Question: How did you and Matt meet?
Powers: It's funny, I started working on Dangerous Beauty back in '05, and I also met Matt in '05. I met him doing the benefit concert of Secret Garden that Jamie McGonigal had put together. It was actually the same concert [where] Steven [Pasquale] and Laura [Benanti met]. [Laughs.] Oh, my gosh! It's that famous concert! Who knows what we were all drinking or what was in the air? I don't know! But we didn't really start dating until the following year, the fall of '06. We met doing that concert. I was actually assigned to sit next to him, so we passed a couple of notes. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you find it easier being with someone who also knows the ups and downs of this business?
Powers: You know, I do. I really do. I made it my mission not to end up with an actor ...  because I thought that would give me balance in my life. Because when we dive into these creative endeavors, they're all-consuming, and if you have a partner who's doing the same, you want to avoid living in that bubble. There's more to life, [but] Matt is such a balanced person. He's not only the executive producer on our album right now. We actually decided to do it on our own... we'd have more creative influence [and] we could do it our way. But he's the executive producer on our album and has also been working on this start-up Internet company, and he's an actor and he has other producing ambitions, also, in the theatre. He wears many hats, and we make a great team. We really do, and ego never gets in the way. I can't believe I'm saying that, and I feared that, because when I met him, he was this Broadway star. I'd only had, and I still have a few Broadway shows under my belt, and also Happiness, when I did it at Lincoln Center, and some Encores! shows, but he is a young man who has four Broadway shows under his belt. He was Tony in West Side Story, the Urban Cowboy in Urban Cowboy, and I thought, "Oh, God, is this going to work?" Because I'm also ambitious [laughs] and I want to go the distance, and he's just been wonderful and he has been so supportive of me through this process, and I really needed that. He's been my rock. We've only been married for not even a year and a half and have undergone many tests — West Side Story and Happiness and Dangerous Beauty and then putting this album together. It's been a lot, but it's proving that we are a strong team.

Powers and Matt Cavenaugh in It's a Bird…It's a Plane...It's Superman
photo by Brandon Thibodeaux

Question: I think that's the most important thing.
Powers: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I didn't know what it was going to be like working with him, too, and we worked together for the first time doing It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman! last summer [in Dallas]. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's new [version] — he re-wrote the book, and I know he's also collaborating with Duncan Sheik on American Psycho. And, we had a blast. Matt was Superman, and I wasn't Lois Lane. I was actually Sydney Sharp, the Linda Lavin role, and I got to seduce my husband every night on stage. [Laughs.] It was so much fun. That's another show I really think … will come in.

Question: I know there was talk at the time. What's the latest?
Powers: Well, there are rights issues, and they just want to get all their ducks in a row. They had gotten the rights to only do it at the Dallas Theatre Center, and so, like anything, it just takes time. But I hear good things. They've gotten the ball rolling, and I can't wait to do that piece again because it's just so much fun. And I think, also, they wanted to give Spider-Man the limelight this year. [Laughs.] Obviously, it's more of a musical comedy than Spider-Man. It's not this edgy, innovative piece that Julie Taymor's Spider-Man is. But anyway, working together with Matt this summer, and then also working on the album — it's been great, and I think it's just the beginning of many projects that we'll dive into together. I think, also, once we release the album, we'll probably set up some concert dates in New York and L.A. …

Question: What's the Pasadena Playhouse like?
Powers: The Pasadena Playhouse is gorgeous, and it so suits our show, the architecture. I mean, you really feel like you are in Venice, because it's a very old theatre and it's this beautiful Spanish architecture. Oh, my gosh, it's as if the producers came in and built the auditorium for Dangerous Beauty. There's so much history. It's one of those theatres that you walk into and you can feel like there are spirits in the air or something. The air is thick, in a good way.

[Pasadena Playhouse is at 39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena, CA. For additional information visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.]

Patti LuPone
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

PATTI LuPONE
This Monday, Feb. 7, The Drama League will present its 27th annual all-star gala, A Musical Celebration of Broadway, in the Grand Ballroom at The Pierre New York. The evening will honor Olivier Award and two-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, who was most recently back on Broadway in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Co-directed by Roger T. Danforth and Tony Award winner Cady Huffman, the Musical Celebration will boast performances from Audra McDonald, Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman, Laura Benanti, Boyd Gaines, Christopher Sieber, Nick Adams, Will Chase, Chad Kimball, Emily Skinner, Justin Guarini, Liz Callaway, James Monroe Iglehart, Vanessa Redgrave, Ann Hampton Callaway, Montego Glover and Daniel Reichard. The show will include performances highlighting LuPone’s stellar stage career.

