DIVA TALK: Chatting with Modern Orthodox and Silence! The Musical Star Jenn Harris

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Modern Orthodox and Silence! The Musical Star Jenn Harris
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Jenn Harris
Jenn Harris Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein

Jenn Harris begins performances June 24 in Silence! The Musical — the "unauthorized parody of 'The Silence of the Lambs'" — at Off-Broadway's Theater 80. Harris, who is best known for her Lucille Lortel and Theatre World award-winning performance in Modern Orthodox, portrays Clarice Starling — the role created on film by Academy Award winner Jodie Foster — in the limited engagement that features direction and choreography Christopher Gattelli. Joining Harris on stage in the new musical by Hunter Bell and Jon and Al Kaplan are Brent Barrett, Callan Bergmann, Stephen Bienskie, Harry Bouvy, Ashlee Dupre, Deidre Goodwin, Jeff Hiller, Howard Kayeand Lucia Spina. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of chatting with the humorous actress, whose stage credits also include New Jerusalem, Mercy on the Doorstep, Ashley Montana, Pageant Play and The Heidi Chronicles; that brief interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, can you tell me where you were born and raised?
Harris: I was born and raised just outside of Chicago in a town called Plano, Illinois—just plain-o, Illinois.

Question: How old were you when you started performing?
Harris: I've always performed! My sister used to like to film me [when I was] on a mini-trampoline, and I would re-create music videos. That's my earliest memory of me performing was my sister videoing me bouncing on a trampoline to "Like a Virgin" when I was like six… But, the first time I ever did a show was my junior year in high school.

Question: What show was that?
Harris: I got Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

Question: That's pretty good!
Harris: I went to an all-girls Catholic college-prep high school, and I was going to go to college for medicine, and then I did that show, and I was like, "Oh my God! This is fun!" My parents actually were the ones who suggested I try going to college for theatre instead of med school. My father said, "You should try theatre school," so I was like, "Okay!" Question: Where did you end up going?
Harris: I went to Boston University.

Question: When did you get to New York?
Harris: Right after I graduated. I graduated BU in 2000, and then I went to Williamstown Theatre Festival. I got in to the Act One Company and I did that, and then I moved to New York right after that summer. But I spent three summers in Williamstown. I did Act One, and then I did two summers in their non-equity company, and then I turned equity up there. So Williamstown was sort of like my grad school.

Question: What was your first professional job in New York?
Harris: Well, my first professional-professional job—I mean, we had a theatre company and did a bunch of stuff—but my first thing I did was Jeff Whitty's Plank Project at the Kraine Theatre—maybe 2001 or '02, I'm not even sure—and it was the same time that Avenue Q was being done at the Vineyard. He would come from a meeting with Jim Henson over to the Kraine Theatre, and that was my first show—The Plank Project—where I actually got a paycheck, and it was amazing.


Harris in Modern Orthodox

Question: Tell me, how did Silence! come about? When did you first get involved?
Harris: Well, I was doing Modern Orthodox at the New World Stages, and we were in there the same time that Altar Boyz was going on… That was sort of my first Off-Broadway show, my first big-show… where I actually got paid money [laughs]—besides like a stipend. And Altar Boyz was going on behind, which Christopher Gattelli was choreographing, and he knew that he was going to do Silence! at the Fringe. His boyfriend, Steven, had seen me in the show—had seen Modern Orthodox—and a couple other people had seen Modern Orthodox and were like, "Have Jenn Harris come in and audition for Clarice," and so I did… When I heard the music—Jon and Al Kaplan wrote the music—when I heard it off their website, I was like, "Oh my… I have to do this. I have to do this." And I just sort of went balls-in and just watched the film a bunch of times, and then got a couple ideas of what to do for my audition. I sang Bon Jovi's "Wanted, Dead or Alive" for my audition, and then I got it.

Question: That was for the Fringe Festival in '05?
Harris: Yeah, that was for the Fringe Festival in '05.

Question: Have you been involved in other productions of Silence! since then?
Harris: Well, we did one other workshop a year later. It was uptown at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre… Then it was going to move Off-Broadway in '07, and we didn't have Dee Goodwin at the time, so we were auditioning Ardelias, and it was all set to go. I was doing Blithe Spirit in Williamstown… and then like three days before our first rehearsal, it got pulled because of financing—you know—drama that goes down. Then, last January, Christopher did a production in London, and it opened on my birthday, so I went over there. Stephen, who plays Buffalo Bill, was there and we watched it, and we were just like, "Oh! We want to do it so bad!" And we're getting to—we're doing it.

Question: How did the London audience react to it? What was their response?
Harris: I mean, as best as a British audience can respond to comedy. [Laughs.] I mean, no, they loved it. It got rave reviews. It was sold out. They loved it. It was great… Everyone really enjoys this show. It's really universal—it's my parent's favorite show. [Laughs.] With songs like "If I Could Smell Her C***" and "Put the F***ing Lotion in the Basket," I mean I've got pretty rad parents, I do have to say, but everyone really loves this show.


