DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Chaplin Star Jenn Colella

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Chaplin Star Jenn Colella
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Jenn Colella
Jenn Colella

Jenn Colella
It's been an especially busy season for singing actress Jenn Colella, who has originated roles in musicals both on Broadway (Urban Cowboy and High Fidelity) and off (Lucky Guy and Slut). The Broadway belter was recently seen in the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway revival of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's Closer Than Ever, which is still packing 'em in at the York Theatre Company, and she just opened in the brand-new biographical musical Chaplin at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Colella, whose regional credits are numerous, plays the musical's villainess, the late gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who launches a campaign to disgrace and discredit filmmaker-actor Charlie Chaplin (the wonderfully touching Rob McClure). The charmingly down-to-earth and articulate Colella, who gets to demonstrate the power and range of her crystal-clear alto in the second-act show-stopper, "All Falls Down," recently spoke to me about her latest roles on and Off-Broadway as well as her work around the country and in various workshops; that brief chat follows.

Question: Before we get to Chaplin, I wanted to go back to Closer Than Ever and get your thoughts about what it was like performing Maltby and Shire songs at the York.
Jenn Colella: Sure. It was extraordinary. It felt really good to be able to trust and luxuriate in music that's already tried and true. I've had the good fortune of originating a lot of roles in new musicals, which is incredible, but when you have something that you already know works by a team of artists like those two, who've been around for a while, it just feels good to be able to sing and not feel like you have to lift it up or make it something else.

Question: Did you have a favorite of the songs you got to do?
Colella: I really enjoyed doing "Miss Byrd." Obviously, "Miss Byrd" was super fun just because it's fun to show my comic chops, and "Back on Base" was incredible because I was terrified of scatting, so I had to overcome some fears to make that work, and I liked the challenge of that.

Jenn Colella and Danny Weller in Closer Than Ever.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: What was it like singing without amplification? What were the challenges or rewards of that?
Colella: Initially, I think we were all a little dubious about whether or not we would be able to maintain that through the run, but then you do. We are trained—we're all trained actors and singers. You get used to it, you strengthen that muscle, and you trust if you articulate and support… We go back old-school—the way Ethel [Merman] used to do it! [Laughs.] You know what I mean? That's totally fine. Just trust yourself and do it. I think we get so used to amplification and whispering in the sound guy's ear, "Hey, ride my mic a little today…" [Laughs.] We didn't have that option, and it was kind of lovely to just go back to the basics and learn how to trust your instrument again.

Question: Tell me, how did Chaplin come about?
Colella: I've been involved with Chaplin for a couple of years now. I did the La Jolla production and was a part of that and had a wonderful time. And, I just did the lab that they did last year, so I've been with it for a long time, and then fortunate enough to get the offer for the Broadway show. Question: How familiar were you with Chaplin or with Hedda Hopper before all this?
Colella: With Hedda Hopper, not at all. Chaplin, I obviously had seen a couple of his movies. I had seen "The Kid," and I had seen "City Lights" and "The Circus." And, one of the cool things that we did in La Jolla was the first week, we sat and watched all of the Chaplin films—together—so that we could all celebrate him together. It was really incredible to be reminded, as an adult, what a genius he is and the kind of comic icon that he is and how, because he was a silent comedian, it just reached across all language barriers. I imagine, "Oh my God, this is universal." He's making people laugh throughout the world because he's so fearless and so intelligent and just uses his physical comedy to express something. Also, what I had forgotten as a kid or wasn't able to really articulate until I saw his films again as an adult was how heartbreaking, how incredibly poignant, a lot of his films are, and how beautiful he can be and vulnerable. That was such a beautiful thing to re-realize.

Colella in Chaplin.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Since you weren't familiar with Hedda at all, what kind of research did you do or how did you go about approaching the part?
Colella: Well, I just got my hands on as many books as I could. There's a wonderful biography by Jennifer Frost called "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood." There's another great book called "Hedda and Louella." It's a biography of those two women. Louella Parsons was her big rival. And then Hedda's book, "From Under My Hat," has been a tremendous piece of source material for me as well. And then I tried to find as many things as I could on YouTube to get her voice and really get the feeling of her radio personality as well.

Question: How would you describe the Hedda that you're playing?
Colella: [Laughs.] You know, it's so fascinating because I've never been the villain… I'm having to fight and embrace the "twirly-mustache" aspect of it because there has to be some. I mean, there's no doubt. She's the villain, and there are some lines that are purely "twirly mustache," and it calls for it, and you just have to embrace it. But I'm also really trying to find some humanness in her and some vulnerability and really understand where she is coming from, rather than just being vindictive and shallow. She had morals and values that she deeply believed in, and I wanted to get a better understanding of what those were and what exactly she was fighting for, so that I wasn't just "twirly-mustaching" all over the stage.

