“We’re just starting to really get to know each other” sounds almost odd coming from Alice Ripley’s mouth as she sits down for an interview with her former onstage daughter, Jennifer Damiano, to talk about reuniting on Broadway this season in American Psycho.
But it’s true, she insists.
“It’s exciting every time I think about that I get to go to work and see Jennifer and get to know her because when we met, she was a teenager,” Ripley continues. “But, now we can have a glass of wine and talk about boys and whatever, and I don’t have to be bipolar. This is major! It’s great. It’s a relief.”
The two just wrapped a day rehearsing for Psycho at New 42nd Street Studios and took a trip down the block (and down memory lane) at Urbo to reminisce on their time together in Next to Normal over sushi.
Alice Ripley, Jenn Damiano, and More Star in the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Production of Next to Normal
“Well, I was a fetus, so I was like, ‘This is cool!’,” Damiano recalls, glancing out the window overlooking 43rd and 8th, where Next to Normal found its footing in New York City Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre before re-working out of town and transferring to Broadway in 2009.
Damiano was 16 years old when the show debuted Off-Broadway and 17 when it took Broadway by storm. Next to Normal went on to win a handful of Tonys (including Best Actress in a Musical for Ripley’s performance as the bipolar and unbalanced Diana) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Living in the world of the show was also a storm of sorts—with “Light,” of course, shining through.
“I don’t really talk about Next to Normal that much anymore,” Ripley confesses, “but when I do, I tend to talk about how… My joke was, ‘Diana tried to kill me, but I prevailed,’ but I don’t really mean [that] to come across as negative at all. It’s only been a blessing.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and I thought I already knew how much I could take because I did Side Show, and that was a huge challenge—huge physical challenge—so going into Next to Normal, I was like, ‘I could do this.’ It’s not the same thing, though; [Next to Normal was] like opening Pandora’s Box. That show is different because you’re dealing with psyche. You’re manufacturing grief every day, and after a while, your body starts to believe it. Did you feel that, too?” she says to Damiano, but continuing.
“I don’t think that I was the only one in the company that felt that—the effect of everybody grieving together eight times a week. I could hear grown men—big guys, older guys—sobbing in the quietest moments of the show. An intense experience for everybody, in a good way.”
Next to Normal was anything but normal for musicals on Broadway when it debuted—an original story about a bipolar mother grieving the loss of her dead son and a family unable to cope. That year, it was Tony-nominated alongside Billy Elliot, Rock of Ages and Shrek the Musical—two musicals based on movies and one filled with pre-existing hit songs from the ‘80s.
“I sobbed when I first started with the demo [of Next to Normal] that [vocal arranger] AnnMarie Milazzo put together,” Ripley recalls. “[Composer] Tom Kitt had been leaving me voicemail messages on my answering machine. He always invited me to be involved with the show he was writing. He said he was writing it for me. He said I was perfect for it, and he’d sent me the demo, and my friend Sherie Rene Scott is singing Diana on the demo. She and I made our Broadway debuts together in Tommy, so we’re old friends. Then Amy Spanger, who’s a friend of mine and was my understudy in Sunset…she played Diana at the NYMF, so it’s just interesting to think that a couple of my good friends had played her, but I was never available—until I was. He sent me a new packet, and I put the CD in, and I heard the beginning—it was a different beginning [then]—and I just started sobbing. I started shaking inside. It’s kind of familiar now. I got the same feeling when I listened to American Psycho.”
The timing was right for the two to take on Next to Normal when it hit Second Stage in 2008. Ripley was finally available, and Damiano (fresh off her Broadway debut in Spring Awakening) was a perfect fit for Diana’s daughter, Natalie.
“I grew up in the role of Natalie,” Damiano explains. “It’s so hard to talk about. It’s so close that it’s hard to even articulate my relationship to the character.”
Damiano was coming of age in the eyes of the theatre community, and like her character, she found it difficult to deal at times.
“It got hard,” she says candidly. “During Next to Normal, I had a lot of trouble going out to the stage door because I felt very ill-equipped to talk with anyone about their own personal and mental issues or issues with their family, and a lot of the young girls wanted to talk to me about it in the same way that they wanted to talk about Diana with you,” she says to Ripley. “I got really overwhelmed by it, and I didn’t go out to the stage door a lot. Natalie became such a huge part of me that I carried the weight of that around with me, and I regret anyone thinking that [not coming out of the stage door] wasn’t for any reason besides me just being very shy and not knowing, doing or saying the right thing.”
Ripley, however, felt an obligation to theatregoers who flocked to the Booth: “I [didn’t] really understand that part of the job was to embrace the audience after the show. I was their therapist. They would confess their deepest, darkest pain to me.
“The stage door became part of playing Diana because what’s the point of doing the show if I don’t encounter the audience afterward and let them tell me about how they were affected by it? But I just wasn’t prepared for the thousands and thousands. Every week. I’ll get messages from young women on Facebook saying, ‘I’m about to play Diana. Do you have any advice?’ And, I say, ‘Protect yourself.’”
Protect themselves, they did. When the show reached Broadway in 2009, Ripley was “living like a monk,” and Damiano explains that “everyone was just kind of in their own little world.” Unlike most casts, the Next to Normal cast didn’t go out for food and drinks after work.
That is until now. In September, Damiano and Ripley (along with a few other Next to Normal castmates) were invited to perform a concert version of the show in Buenos Aires, and that’s when the mother-daughter stage duo finally started to “get to know” each other—over a glass of wine.
“We did each have a glass of wine one night,” Ripley says of their time in Buenos Aires. “I remember that,” responds Damiano.
“It was like we’ve both grown up a little bit in that moment,” Ripley says, “because that’s something I never would have done. I never would have done that during Next to Normal—go out and have a glass of wine. Have a glass of wine anywhere! So, it’s kind of like, ‘We’re grown up!’ We survived what we went though together, which was such a huge blessing, and it took a lot out of us and a lot out of the audience, too. It’s that healing crisis that Next to Normal kind of hits you [with]… You come back together, better.”
It was in Buenos Aires where Damiano spilled the beans that she had been cast in American Psycho and that the show was going to Broadway. She couldn’t quite reveal the news yet, but told Ripley anyway out of excitement.
“A couple weeks later, I got a call to audition,” says Ripley, “and I was surprised because I didn’t think there was a role for me. I knew there wasn’t a role for me in American Psycho because in the book and in the movie, there is no mother, and that would be my role. But they had this role [written into the musical], so I auditioned and got it.”
Ripley plays a mother again in American Psycho, except this time her son isn’t dead—he’s the one killing people. Patrick Bateman (played by Benjamin Walker) is the man in the middle of the two ladies. Damiano plays Jean, his secretary who is in love with him.
“Did you call me first when you got it?” Damiano asks Ripley.
“Yeah,” she replies.
They both talk about how comfortable it is to walk into the rehearsal room and know that the other will be there. Eight years later, Ripley still gives the best advice.
Is she still a maternal figure in Damiano’s life? “I don’t know if mother is the right word, but Alice has been a really important mentor in my life,” she replies.
“It feels like a sister,” says Ripley.
Damiano interjects: “But, mostly: friend.”