Deidre Goodwin, Brent Barrett, Jenn Harris and Stephen Bienskie in rehearsal
photo by Krissie Fullerton

Question: For people who only know the film, how does the musical differ? The musical is comical, right?
Harris: Right. It's a parody, so it's sending up the film, like any just straight-up parody, but ours is very smart. We stay on top of it. I really do believe that this show, and I mean it's my most favorite thing I've ever been a part of—from every person who works on it, and the writing, and the music. I know that this part—a lead in a musical—I'm not a singer-singer. I'm not going to be in Miss Saigon. I'm not a leading lady—I'm not—and I'm very fine with that [laughs], and something like this comes along and I'm like, "Oh my God. This is an opportunity for me to be a lead in a musical." Let the funny character actress who only sings character—I'm not a singer-singer, I'm not a dancer-dancer, but damn it, I will fake my way through all of it. I'll fake my way through all of it for parody sake! I know this is a very rare thing—people don't write musicals for women like me. They don't write lead roles for women like me—we get to be the funny old fat lady, or the funny old crotchety lady, or the girlfriend, or the best friend, or the bitchy friend… the bitchy cheerleader friend. And hey, I've got nothing against any of that, I love it, I think it's fabulous. But a lead in a musical for a girl like me [laughs]; only Hunter Bell would write such genius [laughs], and I thank them so much for it, and this show is just fabulous. It's so fun to do.

Question: How would you describe Clarice in this version?
Harris: Well, I would describe her as literally if you put Jodie Foster in a musical—that's what I'm doing, hopefully… Parody, I think, is the highest form of flattery. I do lots of parody in performance arts stuff, and I mean, I can't make fun of something that I'm just not completely in love with, or at least it won't be as good I don't think. But I would say that… if Jodie Foster was in a musical, this would be her. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for the character in the show?
Harris: I have favorite moments that I'm not in. [Laughs.] For her—oh, God—you know, I like when she's going down into the basement, when she follows Bill. I really like the scene that I do with Buffalo Bill, and then we go into the basement. It's kind of fabulous, and what we're going to do tech-wise is going to be great with lights and sound… Oh God, there are so many good moments—I like going into the basement, I really do. It's very sort of unabashed, and Christopher is letting me go completely balls-out in a very, hopefully, contained way. [Laughs.]

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Christopher Gattelli as a director and a choreographer.
Harris: I've never been in a room with anyone, whether we are just hanging out as friends, or we're working on the show, or we're Skyping about the show at ten at night—I've never met anyone who is so giving. He is so open. He is literally like a spider web—just like touching every single thing that comes his way and gobbling it up. He will take anything that you say and try it, he'll work it, he's generous, he's so creative. I can't believe how he'll take someone's idea, and he'll accept it, and then he'll turn it into something even better. He lifts you. He's a director, and because he is a choreographer, I feel physically lifted. He'll take an idea of mine, or something that I'll do, or Hunter will write, or something in the music, or a prop, or even a moment in the play, and he'll lift it. I've never worked with someone where I physically feel like I'm being lifted a little bit, and it helps you. It helps me drive through this musical from beginning to end. With him, it's such a strange feeling. It's very comforting and exciting, and you feel like you're 16-years-old, and your best friend's 16, and you're all going to go into a room, and it's a sleepover, and you are going to make this fun piece of art, and do it—in the backyard—but for some reason a million people show up and love it, and we're like, "Yay!" It very much reminds me of playing softball when I was in high school and team camaraderie. I feel like I'm 16-years-old. He makes me feel young, he makes me feel smart and he makes me feel funny—even if I'm not. [Laughs.] But I am young. I am 16—not too far from that. [Laughs.]


Harris and Brent Barrett in rehearsal
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: I know right now it's a limited engagement through just the middle of August. Is there talk or hope that…?
Harris: Yeah, we'll continue on. I believe we have the theatre until the end of August, so we have some leeway with some weeks after, and I believe that we also have leeway with adding another show to the week to make it a four-show week, and there is no doubt in my mind that we're going to do that. It would be great if this thing could live at Theatre 80… It used to be called the Pearl Theatre, but now it's Theatre 80. It's on Saint Marks Street. It's amazing. It's an old speakeasy, and above it is like the gangsters museum. It's an old speakeasy where gangsters and crazy sh*t would go down, and then they would turn it into a movie theatre, like a cinema-cinema, like an old-school cinema, and it's beautiful, and it's brick, and you feel like you're in Buffalo Bill's basement. It's so decadent and creepy and artsy, and I just love it.

Question: It's such a great cast with Brent Barrett and Stephen Bienskie…
Harris: Oh, they're amazing.

Question: Are you guys having fun together?
Harris: Yes. Yes is the answer. Yes… I think of every single person in this cast, and I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" Everything they do. Jeff Hiller is like ridiculous—tell me you know him from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. He is the best character actor in this city and LA. I'm saying it. I'm saying it. And then everybody—Howie Kaye, who plays my father and who plays my boss, and Harry Bouvy, who plays Chilton—I mean, to watch his character evolve and what he's done. Everyone—Dee Goodwin. Oh my God. She has the show-stopping eleventh hour number that's just ridiculous. It's so fun.... [The musical is] really just such a frickin' blast. It's so good.

[Theatre 80 is located at 80 St. Marks Place (between First & Second Ave.). Tickets are $38 and are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or through www.SilenceTheMusical.com.]

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

The cast of <i>Silence! The Musical</i> with director Christopher Gattelli (center)
The cast of Silence! The Musical with director Christopher Gattelli (center) Photo by Krissie Fullerton
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