DIVA TALK: Chatting With Forbidden Broadway Star Jenny Lee Stern

By Andrew Gans
September 28, 2012

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



Jenny Lee Stern
After a three-year absence, the musical revue Forbidden Broadway is Alive and Kicking at Off-Broadway's intimate 47th Street Theatre, and Gerard Alessandrini is once again sending up both Broadway shows and some of its most unique stars, all while introducing audiences to four multitalented actors who portray numerous roles throughout the evening. Heading the current cast of the Off-Broadway institution are Natalie Charle Ellis, Scott Richard Foster, Marcus Stevens and Jenny Lee Stern. I had the chance to chat with the latter, who is called upon to offer her versions of Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and an especially lively Judy Garland, among others, earlier this week. Stern spoke about her audition for Forbidden Broadway, the show's intense rehearsal process and her marriage to fellow actor Jeremy Kushnier, who returns to Broadway's Jersey Boys next month; that interview follows.

Question: How did Forbidden Broadway come about for you?
Jenny Lee Stern: I first had my taste of Forbidden Broadway [about] 12 or 13 years ago when I went in for a random audition. I auditioned and got called back and didn't really think much of it. And then had some friends go in and out of the show over the years and then a very close friend. So when it was coming around again, I was like, "Oh! Maybe I should try and get in on that," so I got an appointment and went in and did my thing.

Question: What is the audition process like? Do you have to do impersonations?
Jenny Lee Stern, as Patti LuPone, with Marcus Stevens
photo by Carol Rosegg
Stern: First of all, it's very last minute—not from lack of organization on their part, I don't believe—but sort of just to keep it really fresh. Literally, got the call the night before, and they wanted to hear the standard uptempo, ballad, classic musical theatre—the more classic, the better—to make sure everybody was a legit singer because the range in this show… it's obscene what we have to do vocally! [Laughs.] And then they had a list of names for the women and men to keep in mind of… "We're not necessarily looking for skilled impersonators, but if you have impersonations of these people or others, feel free to bring them in." … So you just sing your song, and then it's sort of like rapid-fire, machine-gun names [thrown] at you, and you're like, "Okay!"… "Sutton Foster. Kristin Chenoweth. Catherine Zeta-Jones. Judy Garland. Liza Minnelli. Patti LuPone." And, you give them a snippet. Now, I'm speaking for myself. That's what I did. There were definitely people that I heard in the room who had full charts written out of a medley that they do. And, that's not what I do, so I didn't do that… I'm more of an improv actor, so I just gave them little snippets, and I guess it worked!

Question: Had you ever done anything like this before, any impersonations?
Stern: I keep saying no, but then I think my dad would disagree with me, and he'd say that I'd been doing it since I was three years old. Everybody that we'd meet in the grocery store, like the checkout lady at the mall or your grandma or your aunt or the kids at school… I guess I've always just had a knack for mimicry and just have an ear for it, so I say, "Oh, gosh. I've never done impersonations before," but I guess it's the opposite. I'm sure I probably speak in my own voice only 30 percent of my life, and the rest is I'm putting on an act. [Laughs.] But this, this is a completely different skill. Even if I was an impersonator, you're mimicking someone's voice from a movie or a TV show or a recording… But in our case, with the parody lyrics, it changes the vowel sounds of the words, so it's a different skill… As opposed to doing a spot-on vocal mimicry, you're sort of looking for elements of that person that make that person who they are, whether it's a vibrato or a droopy eye or a facial expression or the way they hold their body. It's definitely a different skill than just pulling out Aunt Diane's one-liner or something like that.

Stern as Sutton Foster
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: Once you got the part, what was the rehearsal process like? I know there's a lot of material that doesn't make it to the final version. How much makes it? How much doesn't?
Stern: Well, I couldn't even give you a percentage. We had 50 previews before we opened, which is a lot. And, the show from performance one to opening night is completely different. And, the show within those 50 performances, I would say changed on the average of every three days. I always say that the audience is our sixth company member and probably the most important. We count on them to see what works. There's five of us on stage and then Gerard and [co-director] Phil [George] and the audience and the swings of course… Hearing the same jokes over and over, we're like, "I don't know. Is this funny? Is this funny? Is this funny?" And, we're like, "I guess we'll see tonight." So it's an insane process, but an incredibly rewarding process for an actor…and humbling and amazing because you do have a lot of control. You have a lot of input and you get to really be part of the creative process—even more than in a new scripted show that goes up. I don't know, it's like really all of our own blood, sweat and tears going into it, so when something hits, it's that feeling that, "Wow! I helped create that, and there's 199 people crying, you know, pooping-their-pants laughing right now." But the same is true when 199 people are staring back at you like you have a wee-wee growing out of your forehead. [Laughs.] What?! Egg dripping all down your face, and you're just praying for the blackout! It's harsh and the most amazing experience and can be the most devastating experience within 16 bars of the song. [Laughs.] So the process is unlike any other, but in the end—opening night—I'm confident that, yeah, we definitely have the best show possible. We talk all the time about, "Hey, remember Hugh Jackman? Hey, remember when Diane Paulus had a song?" [Laughs.] There's all kinds of hilarious things like that. It was not that long ago, but to us it seems insane that those things even happened…

