Actress Jennifer Damiano, who made her Broadway debut while in high school in the rock musical Spring Awakening, has already accumulated an impressive array of credits. In addition to the Tony-winning Awakening, the young artist earned a Tony nomination for creating the role of Natalie in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal and later originated the part of Mary Jane Watson in one of the most-written about shows in Broadway history, the high-flying spectacle Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Now, the New York native has turned her attention to the new Off-Broadway musical Venice, which is currently in previews at The Public Theater. The Public Lab production of Matt Sax, Eric Rosen and Curtis Moore's musical, which is also directed by Rosen, casts Damiano as Willow Flower opposite the Markos Monroe of Leslie Odom, Jr. and the Venice Monroe of Haaz Sleiman. Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with the gifted actress, who spoke about her recent and current projects; that interview follows.
Question: Although we've spoken before, I've never asked where you born and raised…
Jennifer Damiano: I was born in Westchester, NY. I grew up around the Rye Brook area, and then I moved to White Plains with my family.
Question: How old were you when you started performing?
Damiano: I think I started performing when I was about nine years old.
Question: When you were growing up, were there any actors or singers who influenced you?
Damiano: I was pretty new to the Broadway world once I began working in it. I hadn’t really grown up being too aware of that many shows or that many actors in shows. I was always obsessed with Judy Garland though. Obviously, I watched "The Wizard of Oz" all the time, and I wanted to be her. [Laughs.]
Question: When do you think performing changed from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
Damiano: I think it probably changed during Spring Awakening. It was hard because at that point I was in tenth grade, so it still kind of felt like a hobby. But once I got out of high school and was doing Next to Normal, I realized that that was what I was supposed to be doing. Working during high school, no matter what, kind of makes you feel like it’s an after-school activity. I mean, it never really was that, but that only became clear after I was completely finished with school and kind of realized that this was it. Question: Last time we spoke, you were in previews for Spider-Man with all the news swirling around. Looking back at the whole experience, what do you remember most from being a part of that production?
Damiano: There's no learning experience like that! [Laughs.] I think I remember most the feeling of enduring, and performing becoming about more than performing…becoming about courage and strength and bravery and mostly just the internal struggles that you go through in a process like that and how you overcome that and how we all did that together.
Question: Do you think all of what was happening in and around the show drew the cast closer in a way?
Damiano: Yeah, I think that I’ll never have another experience like that. I think we can all say that. [Laughs.] But I believe we kind of collectively came together as these kind of warriors of our own craft. It was like a collective – like we were all running a marathon together. It felt like some sort of athletic feat that we all pulled off together, and I just remember most that feeling.
|Photo by Jacob Cohl|
Damiano: I got involved with Venice through my manager—you know, normally how one gets involved with a project. [Laughs.] It was a pretty fast process. And, it’s already going by so fast.
Question: Had you been involved with any of the other workshops of the musical?
Damiano. No, I wasn't involved with any of the workshops. This is my first time, but it’s cool to have a bunch of people in the cast that have already done it before and then a few new people.
Question: Without giving too much away, can you talk a little bit about the plot?
Damiano: I think for the most part it’s a love story about two younger people that have to grow up too fast in order to help the world and their community. Two people that come together under the impression that their being together will be a good thing for their country.
Question: Tell me about the character you’re playing?
Damiano: I’m playing Willow. She is a young girl who has had to grow up a little too fast. She’s been through a lot of loss, but she’s really strong and she resembles a symbol of hope and strength throughout the entire show. She’s a little older than the characters I’ve played in the past, so that's kind of cool to grow up a little bit and play someone a little older. I don’t know what else to say without saying what happens! [Laughs.]
Question: What’s the score like?
Damiano: The score is incredible. Matt Sax has done something really unique, and with the help of Eric Rosen, our director, it’s become something that I think will really make an impression on people. You can kind of usually tell when it’s going to be something or it might not be. But it feels like it will really resonate, especially with younger crowds, which I think is so important—especially younger crowds that aren’t that aware of musical theatre or that up to date with it. This is a cool segue into it through the things they are already listening to, more of that rap and rock world. I love the way the score invites everyone in. Question Tell me a bit about working with Eric Rosen, who not only wrote the lyrics [and book] but is also directing the show.
Damiano: He’s so great. He is so kind and works with you. He lets me really have ideas and use them. It feels very much like a partnership between actor and director, which is not always how it feels. It’s been so great with him. He does a really, really great job and has never done anything that I could possibly be upset about.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Damiano: Yes, absolutely I feel that way. I know a lot of kids grow up in the business, whether it’s from the time you’re literally a baby to around your teens. But growing up on the stage is a little bit different. The schedule is a little bit different. It’s kind of a rare place to go through some of your teenage years in, but when I look back, I think it’s kind of exactly how I think it was supposed to happen for me, but it’s hard when you have to save your voice and all your friends are going out. I know a lot of younger kids at work deal with that, so it’s hard, but I know how to take my time and kind of have a second to myself because I know that’s really important. After Spider-Man I had time before treading back into the business with Venice. I think the concept of growing up too fast these days is so subjective, but obviously I wouldn’t have had it any other way than having grown up doing these shows and working with these amazing people.
Question: You’ve really gotten to be part of not only high-profile productions, but groundbreaking work like Next to Normal.
Damiano: It’s crazy because when I was doing Next to Normal at Second Stage, no one really knew what would happen. What I love about Venice is that it is just like a lot of those shows, completely original and completely unique. And it's new, so new, and we need new musicals, really different ones that can resonate with people, especially young people, in the way that Spring Awakening and Next to Normal did. I think I’ve been really lucky to be a part of things that have been able to move people so greatly.
Question: I wonder if you’ve given any thought to putting out your own solo recording.
Damiano: I’ve thought about that — I think everybody thinks about that. In the past it’s been that I’ve just been busy doing shows, and I want to be able to focus [on a recording]. But now that I have some time to think about it, it’s kind of crazy that I haven’t! I really should. It’s possible that I will—I just want to make sure it’s the right kind of music and right kind of thing that I would feel good about putting out to the world. I’d have to think pretty hard about it, but it’s definitely a possibility in my future.
Question: What kind of music do you gravitate towards? If you were to sing non-theatre music or give a concert, what kind of music would you like to perform?
Damiano: I listen to a lot of Indie or rock music. Female artists I love the most are Fiona Apple, Paramour and Regina Spektor—those girls that really write amazing songs themselves, and they’re younger and cool. I’m not quite sure I could ever write songs like any of them, but if I could, I would. [Laughs.] I think the normal [artists]… I don’t listen to anything that unusual.
Question: Do you have other projects in the works or are you just focusing on Venice at the moment?
Damiano: I’m just focusing on Venice. You never know what can happen at any second. It’s definitely worth my time, and being at The Public is an amazing experience. I’ve never worked there before, and I’m just so excited. I hope everyone is as excited as I am! [For tickets phone (212) 967-7555 or visit PublicTheater. The Public Theater is located at 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTO ARCHIVE: Spring Awakening's Broadway Opening Night