DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spelling Bee's Jennifer Simard Plus "Hairspray" on CD

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spelling Bee's Jennifer Simard Plus "Hairspray" on CD
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Jennifer Simard
Jennifer Simard

JENNIFER SIMARD
Throughout the past decade or so singing actress Jennifer Simard has become the darling of Off-Broadway musical theatre, offering Drama Desk, Drama League and Lucille Lortel Award-nominated performances in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and The Thing About Men as well as the "Special Victims Unit" edition of Forbidden Broadway, where she had the chance to sendup such Broadway favorites as Bernadette Peters and Kristin Chenoweth. After years of impressing Off-Broadway audiences, Simard is now casting her spell over Broadway crowds, as she is currently making her Main Stem debut in William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Circle in the Square Theatre. I recently had the chance to revisit the award-winning show, and I'm happy to report that the entirely new cast is offering an evening that is every bit as enjoyable as the show's wonderful original company. In fact, the night I attended, the audience couldn't have been more enthusiastic in its response, and I was particularly impressed with the work of Stanley Bahorek as Leaf Coneybear, Jenni Barber as Olive Ostrovsky, Jared Gertner as William Barfee, Sara Inbar as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre and, of course, Simard, who has found several new comic moments as Rona Lisa Peretti. Simard also makes the most of her vocal moments — delivering her "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" triptych with a lovely soprano and a touch of irony, while applying her rangy Broadway belt to an especially exciting and moving version of "The I Love You Song" (with co-stars Barber and understudy Maurice Murphy). Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the multitalented Simard, who spoke about her Broadway bow and her Off-Broadway successes.

Jennifer Simard
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How did the role in Spelling Bee come about for you?
Jennifer Simard: I originally was called in in the spring of 2004, before they went to the Berkshires, but not for this role. I was actually brought in for [the role of] Olive. Like most actresses, you can really make yourself look different with hairstyle and make-up, and I can sort of play younger or older. I knew I could do it, but my friend Celia [Keenan-Bolger] was there, and she went in right before me or after me, and I was like, "Oh, well that's who should play it!" [Laughs.] And, of course, as we all know, she did. I didn't even know the role of Rona Lisa existed [at that time], and certainly that day I was dressed like a child, and why would they think of me for that either? Fast forward to last year. I got an audition for the San Francisco company that I had to turn down — I was booked elsewhere and didn't want to waste their time. And then the tour came about . . . James Lapine is the director now, and it's a whole different slew of people. And based on the breakdown, the role of Rona Lisa Peretti was listed, and my agent submitted me for that. I saw the show and I thought, "Well, that's the role I should be doing." [Laughs.] And so that's all she wrote. So then I went and I got the role, and I did the tour for eight months. Question: What was it like touring? Had you toured before?
Simard: I had never toured before. And I'm such a — oh, God I love New York so much — I'm such a homebody. I thought I'd never do it. I'm married, and my husband had a good job in the city, and we had enough breaks in the schedule that seemed to work out on the tour — places that he could come that we were both interested in him coming to. It all seemed to fit professionally and personally. Other than missing him dreadfully, I really enjoyed myself. I really did. It was incredible to see all of these different cities. It's such a great way to work yourself out mentally and physically. If you can do a national tour, you can do just about anything. [Laughs.] You're traveling on your one day off, and it really made me grow. I grew up a lot.

Jennifer Simard in Spelling Bee
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: It must be interesting also to play different theatres — just to see what different theatres are like throughout the country.
Simard: You said it. I'll tell you what. Going there and sizing up a theatre every week, it was really thrilling just to figure out, "How do I play this space? This one has a thousand less seats, so how do I have to adjust to make it work here?" or "This theatre has 4,000 seats. How do I maintain the honesty of this character and not appear like I'm a cartoon?" Question: How did the show play to different audiences?
Simard: It played very well. People loved the show. I will tell you that [the size of the theatre] was probably the biggest challenge. I think people across the country were very loving about that. This show is about words.… I mean, you can't get better than the Circle in the Square space. It's a school! [Laughs.] So, if you just accept the fact that you're walking into a big theatre, and if you embrace that environment, you're going to have a great time. And most people did. Question: Did it work the same way throughout the country where you would take audience members up onstage as well?
Simard: Yes.