Stern and Scott Richard Foster as Once stars Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: Was there any skit or song that you were sorry to see go?
Stern: Things go for different reasons. We did a Christian Borle number in the show. I actually wasn't even in it, a Peter and the Starcatcher number, and Marcus' impression of Christian in that show was spot on. Scott's impression of Smee was amazing. Natalie did this ridiculously brilliant Mary Martin as Peter Pan, and it just didn't land for whatever reason. I don't know if Christian Borle is not enough of a household name for people to relate to… So just because they were all so awesome in that, that was—I'm not sad, like I'm crying about it—but that was a bummer to see that go. But, please, nobody wants to be on stage [and have the number fail]. People always ask, "What's your favorite number to do in the show?" And, my answer is, "Whatever the audience's favorite number is that night!" That's how much they have to do with it. There's no fourth wall, and you're completely exposed. We might as well be up there just naked in wigs because it's us. Whatever they like, I like that night—that's my favorite number of the night.

Question: What are the impersonations or skits that you're proudest of?
Stern: That I do? Well, I'm completely and utterly flattered and blessed by what I get to do in the show. Also, that's the responsibility that's been put on me through these ridiculous divas that I get to impersonate and hope come an inkling close to what they can do. I mean, I do Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Judy Garland, and then I do Cristin Milioti from Once and Sutton Foster and Elena Roger. So it's a good kind of mix… I do Megan Hilty. I do Frankie Valli, so I have a great variety, but in the same sense, they're all sort of in the same vein of something that wouldn't be a ridiculous stretch for me… I worked extremely hard on the Judy Garland impression. It actually started out as a Tracie Bennett number. I had an amazing time doing that number, too, so that was also kind of sad when that didn't land because I was just completely obsessed with her in that show… As soon as I sat down, within the first two minutes of sitting in the audience watching End of the Rainbow, I was like, "Oh my God, I know exactly what I'm doing with this woman." And, I felt like it was totally spot on and totally true, and then we just ran into the problem again that not enough people had seen that play and not enough people know the name Tracie Bennett in everyday vernacular. So what it kind of looked like was I was doing Judy Garland on crack, which is sort of what [Bennett] was doing, but then I was taking it to the next level, so it was kind of becoming a copy of a copy of a copy, but I did love doing her. So now the number is Judy Garland speaking to Tracie Bennett and then kind of Judy Garland doing little tidbits of Tracie. It sounds more confusing, but it actually works better because what people want to see, ultimately, is Judy Garland and not be confused. So I lived and breathed, streamlined Judy into my veins via my iPhone for weeks just trying to get the timbre of her voice and watched tons of videos and stuff. I'm proud that that process is over and now I can live her, and she's been getting good reception so that makes me happy.

Marcus Stevens and Jenny Lee Stern as Che and Eva.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: How demanding is the show?
Stern: You know what, I have to be honest. This is by far the most demanding show I've ever done. I think it's obvious that we work hard, but you know, when you really break it down, it's a lot. A normal book show for any character, no matter how difficult the role is, Eva Peron, Christine in Phantom, Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar… There's a natural arc to the score, you know, in a brilliant score like that, and you're sort of singing in the same cut of meat, so to speak, of your voice. But here, even though it's kind of balanced that Natalie sings more of the legit-soprano stuff and I sing more of the alto-belt stuff, you're manipulating your voice in so many different ways—and, in essence you're singing every single person's 11 o'clock number! Sometimes we're sitting back and doing backup or whatever, but whenever you're offstage, you're rapidly changing—wigs, lipstick, shoes, costumes, underwear—and there's not even a lot of time to get into it, so you just have to be ready for everything. That's been a challenge. And, rehearsals, we were rehearsing every day during previews. I have to say, it does definitely take its toll, so you have to stay really focused and hydrated. We have so much fun, so it takes a lot of the pressure off of it. I think people, just my opinion, in this business, vocal problems and that kind of stuff comes from stress. It comes from you're in this position, "Holy sh*t, I'm playing Eva Peron… I'm playing whoever," and it goes straight to your throat. We also have the luxury of hiding behind the veil of [some known actor], and be like, "That's not me. That's what she sounds like." [Laughs.] You take that pressure off [by] the fact that people come to our show to laugh and have a good time. If I'm like a quarter under pitch or something, if someone's going to get upset about it, I'm certainly not going to get upset about that. If somebody's going to roll their eyes and walk out over that, well then they're at the wrong show. And, that's just for me. I mean, our cast has brilliant voices, and most of the nights, I bow to their musicianship because I'll always take an armpit fart over like a perfect vibrato! [Laughs.] That's just my point of view, but you know, just the fact that we're having so much fun makes it so much more relaxing so there's not the stress of like, "Oh my God, I can't have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine…" It's demanding, and we do our best.

