DIVA TALK: A Chat with Wicked's Jennifer Laura Thompson Plus Kristin Chenoweth Soars at Carnegie Hall

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Wicked's Jennifer Laura Thompson Plus Kristin Chenoweth Soars at Carnegie Hall
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Jennifer Laura Thompson in Wicked
Jennifer Laura Thompson in Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus

For her performance as Hope Cladwell in the hit musical Urinetown, Jennifer Laura Thompson received a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. She followed that acclaimed performance with the demanding lead role in Michael John LaChiusa's Off-Broadway musical Little Fish. Thompson is now combining two other roles: the comical Glinda in the hit musical Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre and new mother to eight-month-old baby boy Tommy. I recently had the chance to chat with the talented Thompson, who is in the midst of determining how to juggle these two challenging roles.

Question: How is your run going so far in Wicked?
Jennifer Laura Thompson: Oh, it's great. It's amazing and wonderful, and I'm exhausted. [Laughs.]

Q: And you have a new baby?
JLT: Yes, he's eight months old. He just started teething, so he's wearing me out. [Laughs.]

Q: Has it been difficult combining both the show and being a new mom?
JLT: It's really tough. I said when I was going to do this that I have to remember to take it one day at a time, so I don't get overwhelmed. Last night, honestly, I started to feel overwhelmed, and I had to kick myself and say, "No, I knew it would be rough. You'll have good days and bad days."

Q: Does the baby come to the theatre with you?
JLT: He comes in between shows occasionally, but I'm still trying to work out how to do that and get a nap and send him home. I haven't figured it out yet. Q: Is your husband in the business?
JLT: No, he brings [Tommy] to the theatre on Saturdays. He's a regular work-week person.

Q: What was the audition process like for Wicked?
JLT: The initial audition was your basic "learn a couple of scenes and one of the songs" — "Popular" and a tidbit from the opening, "No One Mourns" — I think they wanted to hear some soprano and make sure that [part of my range] was there. And, then there was a long waiting period, where they were trying to work out scheduling the next step, which was going to be my blending session with Idina [Menzel]. It didn't happen for, I think, at least a month. I almost started to think, "Okay, I'm going to let this go because it's just not going to work out for whatever reason." And, then, finally, just before the Tonys, Idina came in — and she was exhausted from all the promotions and Tony [events] — and they wanted me to blend with her. She was just so tired. [She said], "I don't think I can sing full out," and I thought, "Oh no, all you're gonna hear is me singing solo!" [Laughs.]

Q: Were you singing "For Good"?
JLT: I was — I learned that song and the last scene.

Q: And when did you learn that you had won the part?
JLT: I think it was that day. When I went home, my agent called and said, "I have wonderful news." It's funny because I have a picture of me that day, coincidentally, not long after I found out. I was holding Tommy. I tried to "Galindify" myself for the audition, so I'm now looking at my picture thinking, "Oh my God, that was the day!"

Q: Were you excited about getting cast?
JLT: I was. I was also terrified. [Laughs.]

Q: That was actually my next question. Kristin Chenoweth had received such raves for the role. Was the prospect of replacing her daunting?
JLT: Absolutely, but I think I somehow remained in a pleasant state of denial. I wasn't going to face up to the magnitude of what I was doing. I was just going to attempt it. It actually all sort of hit me after my very first performance, and I was so wiped out, and then I thought, "What have I done?" Because you could just be shooting yourself in the foot in this kind of a situation. [Kristin] was so brilliant in the role. All I could do was approach it with what I thought the role lent itself to, who I thought Glinda was.

Q: How do you approach the character?
JLT: It's hard for me to define exactly what the differences are. I've never verbalized it really. I never said, "I'm going to do it this way." I think the result has been [that] I'm a little bit goofy, a little less polished. And I think that's probably Jennifer Laura Thompson creeping into the role because I'm not a beauty pageant queen, nor do I twirl a baton, but I'm attempting [to], and I'm going to believe I am that person.