Question: How did that go?
Simard: It was wonderful. What's interesting is, there really is no formula for who they choose — other than they're looking for a diverse demographic of the people that choose to come to the show that night. For example, we were in a city where we had a lot of subscribers who were, the majority of which were over the age of 50 or 60 or 70. You might have several spellers who represented that demographic [because they] represented the bulk of the audience. . . . There [were also] some places where you'd have a lot of kids, so there might be more kids [chosen].

Question: What's it finally like for you to make your Broadway debut?
Simard: Well, it's wonderful. It's nice to be on the other side of Eighth Avenue for a change. [Laughs.] But I'm so proud of Off-Broadway, and I feel strongly that I don't care if it's a reading or a workshop or Off-Broadway or Broadway — it's really important that it's about the work. To be on Broadway, to have my parents alive to be there for opening night was a dream come true. I feel grateful. None of us are just granted this — it's a privilege. I don't take it for granted for a second. I just feel very lucky because I know there are so many good people in this city, and any one of us would be fortunate to have a job like I have right now.

Question: Does performing on Broadway feel much different than working Off-Broadway?
Simard: I'll tell you what feels different. What feels different is you're the same person, but somehow people treat you differently. People on the street or fans treat you with this awe of, "Wow, you're on Broadway," as opposed to when I was Off-Broadway [and] you're a little bit more invisible. I feel like the same person I was the day before I opened, and yet I'm being treated differently. It's kind of a heady, weird thing to take in. . . . People get so excited by Broadway. I'm excited for that, but I also — because I worked so many years Off-Broadway — I see so much great work everywhere around the city, I feel loyal to my roots in a way. Broadway is great, but you have to appreciate everything and respect the work.

Question: If someone asked you to describe Rona, how would you describe her?
Simard: Oh, I love Rona. Rona is wonderful. To me she is very Type A — she is very outwardly successful in that she crosses all her Ts, she dots all her Is, she does everything you're "supposed to do." She drives a Prius, she takes canvas bags to the grocery store, she's changed all of her lights to fluorescent. I think she takes Pilates three days a week. She just presents this wonderful, successful package to the world. But what you see throughout the course of the play and what I really do see about her is, like most of us, underneath all of that are the cracks. I really do have this image of her at two o'clock in the morning watching and ordering things off of QVC, just covered in Cheetos, with three double chins and sadness. [Laughs.] To me, that's Rona.

Question: I thought you added some really nice comic moments for her, and I was wondering how much liberty you were given with the role when you were taking over on Broadway.
Simard: I was given quite a bit of liberty. I'm grateful to everyone involved: David Stone, the producer; [director] James Lapine, [composer] William Finn, [book writer] Rachel Sheinkin, everyone. I think they really stuck true to the improv nature and roots of the show, so they encouraged that. And I also think they were very smart because Lisa Howard was wonderful in the role, but I look nothing like Lisa Howard, we're nothing alike. . . . They're not fools. How foolish would it be for them to say, "Do what Lisa does." It would look like I was wearing the wrong pair of shoes. It would be a terrible performance because what she does, she does perfectly, but I can't be her, nor can my successors be me. So they did give us a lot of liberty… Being on the road like I was, you can imagine, things happen. You're in new theatres every week. I think there was a lot of trial by fire, and I think they really trusted me. It's so nice to be trusted by people that you have revered literally your entire life.

Question: How much do you change per performance on a day-to-day basis?
Simard: I change a lot, especially the first hour of the show. That's one of my greatest joys in the show is coming up with things about the volunteers. And just my interaction with the audience in the beginning, welcoming them. Because that's life, too – it would never be the same way twice. I think it keeps it fresh.

Question: I think you set the tone well. I don't know if you say the same thing every night, but when I went everyone got very quiet as the lights dimmed, and you said something like, "You can keep talking. This isn't church."
Simard: I said, "You can keep talking. It's not church." It sort of lets them know that we're all here together to have a good time. It's a spelling bee, c'mon let's have a good time!

