My excitement over interviewing Jennifer Damiano went far beyond the fact that “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” and “Everything Else” are my go to “shower songs.” As just a high school sophomore, Damiano started her Broadway career in Spring Awakening, the greatest show since sliced bread. Then she went on to originate the role Natalie Goodman in Next to Normal (which has become every teen girl’s dream role). Following that smash hit, she originated Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. If things couldn’t have gotten any more awesome, Jenn is currently playing Willow Turner in Venice, which just opened Off-Broadway last Thursday (the day before I spoke to her).
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
JD: I think I was always singing my whole life and I was involved in a few choirs, here and there. That led to more theater groups. Most of the choirs I was in would put on a few shows every year. Then, I just decided that it was my favorite thing. [Jenn Laughs] But, if definitely came from singing. Singing was what led me to catching the theater bug.
Did anyone/anything inspire you to pursue a life in theater?
I always talk about my obsession with Judy Garland, growing up as a kid. Loving the idea of performing more than anything else, more than being on camera or mainly singing. I loved the in between world of Musical Theater that I found. But I wasn’t that connected with Broadway growing up. It only came later when I actually started working in the industry; it found me. I started really, really looking up to a lot of people like Audra McDonald. And obviously Wicked was HUGE, HUGE show when I was in eighth grade and just about to really start working. It had a big influence on me. (I’m sure a lot of people can say that!) [Jenn Laughs]
How did you decide to take the leap into the professional world when you were a kid?
My parents can take credit for that because they were the ones who got me connected with an agent because I was always singing– they connected me with a more commercial agent, so I started to do some commercials here and there and voiceovers. Then, I ended up doing a show at the American Girl Doll store. I don’t think they do it anymore, but it was my first thing that I did in the city.
I LOVED that show! [I Laugh] I think I saw it a couple times.
Yeah, it was SO cute! I was young (I honestly can’t remember the exact age I was, I was probably eleven or twelve). It was cute because it felt like it was a mini Musical Theater camp situation. I would go in and out of the city (my dad would drive me down) so it felt like a more professional job. I did more little things here and there. I would do theater in the summer where I’m from in Westchester with Random Farms Kids Theater right up until tenth grade (when I got Spring Awakening). It all came around for me pretty quickly in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
Would you say that a majority of your training came from working or did you do a lot of acting classes?
I did a lot of singing lessons, like A LOT. I still do that all the time– I still try to take care of my voice. But I didn’t take that many acting classes (they always kind of scared me). I was really shy as a kid and I would always get really nervous. But for some reason, when I was on stage, I didn’t feel that way. When I was on stage with an audience it was different, but in a classroom, I got nervous. It was a growing thing that I had to go through because now, I’ll take some classes here and there and it’s so fun and helpful. Mostly, I had the privilege of learning through a lot of the jobs that I did and a lot of the older people that helped me through. It’s always so beneficial to get in a room with a bunch of young actors and learn and grow together. I wish that I had more time to do that; when you’re working it’s hard to fit it in. When I’m not it’s definitely a priority.
You made your Broadway debut in Spring Awakening. What was it like to be the youngest cast member, especially in such a risqué show?
It was definitely cool because I didn’t necessarily feel like the youngest. We were all really young and I definitely connected most with Lilli [Cooper], Remy [Zaken], and Gerard [Canonico]. We were all the ones that were still tutoring. [Jenn Laughs] I was in the thick of it. I remember Gerard was a senior and his classes were lighter, so he could get through it. But I was in that sophomore year thing where I really, really had to get my work done; I really had to get through a few more years of my education.
The context of the show never made my parents or me uncomfortable. I think Michael Mayer was cool enough to cast actual young people. It felt like the right thing; I never questioned the risqué elements of it until they had to switch my role around. Once the show opened, I’m not sure whom, but some important person found out my age and that I was too young to understudy Wendla and simulate certain things on stage. So, they switched up my role and gave me the Ilse cover and gave Krysta [Rodriguez] the Wendla cover. That was the only thing that reminded me about how young I was. Everything else felt like the right thing. It was so fun and such a cool growing experience.
In 2007 you started with Next To Normal. Did you know how special the project was when you first got involved?
I didn’t. I remember being really confused about whether I should stay in Spring Awakening and hopefully take over one of the lead roles or go into this new show that was Off-Broadway at Second Stage with all of these new people that I’d never met. But, my agent at the time was very good at pushing me in the right direction. Obviously. I can’t imagine my life without that show. [Jenn Laughs] At the time I wasn’t completely sure about what was happening. Once we went to DC and came back and they told us that we’re going to be going to Broadway, I realized what a huge impact it was going to have on everyone.
There were a lot of changes from the Off-Broadway run to the Regional production at the Arena Stage, and then Broadway. Did you have to change the way you played Natalie at all?