Q: Had you ever replaced in a show before? How much rehearsal time did you get?
JLT: No, this was my first [time]. They had offered a month, which I think was a nice, substantial amount of time, and, unfortunately, I had a trip that was already planned, so I had to do it in three weeks. So, it was really quick. And that, once again, was me trying not to get overwhelmed. The first week is the first act, the second week is the second act, and the third week is putting it all together.

Q: Were you watching the show while you were rehearsing?
JLT: Well, I didn't have as much opportunity to watch it as [I would have] if I didn't have a child. I probably would have been there three or four times a week at least. As it was, I only got to see it once a week in addition to the rehearsals. I think maybe that was good because, like I said, Kristin was so good at what she was doing, and she got such great laughs. If I had seen it more, I might have latched on to her mannerisms more, so maybe it was an advantage not to see it so much.

Q: It must be a great show to be in. The audience response is so . . .
JLT: Amazing! That's what gets me through when I'm exhausted. It's wonderful to make people laugh — it sort of energizes you. If it was a dark show, I think I'd be a wreck. [Laughs.]

Q: It feels like a rock concert at some points in the show.
JLT: It really does, especially for Idina. I think I'm still trying to win over audiences, but for her people are there specifically to see her from the start. Her first entrance, her first song is like "aaaaaahhhhh," crazy screaming. It's just amazing!

Q: I don't know too much about your background. Where were you born and raised, and when did you realize that performing would be your career?
JLT: In Michigan. I think somewhere in high school I chose the University of Michigan's program. That was the direction I wanted to go in. I didn't really even consider other schools. I don't think I actually thought about so far in the future at that point. I think it just sort of all fell into place, and when I did graduate, I was ready to come to New York and just took a chance, and that's what I did, and I'm still here. [Laughs.]

Q: Was your interest always in musicals? What were some of the shows you did in high school and college?
JLT: Yeah, it was. One of my favorites was Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. I love that show; I love dark shows. I did Into the Woods in which I played a Stepsister. I did a couple of plays in one of their smaller theatres. I did Reckless, which I loved.

Q: Were there any performers who inspired you or singers you admired?
JLT: It's funny because I've never been a fan of a specific performer. I have voices that I've always liked. But when I first visited New York, I think I was 16, I saw my first Broadway show. I was in admiration of the second chorus girl on the left. I said, at that point, "I'd give anything to do what she's doing, and she must be so proud."

Q: What was the show?
JLT: It was The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And I remember it was just so amazing, and [the performer] must be so proud. In reality, she was probably like, "Oh my God, I can't wait for 11 o'clock." [Laughs.]

Q: You mentioned there were some voices you liked. . .
JLT: I'm trying to think of who I listened to. Some of my current favorite voices — Idina has always been a favorite. I love her voice. Alice Ripley's voice. Back then I was listening to Mystery of Edwin Drood, Betty Buckley. These were all people that I thought I could never aspire to be as incredible as they are. I always viewed them on some sort of pedestal.

Q: Are you involved in any other projects or workshops?
JLT: No, this is the first time that the most important project outside of my work and above and beyond my work is my son. I've turned down anything and everything that came my way. I just don't think I could possibly do it.

Q: How long are you contracted with Wicked?
JLT: Through April.

Q: Do you think you will extend?
JLT: I don't know. It depends on if they're interested, and it depends if I'm still standing. [Laughs.] KRISTIN CHENOWETH at CARNEGIE HALL
Kristin Chenoweth, wearing a light-pink gown and a smile that could light up Times Square, walked on to the Carnegie Hall stage last Friday night to a thunderous applause that gave way to a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd. The Tony Award winner, fresh from her Tony-nominated turn as Glinda in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, opened her solo evening with "A Girl Like Me," a specialty number penned by the evening's musical director and pianist, Andrew Lippa. The song, which jokingly asked, "What's a [country] girl like me doing in Carnegie Hall," can easily be answered — pure talent.