Jennifer Simard
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Now certainly Rona has her favorite moments of the Bee. What would you say your favorite moments are?
Simard: I have a few. One of which is I love interpreting William Finn's lyrics. I think he's such a lyric-driven composer. It's sort of an actress' dream. Yes, I'm a singer, that's self-explanatory. I enjoy singing, but I love singing someone's music that tells a story as well as his does. He's just the best at that, and it's such a pleasure to literally sink my teeth into his words every night. That's one of my greatest joys every night.

Secondly, I love the volunteers. . . . When I just see some average Joe come up, my heart bursts with love for this person. [Laughs.] You know, no one likes a plant. It's so wonderful the genuineness of this show, when these volunteers come up. And the audience senses that — it's just this regular person who has found himself in the spotlight.

Question: I always give people so much credit for that because I think the last thing I'd want to do is get up and be…
Simard: Me, too! And I do this for a living. [Laughs.] It's just hilarious.

Question: Since we've never spoken, I just wanted to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Simard: I was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, and raised in a little town called Litchfield, New Hampshire.

Question: When did you start performing?
Simard: I'd say my first job with a professional company I was probably nine. I started when I was very young.

Question: When do you think you knew that performing would be your career?
Simard: Five. [Laughs.] Question: Were there any performers that you particularly admired?
Simard: Oh, yeah. Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury . . . Anne Bancroft.

Question: When did you come to New York?
Simard: I came to New York Dec. 7, 1992.

Question: What brought you here?
Simard: I was doing a show in Boston, and I had a friend who was already in the loop in New York. He knew Gerard Alessandrini because he had done Forbidden Broadway. I drove in from New York that fall for an audition. They sometimes do general casting auditions. Anyway, they were opening a new production in Stamford, Connecticut, where we'd rehearse and live in New York and commute the 53 minutes everyday by train. Adam Heller was in that production. It was my first New York City job. I became Equity, so I moved to New York for this job. I got my Equity card and then, of course, all of the other actors had agents. So they came to the show, and they saw me and picked me up. I was very fortunate.

Question: Do you have a favorite theatrical experience so far?
Simard: You know, the very honest answer is that there's something about all of them that means so much to me that I can't say, "That was my favorite." Of course, Spelling Bee is going to always be significant because it's my Broadway debut. Of course, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is going to mean a lot to me because years ago, I had done this community theatre production of I Love My Wife...and I remember at that age thinking, "I want to do a show like that of my own someday!" And although it's different, I always say, "This show is now in its [12th] year." This man from Argentina came to [Spelling Bee] the other day, and the fact that he recognized me from that show — I was like, "Are you kidding me?" The fact that it gets done all over the world is shocking. So that's special. I loved The Thing About Men. It didn't run very long, but the other actors in the show: Daniel Reichard, Marc Kudisch, Leah Hocking, Ron Bohmer. Working with the four of them was incredible! When you look to your left and look to your right and think, "God, he's amazing!" It was one of the best all-around casts I've ever worked with. I'm lucky to be in a great ensemble cast now. Forbidden Broadway, of course, because that was my first break in the city. To do SVU two years ago was so full circle for me. The things I've been in, they all mean something [and are] so important to me.

Question: Getting back to Forbidden Broadway, what is it like being part of that show?
Simard: I talked to Bryan Batt about this once. If you talk to anyone who's done it, they will tell you the same thing, mark my words. People who have done Starlight Express, people who have been on roller skates, falling down and breaking their knees, they will still tell you that [Forbidden Broadway] is the hardest show you will ever do. It is war. [Laughs.] It is the hardest thing because vocally you are having to imitate people. What that means is that you're not singing as healthily for your own voice in order to sound like other people.

Question: Who did you enjoying [impersonating]?
Simard: Well, my favorite, the only one where I can say, "I do her pretty well," is Bernadette Peters. She's obviously my favorite to do. When you asked me earlier what it's like being on Broadway, what I get recognized the most for doing is Forbidden Broadway: SVU. Of everything I've done, that's the thing that people recognize me the most from. And, again, it's because a lot of the fans of Broadway shows . . . go buy Forbidden Broadway on CD, which spoofs the Broadway shows.