I didn’t really change it intentionally; I was lucky enough to grow with the piece for so long. We were all lucky enough to know each other for so long [because] when we went into DC we were all housed really close to each other and we all bonded a lot. That had a lot to do with how it changed– we all got more comfortable with each other and the chemistry meshed.
I think that as time went on, I didn’t think too much about changing her because I didn’t want to try too hard or over act, or fake anything. I think it was just a matter of [Natalie] becoming closer to my heart and that I was lucky enough to be with the show for that long because sometimes you don’t have the luxury to do two previous productions before a Broadway run. I guess that’s why they do those things, so that the piece can grow. I was lucky enough to be with it the whole time. But, I think the main change that did happen was I became more vulnerable with the piece as time went on and I let down a few of the walls that I had up at Second Stage.
It’s also so lucky to have such an incredible score go along with the piece. How did you build up the vocal stamina to do the show eight times a week with some crazy high notes?
At first, my instinct was to just go for it and not even think about it and just sing it. I remember at Second Stage I had actually gotten mono, which was really traumatic. [Jenn Laughs] My throat swelled and I had to be on medication to help with it. [Jenn Laughs] I don’t even know how I got through it, but I did. It’s all about the mind set. That’s not to say that during the Broadway run I didn’t lose my voice, like four or five times. It just happens. It really sucks having to call out when you lose your voice, but we are human. For the most part, your life just has to change. It’s all about health and I couldn’t really go out with a lot of my friends. I couldn’t talk all the time, as much as I would have wanted to. [Jenn Laughs] Your body adjusts. I worked a lot with my voice coach, Liz Caplan.
Oh, I interviewed her!
You did? Yeah, she’s great! She gave me these life—changing warm—ups that keep me from my voice ever hurting. I’ve lost my voice a few times, but I never actually hurt my chords and that’s definitely thanks to her. She was like my mentor, vocally, throughout that whole process.
But, it’s also a show where you were simultaneously getting so emotional that your body loses fuel some of the time. But that’s the mystery and the challenge of eight shows a week. It’s a huge feat. And Broadway actors are people who rarely call out; it’s incredible that they can do what they do. With that show it was just a little different because it came along with so much other emotional wearing on the voice.
Did you expect a Tony nomination or was it surprise? What was your reaction to that?
I definitely did not expect it. Once the time came around I was kind of getting nervous because I was like, Oh crap, because people started talking about it a lot. I was trying not to think about it, but I found myself getting kind of anxious and nervous not even really knowing why. It was a HUGE, HUGE surprise– it felt like I was dreaming. Again, at the time, it was when the show had already been open for a couple months and I wasn’t really realizing how powerful the show was and just what a huge mark it was making for musical theater and how much Natalie meant to a lot of young girls. The weight of all of that didn’t completely hit me, but once I did get the Tony nomination, I couldn’t believe it. Then, I felt recognized in a way that made my heart grow so much more than usual because of the role and because of singing about being “the invisible girl” every night. All of that stuff was so overwhelming and I felt so much love. It was so awesome.
One of the great things about Next to Normal was the simplicity to it. But then, of course, you went on to originate Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man:Turn Off The Dark, which is a huge and elaborate spectacle…
So, what was the most exciting part about that jump from a really intense and more script driven, I guess, show, to something with so many visual dynamics?
It was definitely a huge leap and growing pain issue because it was so not what I was used to. I was used to these smaller shows with not as many people. That’s not to say there wasn’t a huge amount of heart in Spider-Man among the cast. I went from one of the smallest theaters [the Booth Theatre] to one of the biggest [the Foxwoods Theatre], so that was kind of overwhelming (how big the stage was). And, there was a lot more press, which was sometimes distracting. Other times it was really fun, and I’m really grateful for all the opportunities (magazines and stuff like that). It was definitely hard; I definitely missed Next to Normal
One of the great things about Next to Normal was the simplicity to it. But then, of course, you went on to originate Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man:Turn Off The Dark, which is a huge and elaborate spectacle. What was the most exciting part about that jump from a really intense and more script driven, I guess, show, to something with so many visual dynamics?
It was definitely a huge leap and growing pain issue because it was so not what I was used to. I was used to these smaller shows with not as many people. That’s not to say there wasn’t a huge amount of heart in Spider-Man among the cast. I went from one of the smallest theaters [the Booth Theatre] to one of the biggest [the Foxwoods Theatre], so that was kind of overwhelming (how big the stage was). And, there was a lot more press, which was sometimes distracting. Other times it was really fun, and I’m really grateful for all the opportunities (magazines and stuff like that). It was definitely hard; I definitely missed Next to Normal— I mean I still do a lot. Spider-Man was its own thing. It’s so hard to compare it to anything. It was absolutely a polar kind of experience, but a great one.
