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

By Andrew Gans
10 Aug 2007

Jennifer Simard
Jennifer Simard

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

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