Question: How long will you stay with Spelling Bee?
Simard: Well, when we all signed on in April, we were all contracted through the end of January. They just have set dates, but that doesn't mean anything at this point. I'll be there [at least] through the end of January.

Question: Are you involved in any other projects at the moment?
Simard: I just did a reading of A Christmas in July by [Playbill.com managing editor] Ken Jones [and composer Gerald Stockstill]. It was a benefit for ASTEP, and that was wonderful. To be honest with you, I just got off the tour [of Spelling Bee] and went right into the show. The same day I flew home I started rehearsals. As you know, we had Mo Rocca come in as my counterpart [Vice Principal] Panch, and then Darrell Hammond, and now we've got our third [Daniel Pearce] and, I think for a long time now, he'll be the Panch. So that's good. It just seems to be settling into a rhythm now, so my point is that now I look forward to taking a breath and being able to do other things on the side — readings or workshops that come up. But my first loyalty is to my eight shows a week, which is a lot of work. So as long as I can stay a good employee at Spelling Bee, you may see me popping up here and there!

[The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays the Circle in the Square Theatre, 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth. Call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.]

FOR THE RECORD: "Hairspray" (New Line Records)
In the past 20 years, "Hairspray" has come full circle.

In 1988 the original John Waters film — featuring a breakout performance by future talk-show host Ricki Lake — hit screens. Fourteen years later, the movie arrived on the Broadway stage with a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan and a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that would win the Tony Award for Best Score of the season. The musical, which continues to play the Neil Simon Theatre, would garner eight Tonys in all, including one for Best Musical.

The new movie musical, based on the Tony-winning Broadway show, arrived on screens across the country last month and casts Nikki Blonsky as the full-figured Tracy Turnblad, who wants to join and later integrate the local television dance show. In the process she also wins the heart of heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron). Tracy's mom, the reclusive Edna Turnblad, originated on screen by the late Divine and onstage by Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, is now portrayed (in drag, of course) by screen star John Travolta, the actor's first movie musical since "Grease" made its screen debut in 1978.

The film, directed by Adam Shankman, also features Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussle, Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad, Amanda Baynes as Penny Pingleton, James Marsden as Corny Collins, Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, Brittany Snow as Amber Von Tussle, Elijah Kelley as Seawood and Allison Janney as Prudy Pingleton. The soundtrack to the motion picture was recently released on the New Line Records label and features most of the Broadway score as well as three tunes heard only in the film: "Ladies' Choice," "New Girl in Town" and "Come So Far." All three new additions blend seamlessly with the original stage score. In fact, from the moment the soundtrack begins — with the opening strains of "Good Morning Baltimore" — one can't help feel the beat of this terrific, toe-tapping score.

Newcomer Blonsky, who is making her feature film debut in "Hairspray," possesses a clear Broadway belt and does well with the aforementioned "Good Morning Baltimore" as well as "I Can Hear the Bells" and "Welcome to the 60's," the latter a tuneful and surprisingly touching duet with co-star Travolta. Queen Latifah, an Academy Award nominee for her performance in the "Chicago" movie musical, brings her powerful tones to the uplifting "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and one of the film's most moving offerings, the anthemic "I Know Where I've Been." Zac Efron, best known for his work in Disney's "High School Musical," is appealing on his two solos: "It Takes Two" and the upbeat "Ladies' Choice." Other highlights include Elijah Kelley's soaring "Run and Tell That"; the lovely duet "(You're) Timeless to Me" with Travolta and Walken; and "You Can't Stop the Beat," which features the entire cast.

The disc — produced by co-creator Shaiman — also features a special treat: a recording of "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" (heard over the film's end credits) that features all three incarnations of Tracy: Ricki Lake (original film), Marissa Jaret Winokur (Broadway) and Nikki Blonsky.