With a voice that easily glides from Broadway belt to soaring soprano, Chenoweth — backed by a 13-piece orchestra — delighted the crowd with an evening that featured classic tunes as well as works by 14 living songwriters. "I don't want to forget anything about this night," Chenoweth quipped, as she fetched a Polaroid camera and aimed it at the adoring crowd. "Okay, now where are the stars?" she then asked, before pointing the instant camera at a row that included theatre supporters Rosie O'Donnell and Alec Baldwin. "And, I almost forgot the most important person," Chenoweth said, before turning the camera around and aiming the lens at herself. A roar of laughter followed; in fact, the performer, who is arguably the most gifted comedic musical-theatre singer-actress of her generation, drew laughs from most everything she said during the two-hour evening.

Paul Loesel and Scott Burkell's "Parsley" and Bobby Troup's "Daddy" followed Chenoweth's opening, and she was joined by two skilled Broadway dancers, Seán Martin Hingston and David Elder, for the latter. "Bill," "Why Was I Born?" and "Nobody Else But Me" comprised a gorgeous Jerome Kern medley that demonstrated how much Chenoweth has grown as a lyric interpreter in the past few years. There is now an equal amount of depth to go along with her beautiful vocal tones. Richard Dworksky's comical "Going to the Dance with You" — again featuring the nimble-footed Hingston and Elder — preceded Jodi Marr and Peter Zizzo's ballad, simply titled "Boy."

The highlight of the evening's first half followed: Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich's "Taylor [the Latte Boy]." As many times as I've heard it, I'm always moved by the warmth and joy that the song encompasses, and Chenoweth's rendition may be definitive. She knows when to go for the comedy, and she also knows when to pull back and let the lyric speak for itself. She closed the first half of the night with a rousing, well-acted version of the Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green tongue-twister, "If."

The second act, which began with another Lippa tune, "Spread a Little Joy" — from his forthcoming Betty Boop musical — had its share of highlights as well. Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan's "14G" allowed Chenoweth to display the incredible range and agility of her voice as she detailed the plight of an apartment dweller sandwiched between an opera singer (in 13G) and a jazz singer (15G). With tongue firmly planted in cheek, she dedicated her show-stopping rendition of Wicked's "Popular" to Nicole Kidman (her co-star in the upcoming "Bewitched" film), who has "all that excess height." Diane Warren's touching "Borrowed Angels" preceded Jonatha Brooke's "Fatso," and Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," dedicated to the third anniversary of September 11, concluded the evening and brought the crowd, once again, to its feet. The audience would not let Chenoweth leave; they brought her back for three encores: a brilliant "Glitter and Be Gay"; the self penned "A Ride Home" lovingly dedicated to her dad, who was in attendance; and a slowed-down take on The Music Man's "'Till There Was You."

Speaking of Kristin Chenoweth, the Tony winner was the one star announced for the upcoming City Center Encores! season. Chenoweth will head the cast of The Apple Tree, the final offering of the Encores! 2005 season, playing May 12-16. The other two slots will be filled by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, (Feb. 10-13) and Purlie (March 31-April 3).

Complete casting was announced earlier this week for the new Disney musical On the Record, which kicks off its national tour Nov. 9 at Cleveland's Palace Theatre. Side Show alum Emily Skinner and The Sound of Music's Brian Sutherland will head the cast of the musical, which features 60 tunes from the Disney catalogue of songs. Skinner will play Diane, the celebrated recording star, and Sutherland will play Julian, the "forty-ish matinee idol." The company will also include Ashley Brown as Kristen, the fresh-faced newcomer, and Andrew Samonsky as Nick, another up-and-coming performer, with Tony Award winner Richard Easton as the voice of the Sound Engineer. The cast will also include Meredith Inglesby, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, Keewa Nurullah, Josh Franklin, Leigh Ann Larkin, Koh Mochizuki and Lyn Philistine.

And, finally, Dixie Carter, the "Designing Women" star most recently on Broadway in Thoroughly Modern Millie, kicks off the Café Carlyle's 50th anniversary season tonight, Sept. 17. Carter, backed by musical director and long-time friend John Wallowitch on piano, will play three weeks at the intimate cabaret on Manhattan's East Side. The singer actress will offer tunes by Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Wallowitch through Oct. 9. Call (212) 744-1600 for reservations or visit www.thecarlyle.com.

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

(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)

Kristin Chenoweth wows 'em at Carnegie Hall
Kristin Chenoweth wows 'em at Carnegie Hall
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