Along with all the press (I’m sure you’ve been asked this a BUNCH) but how did you keep faith in the show and continue to stay passionate about the project in the midst of quite a bit of drama in the drama world?
I know. It was crazy and it definitely was hard at times. It’s very challenging to know why we were doing what we were doing. I love the story of Spider-Man (he’s my favorite superhero). It did take a lot of discipline and determination to drown out everything that had happened. Obviously, there were some accidents and it got hard, but it was a very spiritual cast and people were very good at collectively rising above, if you will. There was kind of no other choice– it’s not like you can just stop or quit or lose faith completely because we all still had a job and contracts. There was still a show to be done every night. The show must go on. It’s cliché, but it’s true. I’m not going to lie though it was a big challenge of my life. I learned a lot. I mean I still do a lot. Spider-Man was its own thing. It’s so hard to compare it to anything. It was absolutely a polar kind of experience, but a great one.
Along with all the press (I’m sure you’ve been asked this a bunch) but how did you keep faith in the show and continue to stay passionate about the project in the midst of quite a bit of drama in the drama world?
I know. It was crazy and it definitely was hard at times. It’s very challenging to know why we were doing what we were doing. I love the story of Spider-Man (he’s my favorite superhero). It did take a lot of discipline and determination to drown out everything that had happened. Obviously, there were some accidents and it got hard, but it was a very spiritual cast and people were very good at collectively rising above, if you will. There was kind of no other choice– it’s not like you can just stop or quit or lose faith completely because we all still had a job and contracts. There was still a show to be done every night. The show must go on. It’s cliché, but it’s true. I’m not going to lie though it was a big challenge of my life. I learned a lot.
Well, currently, you’re in Venice at the Public Theater, which just opened last night. Was there a different energy onstage last night than during the previews shows?
Opening is always such a good night. A lot of people have their loved ones there (my dad was there) and you feel a lot of warmth on opening night. It’s usually the performances leading up to that where critics are in the audience and the show is still changing and you’re not 100% used to performing it yet. We had a great preview process, I’m really happy with the show and the way it is going. Last night was really great. I love the Public and it’s a great space and amazing cast; it was a recipe for a really great opening night for sure.
Can you explain your character Willow Turner a bit?
Yeah, Willow Turner is about my age, like twenty-three or twenty-five, I’m twenty-two, so, she’s kind of around there. She’s very, very, very loosely based on Desdemona from Othello… She’s the girl in the show who’s constantly fighting for her love, life, and country. She’s really strong and making a lot of sacrifices for the betterment of the world. That’s broad, but it’s so hard to describe her without giving a lot of the show away. I’ve definitely fallen in love with the character and I am excited a few more weeks, or however much longer, to really understand her, and get more comfortable.
Do you have a pre-show routine? If so, what?
Yeah, I usually do vocal warm-ups and breathing exercises (all which Liz has taught me). I don’t really like to eat too much before the show, or else I am too full. [Jenn Laughs] I try to make sure I eat at least two hours before the show. Nothing that specific. I try to be in the present moment every day and not get too nervous or overwhelmed by everything. I always get a little bit nervous right before the show, just because you’re not quite sure what kind of audience it will be, and how the show is going to go. Once the show starts you just lose yourself in it—nothing more exciting than warming up! [Jenn Laughs]
What do you think the benefit of originating all of your roles has been, as your career progresses?
I love being a part of the creative process. I love being there to create a big chunk of the character. I like how the directors let you choose what she’s going to be wearing and if a certain line doesn’t feel right to you, you can discuss it with the writers and really talk about it. Not to say that if someone comes in and replaces someone that they don’t re-imagine the whole thing, but it is a privilege to be involved and be able to introduce a character to the world. I’m so lucky that that’s been the case for me and I only hope I can keep on track with that.
If you had the opportunity to be “miscast” in any show what would you want it to be?
Oh my gosh, so crazy. I really love the evil characters. I LOVE villain characters, they’re so fun. But, that aside, I mean, Sweeney Todd comes to mind. [Jenn Laughs] It would be REALLY fun. I want to be crazy and evil on stage. It sounds so ridiculous, but it looks so fun.
That would be great! That’s a great role.
Wouldn’t that be funny? With the make-up and the hair. It would be crazy but soooo much fun.
That would be great! I would totally buy a ticket.
Good, I would hope so! You’d be the only one. [Jenn Laughs]
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
I believe that believing in yourself is the most important thing. Be confident and have faith in your path and not look around and be jealous of what other people are doing. Focus on yourself and make sure you’re the best version of yourself that you can be. There’s an element of not taking anything too seriously that I think is important to have. Work hard, as hard as you can, but have faith in yourself and know that things do happen for a reason. I really believe that. I believe in working hard but also knowing that your career (if that’s what you want) will work itself out and everything will fall into place if you really believe that it will. ♦