Stern as "Mary Delgado" in Jersey Boys.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Gerard.
Stern: Of the cast, I am known as "The Gerard Whisperer" because I just love Gerard. [Laughs.] He has this style that is all his own, and you can take it or leave it, and honestly, I'll take it! I think he's brilliant. I mean, I think he's a genius. There's a lot more that goes into this level of parody writing than just, "Grandma got run over by a reindeer… Jingle bells, Batman smells…" It's a totally different animal. He puts so much work into it. He's so specific, and that's like me. Maybe that's why I can relate… I'm a perfectionist. I want it to be right, and he wants it to be right, and he's been at this for so many years, and he's got this reputation to uphold, so I'll take him as he is—quirky and otherwise. I just think he's an amazing talent, he's a great supporter, he's been very supportive of me personally in this show, and I think at the end of the day, you're like, "Really? You want me to say what?" And, dang it! He always seems to be right. The lines that he throws out! "Gerard, I'm not saying, 'I'm a turkey who's basting'," and then it gets a huge laugh in the show, so you never know. He's just a big teddy bear. He's very warm, and I've had the privilege of doing some one-on-one press events with him, and he's very eloquent. I'm just really honored to be working with him and in this production in general. It's very humbling.

Question: You've done productions in Chicago, Toronto, national tours, but you haven't been on Broadway yet…
Stern: I have not been on the real Broadway yet, no.

A pregnant Stern backstage at Jersey Boys.

Question: Is that a goal?
Stern: I think it's everyone's goal. I think the business has changed a bit over the past ten years, so to open an original company—I mean, I'll speak for myself—of Jersey Boys in Chicago or in Toronto, it really is the same thing, level wise. But there is this thing in the back of your butt where you're like, "But it isn't!" … You have this dream since you're a little girl: "I'm going to be on Broadway." So, of course, it's a goal, but your goals are more specific now. I don't want to be on Broadway just to be on Broadway. You want it to be the right thing. It's really cool to do a show like this because people have so much respect for it and love it so much, and it's in the city. Broadway's definitely a goal, for sure, and it will happen, and I'll make it happen, but far beyond that… I always say my ultimate plan is: "Get a reality show, get a book deal, 'Dancing With the Stars,' Mirror Ball Trophy, Roxie Hart on Broadway, name above the title on Broadway, Tony, Emmy, Academy Award, death."

Question: Well, that's not asking too much!
Stern: [Laughs.] I think it's a pretty solid plan!

Question: You also have two children…
Stern: I do. I have two daughters—a three-year-old and an 18-month-old.

Question: What are their names?
Stern: My three-year-old is Nora, and my 18-month-old, her name is Penelope, but we call her Patsy or Pat.

Question: How has it been combining motherhood and doing eight shows a week?
Stern: I mean, I'm not going to lie to you, it's definitely a challenge in [getting enough] rest, the sleep-in-silence department, when your voice is not 100 percent. But the way that it worked out between my husband and I, it's divine intervention. He just did Superstar, and then that closed literally the same week that we started rehearsals. And now, I've gotten through this whole process, and now he's going back into Jersey Boys here on Broadway as Tommy DeVito Oct. 9, so it's been perfect. Now I'm in performance, and we have my mom to come up, and she stays for a couple days a week, and we have two amazing nannies that swap off. You just get it done like anybody else does in any other business. Our hours are just at night instead of 9-5.

Stern and Jeremy Kushnier at opening night of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Question: Do you think it's helpful being married to an actor, someone who knows what the ups and downs are like?
Stern: I honestly couldn't imagine it any other way, unless I was married to a billionaire and then I can just buy some friends to talk to about it! [Laughs.] There's no way that anybody else could really understand what you're going through. In this business, everything is so heightened. Everything is life or death from like, "My wig fell off" to "Oh my God, my voice!" Sometimes it's nice to have people in the real world to bring things into perspective, like, "Look"—and I say this all the time, too, especially during talkbacks because people are like, "How do you do it eight times a week?" I'm like, "How do I do it? How does a pediatric cardiologist do it?" I want to know how those people do it… How do firefighters do it? What are we doing? We're putting on wigs and costumes, and I'm essentially making funny faces for a living. In that moment, it's life or death, and that's all there is to it. Yeah, it's really nice to have somebody who is going through it and can relate to that. And, also, I think we're both grounded, especially now that we're parents—you sort of have to be—so that we can bring each other back to reality. But he's just been the most amazing support system and is always trying to look out for me… I just had "my time," finally, for three months after being pregnant essentially for two-and-a-half years straight. And, we were on the road with Next to Normal with a three-week-old baby. We've been through it, so now that we're back and settled in the city, we're just figuring it out day by day. We can't go even by contract to contract. It's like, "Okay. We're going to wake up, we're going to get these kids fed and keep them out of traffic, get to a show by half-hour and then take it from there."

[Tickets are $29-$79 with premium tickets available for $110. Tickets can be purchased by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or by visiting telecharge.com. For more information visit     forbiddenbroadway.com.]

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