Question: Since you've been involved in different productions of Chaplin, how much has the show changed or how much has your character changed throughout?
Colella: The show has changed tremendously. When I first started in La Jolla, they had like half of a second act, and Hedda is mostly the second act. So it's grown a lot, and I've been very fortunate to be a part of that growth. And, watching [director-choreographer] Warren Carlyle and [composer-co-librettist] Chris Curtis and then [co-librettist] Tom Meehan coming in, and [music director-arranger] Bryan Perri, especially with the music. They've created it together, and I've been with them through most of that process.

Colella at opening night curtain call
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Tell me about sharing the stage with Rob McClure.
Colella: Oh, man! It's incredible. It's definitely a tour-de-force performance. What he is doing is mind-blowing. If, for no other reason, I think people should come and see this particular performance that he is offering. It's incredible. And, not just the way he embodies the Tramp, the character—that's genius, yes—but he is making this a three-dimensional person and sharing so much of himself in this role. It's exquisite what he's doing, but offstage Rob is also such a tremendous leader. He has worked harder than anybody else, but he continues to show this gratitude for being where he is at all times...and this graciousness. And, his sense of play is completely infectious. He is one of the best leaders I've ever worked with.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for yourself in the show, something that you look forward to?
Colella: I enjoy my big number in the second act, mostly because that's the most amount of stage time that I get with Rob. And, that, to me, feels like I'm right in the pocket. Every night that music starts, and I get a feeling of being in the flow state—like athletes feel like they're in the zone—I sink in, I look into his eyes, and I feel like I was born to be right here in this moment. Question: Sometimes when you play a villain, reception at curtain call can be an odd experience. What's that been like?
Colella: [Laughs.] You know, they've been super sweet. Because I'm belting my face off, there's a big cheer for me, which feels lovely. Every once and a while, there's some boos interspersed, which also is incredible that this means I'm doing my job. It's pretty cool!

Question: Is there any talk about a cast recording at this point?
Colella: We haven't had any talk of that, but I really hope that they're able to preserve Chris Curtis' music. I think it's beautiful, and I'm really proud of what Bryan Perri has done with it as well. And, the orchestrations that Larry [Hochman] has done…We only have, what, ten pieces? And, it sounds like this huge full orchestra. I really hope that that's in the works.

Colella and Will Chase in High Fidelity.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I know you've done Broadway and a lot regionally. I wonder if there's any theatrical experience that stands out for you when you look back at your career so far.
Colella: You know, it's interesting, they all do in certain ways. Urban Cowboy was such a special time because it was my Broadway debut, and it was Matt Cavenaugh's Broadway debut, and that's where I met Lonny Price, who is one of my dearest friends today. We loved each other. And, Jason Robert Brown, who's also one of my dearest friends. Tom Kitt, I met him. These are men who have since written songs for me. And, it was my introduction to New York. I think High Fidelity was also a joy, but out of New York, doing Peter Pan and Annie Get Your Gun and shows like that where, again, it just feels like the role fits me perfectly. Those are pretty special roles that will never leave me.

Question: I know you are also a part of a lot of workshops. Is there any musical you've been a part of that you're surprised hasn't gotten to Broadway yet or you feel really deserves to get here?
Colella: So many of them! I'm the queen of workshops, man! [Laughs.] Which is one of the best parts of living in New York—it's such fertile ground. There's always something new happening, and again, I feel deeply honored that these composers and writers trust me with their new material and continue to do so. Yeah, there are a lot of things that I'm still waiting [to get to the stage]. Piece of My Heart is this Bert Berns musical that's really tremendous, and I've got another workshop of that coming up. I have a lot of hope for that. Kiki Baby that I did at the NYMF last year that Lonny Price wrote. We're still gaining momentum with that and really hope that that gets on the stage. And then I'm also working on a new piece with Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt that will have another workshop of that in November. That's an incredibly special piece that I'm really excited to do.

Question: How do you find doing eights shows a week? How do you manage the rest of your life so you're able to do?
Colella: It's one show at a time, man. If you're like, "Oh, I've got six more," then you're screwed. I have to take it just one scene at a time, but certainly one show at a time, pretend like it's the last time I'll ever perform and get enough rest and food before the next one and say, "No, this is the next one." [Laughs.]

Question: What do you do on your day off? Is there anything special that you do for yourself to reenergize?
Colella: I try to get plenty of sleep. Like yesterday, I spent the entire day in Central Park, which I call my backyard because I live pretty close. If it's nice outside, you will find me doing some yoga in Sheep Meadow. I'm there a lot of the time.

[The Barrymore Theatre is located at 243 W. 47th Street. Tickets, which range in price from $66.50 to $135.50, can be purchased through Telecharge or by calling (212) 239-6200. Visit ChaplinBroadway.com.] Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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