About one of our very favorite gals, two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy stated, "Patti LuPone is one of the most talented, versatile, dedicated and passionate actors working in the theatre today ... She is a true force of nature; a fierce survivor who has willed things to happen in her life and career when things didn't easily fall into place. Personally, she inspired me early on with her undeniable soaring talent; and still inspires me on that level, but that is now compounded by my coming to know her incredible strength of character. Her unending commitment and love for the theatre has made her a legend in her own time, and the Drama League is excited to celebrate her remarkable career."

We also wanted to find out what some of the next generation of theatre artists feel about the multitalented LuPone. A handful of their responses follow:

NICK ADAMS (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical)
"What makes Patti LuPone so special is that she is Patti LuPone. She is a living legend. When you have had a career that has impacted the history and fabric of musical theatre... That's special."

Laura Benanti
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

LAURA BENANTI (Gypsy Tony winner, most recently seen in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown)
"Patti LuPone is the most dedicated, collaborative, committed actress I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Her passion for the craft of acting is unparalleled. I learn from her every moment I watch her and work with her. On top of all of that she is loyal, hilarious, loving, generous and kind. She is one of my favorite people in the universe and I love her like she is my family. For me Patti LuPone IS the theater."

DONNA LYNNE CHAMPLIN (Billy Elliot, Sweeney Todd, Hollywood Arms)
"Patti is a genius because she's a master of 'being in the moment' in combination with impeccable technique in combination with a prodigious amount of raw talent and sheer courage. Many actors have one of those strengths to their advantage, and do extremely well. But to see all three 'schools of acting' combined in one person, is to witness Patti LuPone in performance.

"During our entire Sweeney Todd run (and I watched her up close and personal for hundreds of performances), she never gave the same performance twice. What makes Patti a genius is that she refuses to RE-create anything. Every emotion, every breath, every thought, every movement she creates from scratch...over and over and over again. It's because of this inability to be anything less than 100 percent authentic and brave and brilliant, that makes her truly remarkable to watch and thrilling to work with.

"Watching Patti perform is like watching someone jump off a cliff; it's thrilling, it's breathtaking and you truly believe that she is completely committed to this one act, in this one moment, for one time only...solely for you. There is no doubt in your mind that her life depends on jumping off that cliff, because somewhere Patti (in that moment) believes it too. It's only right before she's about to hit the ground that her flawless technique yanks her back up, like an invisible bungee cord. And the fact she's willing to jump off that cliff every single show, having convinced herself in that moment, that she will most likely not return...is what makes her a genius."

Montego Glover
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

MONTEGO GLOVER (Memphis Tony nominee)
"Patti is special because she's created roles for women in the theatre that are iconic.  Not only is that a tremendous accomplishment, her work and her very presence have inspired other women."

CHEYENNE JACKSON (Finian's Rainbow and Xanadu Drama Desk nominee)
"I LOVES me some Patti LuPone. She's powerful, unpredictable, and open. Favorite Patti memory...on set of '30 Rock' in between takes, I got her to sing along with me to the theme song from 'Life Goes On': 'with a coupla kids running in the yaaaaaaaaard...'"

CHAD KIMBALL (Memphis Tony nominee)
"Patti's seemingly effortless vocal prowess is matched only by her indelible and unforgettable stage presence - the story she tells while on stage seems to shoot directly into the heart and soul of her adoring audiences."

MAX VON ESSEN (Les Miserables, Dance of the Vampires)
"First of all, I hate to throw around the word 'icon,' but that's what Patti is to me. I've known and loved her work in theatre (and television) since I was a kid. And, what's the best about her is, she's STILL GOT IT! She's actually only gotten stronger and more interesting as a performer. Often people rush to see an icon perform just to catch perhaps a glimpse of what was. But Patti still IS, and if anything, she is even more thrilling to watch now. We, as the audience, have decades to look forward to from her, and that is really exciting."

Congratulations, La LuPone!

[Tickets are $750-$1,995; tables of ten are available from $7,500 - $18,000. To reserve seats or receive any additional information about The Drama League, call Special Events Manager Roger Calderon at (212) 244-9494, ext. 5. For more information, visit www.dramaleague.org. ]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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