Jennifer Laura Thompson has had a career on Broadway for the last 20 years and now she’s finally playing the kind of role she always hoped she would. Since she first fell in love with musicals, Thompson has had an affinity for contemporary works filled with heart and grit. The bulk of her roles have been playing the ingénue, but right around when she was looking to change course, cue Dear Evan Hansen. As Cynthia Murphy, Thompson spends 2.5 hours with tears in her eyes as she puts tears in our eyes. Her clear, powerful voice in conjunction with Pasek and Paul’s moving score and Steven Levenson’s gut-wrenching story, takes the audience on an emotional journey very few theatergoers have ever experienced. In this interview, read about how Thompson has found longevity on Broadway and what it’s been like creating the role of her dreams.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
JLT: Oh my. I was always a singer with the chorus and small ensembles in elementary and middle school. But then in high school, that’s when I was first introduced to musicals to participate in. Honestly, the only reason I auditioned was because I had a crush on an older student who was going to be auditioning for it and probably getting a role. So I was like, “I really want to spend some time with him.” I auditioned and got an ensemble part and was so excited. I didn’t have any idea that I loved performing for people. I knew I loved to sing and I loved to dance. But the combination of the three: acting, singing, dancing [was thrilling]. I’d had very little exposure to Broadway musicals on the road or regionally in my life before that or even on film. So that was my wake up call.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in the theater?
I bought the album of Les Mis. I was in love with that score. At that time, that was very contemporary compared to the other musicals that I knew of. My knowledge of them was quite limited. It was so moving. It was the actual vinyl record that I bought. That’s how old I am [Jennifer laughs]. I would listen to it, I was so moved by the story, I thought, “Wow that’s a beautiful thing.” It became my goal secretly to one day perform in that show. I never did but I really wanted to. That was the spark that ignited my interest.
Then we took a trip to New York City in High School—I think it was my junior year. I had already at that point done a couple lead roles in the spring musicals. I was anticipating going to school for architecture but was sort of interested in theater. We went and saw like five Broadway shows in three days. The Mystery of Edwin Drood was my first Broadway musical. I remember feeling in the audience that I would give anything to be the third girl on the left. It would be so exciting and I loved the story. It was also a contemporary show even though it was set in an earlier time. The music was very contemporary and beautiful. That’s another thing that spearheaded my desire to move forward and pursue it.
You studied musical theater at University of Michigan. How did that training help set you up for success?
On all levels it did. If I had moved to New York without the skills U Mich helped me hone I would have been completely lost. Like even the simplest things like creating a 16-bar cut for those giant chorus calls…or EPAs that you’d wake up for at 6am. Being prepared with your book ready, knowing who the composers were, and knowing about the shows you were auditioning for. They did everything from teaching all of us who had very little skill to a lot of skill to keep up with strong dance decorum because we were going to be asked to dance in these calls. Vocal training and acting were treated separately but would all come together in this performance class. We did a lot of scene study, musical theater history, we had to learn to play piano, which I already knew but was totally helpful for when you get a piece of music but don’t know what it sounds like. The kids who didn’t know how to play the piano had to find somebody. There are so many skills that went into the idea of auditioning alone: the ethics of your performance, the quality and depth you could find in somebody’s musicals that as outsiders seem sort of shallow.
Also, the four years of maturity were extremely important for me. I’m not saying I was immature. I just wasn’t a city kid. If I had planted myself in New York City, it would have been horrifying.
Also those four years really do make a difference in terms of longevity in the business. As someone who’s been working in theater for more than 20 years, what are some other key elements that have helped you sustain a career in such a competitive business?
That’s a good question. I was just talking with my friend about that. He gave me such a nice complement and said, “True talent is one that withstands generations.” I was so flattered to hear that because I didn’t have a stopping point. There were always stepping stones along the way, periods of “I don’t know where I fit in right now,” and I would fill it in with concert work or television work. Ironically, my stage persona is vastly different than anything I’ve ever played on TV. Those are all unsavory characters: a murderer, battered wife, someone who harbors veterans in her basement to get their checks. That’s how television sees me [Jennifer laughs]. So I navigated it in a way where I was self-aware of who I was, who I was becoming, and who I was not. There were these times where I was still being bookended into these ingénue roles as a 35 year old and 40 year old. I was like, “I really, really don’t want to try to do this anymore.” My last Broadway show I was still playing this late 20s woman. But it was a show set in the 1920s so it kind of worked. I’m so, so happy to be playing someone age-appropriate at this point [Jennifer laughs]. It’s just a gift.
In an interview with Rachel Bay Jones, you both were saying your characters in Dear Evan Hansen are way more dynamic for the mom role than what’s typically available.
And like what she was saying in the interview, they often get played out as very shallow versions of themselves. The texts and storylines don’t allow for the exploration of the deeper understanding of women of a certain age. In this show, though we are polar-opposite characters—I come from the wealthy side of the fence and she’s on the struggling side—we both have the same goals in mind. On the surface, Cynthia might look really pretty and quaffed, but she’s constantly hurting inside.
You are pretty much crying the whole show.
I just kept saying, give me one scene where she won’t be slightly loosing it [Jennifer laughs]. I had chosen the finale of act one, I was like, “That’s going to be it! She’ll feel hope, she’s not going to get brought down.” I still see these moments as Jennifer being Cynthia where I’m so overwhelmed by the support for my son that it does bring me to tears. I’m like, “Goddamnit! Even here I have a tear!” [Jennifer laughs]
It’s an incredible amount of emotional output. Is it daunting to go there or was it at all in the beginning?
Every night I tell myself to just let it happen. If I listen and tell the story, stay in it, don’t think about other things, it always comes because it’s a profound story written by Steven Levenson. The music moves me in such a way that Ben [Platt] will hit certain notes and it’ll just bring a tear to my eye. It’s so gorgeous and so moving.
