How Kate Baldwin, Conor Ryan and Andrew Lippa Are Re-Imagining John & Jen Like You've Never Seen Them Before

News   How Kate Baldwin, Conor Ryan and Andrew Lippa Are Re-Imagining John & Jen Like You've Never Seen Them Before
 
This spring, the Drama Desk and Obie Award winning Keen Company present the first New York revival of John & Jen, the musical with music by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, I Am Harvey Milk), lyrics by Tom Greenwald and book by both. This rare Off-Broadway revival, featuring a new song and scenes, stars Broadway songstress Kate Baldwin (Big Fish, Finian's Rainbow) and rising newcomer Conor Ryan (Cinderella, The Fortress of Solitude). The cast and creator open up to Playbill about their love of this powerful two-hander musical and their shared excitement in improving it for today's audiences. 

Kate Baldwin
Kate Baldwin Photo by Joseph Moran

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"It's an extraordinary feeling to go back to John & Jen," says Lippa. "Tom Greenwald and I started writing a version of it in 1991 and I was just starting to explore what it was to write. It was the first full-length show that we wrote that was commercially produced. It's had a lovely little life around the world being produced in lots of places, and now it's a chance to revisit it."

John & Jen is an intimate story that spans over 40 years of family connections, commitments and the healing of the human heart. It is told through the perspective of Jen, exploring first her relationship with her younger brother John, who leaves for the war, and later her son and his namesake.

Baldwin was immediately attracted to the role of Jen because she felt she could relate to it. "I am an older sister and my younger brother also went off and did military service," she explains. "I'm also a mom, my son is about to turn four, so I can relate to the mother's struggles and her joys. It seems like this came to my attention at a time in my life when I could be in both places — be the daughter, the sister and the mother, all embodied in Jen."

Baldwin embarks on an immense journey in the show, beginning at six years old and ending as a middle-aged woman. When asked if it was a challenge to create a woman's life from childhood through her teenage years and then into adulthood and motherhood, Baldwin says she kept coming back to the search for Jen's identity. "What are the things that they do to make themselves into the individual that they hope to be, and how do they accomplish it or how do they fail it?" she says. Without revealing the ending, she adds that ultimately, Jen must reconcile her hopes and dreams with the reality of her circumstances. "I think that happens for a lot of people," says Baldwin, "and that's what makes her so relatable." Lippa is quick to praise Baldwin for her talent and her ability to push herself in challenging roles such as this. "I think Kate Baldwin is a magical performer," he says. Baldwin, who has worked with Lippa previously, is also a big fan of the composer. "I just love him," she says. "I think he's so expressive and he has such a sense of fun, but then he can also write a ballad that just breaks your heart."

Conor Ryan
Conor Ryan

For Baldwin, it was also a welcome luxury to be able to consult Lippa on the script and music, which isn't often the case with revivals. "I love working with a living composer, too," she laughs.  "It's so nice to have a question about something and be able to call him up and say, 'What did you really mean?' or 'Can you sing it for me Andrew? Then I'll understand.'" She and Lippa have also been working hard at improving the script. "I love working with Andrew because you'll never find anybody who's more willing to discuss something and want your input and want to change things and make the show as best as it can be."

The Keen Company production will feature a brand new song and several exciting changes. "We forgot that we're the writers and we can change it!" exclaims Lippa. He also says that he is eager to record a new cast album. "I'm hoping we'll get to record it. We have this great cast, and I don't want to waste that opportunity."

Conor Ryan, who plays both Johns in the play, says that working with Lippa and Baldwin has been a fantasy come true. "Who doesn't dream of singing next to Kate Baldwin?" he says. "I'm just staring at her thinking, 'How is she singing like that?' I'm already learning so, so much from her and so much from Andrew Lippa. It's so incredible to get to work with the original creators."

Baldwin is equally as enthusiastic about the pairing, saying that she loves being able to experience his excitement. "As a person who's been doing this for 16 years, to watch him get excited, I delight in it. I delight in him." The nature of a two-person show means that Baldwin and Ryan will be relying on one another a lot. "You just have that other person and your imagination, which has to be very strong and that person needs to embody all of the thing that you need them to," she explains. "But it's really fun. You develop a real closeness. You're a team and there's nowhere to hide." Ryan agrees with this, saying that "there's no one else to distract you from that relationship, which is really exciting and rare."

John & Jen began performances Feb. 10 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit keencompany.org.

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