DIVA TIDBITS
Kathy Deitch, who is part of the ensemble of Broadway's Wicked, will perform a benefit concert at the Zipper Factory Aug. 27. The evening, entitled All Heart, will feature tunes by the rock group Heart. Proceeds will benefit the Bob Fennell Scholarship at Brooklyn College and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Show time is 8 PM. Deitch will be backed by singer Asmeret Ghebremichael as well as Ric Molina and Greg Skaff on guitar, Alex Lacamoire on keyboards, Gary Seligsen on drums, Mike Blanco on bass and Jason Sirois on flute. The Zipper Factory is located in Manhattan at 237 West 37th Street. Tickets, priced $25 (advance) and $35 (at the door), are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or by visiting www.thezipperfactory.com.

The soundtrack to the musical episode of "Scrubs" — which featured a guest-starring appearance by Avenue Q Tony nominee Stephanie D'Abruzzo — is now available for downloading on iTunes. The episode, which was simply titled "My Musical," was nominated for five Emmy Awards, and the soundtrack includes four songs penned by Avenue Q composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx: "Welcome to Sacred Heart," "Everything Comes Down to Poo," "The Truth Comes Out" and "Finale: Friends Forever/What's Going to Happen." Both "Poo" and "Guy Love" were nominated for Emmy Awards; the latter was written by "Scrubs" supervising producer Debra Fordham, Jan Stevens and Paul Perry. D'Abruzzo can be heard on the many of the tracks, which have been remastered for downloading. And, Tony winner Karen Ziemba, who had a cameo on the episode, can also be heard on the soundtrack.

Denise Van Outen, who starred in the revised version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me On a Sunday, will host an evening celebrating the work of that famed composer Aug. 19. The concert will be presented at London's Mermaid Theatre and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 Aug. 24 at 7:30 PM as part of the BBC's Friday Night Is Music Night series. The evening will feature songs from shows Lloyd Webber has written as well as those he has produced, including Bombay Dreams, Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game, Tell Me On a Sunday, The Woman in White, Evita, The Sound of Music and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Among those scheduled to perform are Joseph's Lee Mead and Sound of Music's Connie Fisher as well as Stephen Gately, Preeya Kalidas, Raza Jaffrey, Elena Roger, Dean Collinson, Aoife Mullholland, Lorna Want and Duncan James. For more information visit www.bbc.co.uk/radio2.

The on-again, off-again movie musical version of Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard appears to be on again. The London Telegraph recently reported that actresses Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand and Glenn Close are currently the frontrunners for the lead role of deluded silent-screen star Norma Desmond in the motion picture. The musical, which was based on the classic Billy Wilder film, features a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Hampton told the U.K. paper, "Meryl Streep is on our list. It was during the last round of discussions when her name came up. Glenn Close is also on the list, as is Streisand." In addition to the creators of the musical, Paramount Studios will also have a say in casting. Paramount owns the rights to the original black-and-white film, which cast Gloria Swanson as Desmond. All three women have ties to the musical: Close played the role in Los Angeles and on Broadway; Streisand was the first to record the show's anthems, "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye"; and Streep was among the small audience at Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton estate, where the workshop of Sunset Boulevard — starring Patti LuPone — was originally presented. If I had the chance to cast my vote among the three — Streep, Streisand or Close — I'd go with Streisand. Streep already has the "Mamma Mia!" film, Close's Norma was preserved on both the Tony Awards and the Andrew Lloyd Webber birthday gala, and it's time Streisand returned to the movie musical genre. Her voice is still in top form, as evidenced by her recent concert tour, and I'd love to hear what she could do with some of those classic lines: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!"

And, finally, thanks to all who sent in their suggestions for casting the upcoming Musicals in Mufti presentation of The Baker's Wife at the York Theatre Company. Many agreed with my suggestion of Judy Kuhn in the role preserved on CD by Patti LuPone, although there were those who were equally in favor of Jane Krakowski, Frances Ruffelle, Kelli O'Hara, Lea Salonga, Marin Mazzie, Julia Murney, Melissa Errico and Erin Davies. The Oct. 26-28 staged concert performances of the Stephen Schwartz-Joseph Stein musical will be presented at the Theatre at Saint Peter's, which is located at 54th Street, east of Lexington Avenue. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (212) 935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.

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

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