I guess I would say if you gave me a television script and I knew I had to go in on Tuesday at 10am and mourn the loss of a family member or something, that’s daunting when you know what you’re doing and you’ve got to do it right there. But in this piece, I was asked to do it before having ever read the script or knowing anything about it. We sat down for the first table read and it instantly crushed all of us. We knew what we were up against. We knew that that material was going to take us there. It is daunting in an emotionally exhausting way. I consulted a psychiatrist to see if there was any sort of blueprints this could leave on your psyche and she thankfully said, “Nope!” [Jennifer laughs]
Can you separate it out?
I can. There are moments when I’ve finished the scene where Evan’s revealed his lie—it’s the same for Rachel—we can’t shed the sadness. It takes a while. Rachel needs her hair designer to tell her jokes. Usually my daughter—I call her my daughter, Laura Dreyfuss who plays my daughter Zoe so beautifully—she’ll do something pretty goofy in the stairwell and Mike Faist who plays my son does this thing where he says, “Ahh he’s alive!” So we bring ourselves out of it but sometimes it’s hard to shake. I don’t go home at night and cry, so that’s good [Jennifer laughs]. Leave it at the stage, or close to the stage anyway.
You’ve been with Dear Evan Hansen since the out of town tryout in DC. How, if at all, did your character change through the process?
It’s been really interesting. Rachel and I—and Michael Park, with the exception of when he did Tuck Everlasting, which coincided with Second Stage—have been with it for three years. It’s changed a lot. It’s been really interesting to watch how it’s changed. Even the giving of one of my lines in the script to Michael, who plays my husband, makes all the difference. If he’s the one who says, “He shoved you?” he says it differently than when I say, “He shoved you?” They have a different impact. It’s the little, little things like that.
Major cuts like giant songs, too. Rachel and I had a very beautiful duet that just didn’t move the plot. It was just sort of a standstill and breathing moment that didn’t help anybody. I had a song in DC that was also cut because it was sort of the same thing—it wasn’t moving anything forward. It turned into what is now what we call “the tie scene” where I tell Evan about how I want him to wear the tie at the assembly and how it was Conner’s tie that he never wore. It was sort of about that. It wasn’t about Conner as much as, “Evan you helped Conner see the light that I never saw him see. I tried so hard to get him to that place and you did it. I’m so grateful for that.” Essentially that’s the whole plot. You can’t sing about those things too much until you’re like, “Yeah I get it!” [Jennifer laughs]
What was it like to collaborate with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul through the process?
I’d never met them. We went to the same school, but many, many years apart. One of my dearest friends had done A Christmas Story, so I knew about that. Rachel Bay had also done that but I didn’t know Rachel Bay at that point. Ben [Platt] sang some of the songs that he had rehearsed earlier at that very, very first table read. Justin and Benj sang all of the rest. It was so remarkable. The quality of the music, the way it not only stuck in your brain because it had a great lick or repetitive line that had great meaning to it lyrically, as well as having a great flow of notes. I remember Tweeting that night—and I had hardly ever Tweeted—that they had answer my prayer to musical theater. That’s exactly the kind of musical theater that I would want to be a part of. Great book to start, very contemporary in its style, cutting each other off at very specific slash lines in the script. That was a very hard thing to learn: talking over each other on specific words. But it’s very conversational and realistic. Then with the music, I remember them saying they answered my call because it’s so beautiful yet it belongs on the Top 100 charts. “Waving Through a Window” should easily be a number one song. It’s got a thread of pop memorability about it, yet the lyrics are so thoughtful and complicated. It somehow all comes together. I remember looking at them and I was so proud. I was amazed at their talent. The day that they revealed Rachel Bay’s last song, “So Big / So Small” in the rehearsal room, we were just on the floor. How does a 31 year old pull this out of his heart and tell a story of a middle-aged woman losing her husband and the fears she has about raising her son alone? How do they understand it and articulated with beautiful words and glorious music? They’re genius.
What’s your pre-show routine?
It’s so boring! Pretty much for an hour I’m scheduled. Say it’s a 7pm show, I’ll get there by 6pm. I’ll eat some of my dinner, start my pin curls, eat some more dinner, do the rest of my pin curls. I put on my makeup, vocally warm up, by then it’s half-hour. I put on my costume and then my wig gets put on at 20-till. I’m usually behind on something, so if I haven’t eaten enough, or I didn’t put enough makeup on, or I haven’t warmed up enough I’ll do the rest of that. So boring!…But our tradition is that [the cast] gathers in a circle stage left [before the show]. Generally there’s a person who has something they feel like saying or it’s people talking over each other. Then we say something that Laura Dreyfuss’ acting teacher told her years ago: “If they can’t hear you, they hate you!” Which is a reminder to speak up on stage. This teacher was kind of a character so we always laugh about that. That’s our last moment before we go.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
My first advice is always, always go to school. Go to college or go to a conservatory. Get some solid training in because those years post-high school, you’re still growing. You’re still growing through your college years, you’re still growing through your 20s. That’s my first order of advice.
Secondly, I’ve been told in the past, “We don’t know what to do with you. We don’t know where you fit in.” It was a hopeless feeling that I had no place in this field. I very, very proudly proved them wrong. But there are other actors who haven’t have the same experience. Listen to your heart and your gut and your soul. Believe in yourself. Don’t be blind. Like for example, I came to New York with a strong dance background from Michigan and middle school and high school. But I very quickly learned that I was not a New York Broadway dancer. Those dancers are fierce! I couldn’t compete. What I could do is be in the ensemble and sing. I started off with my first few jobs as the understudy to the lead and then I took over for both. Then there was no turning back. It was all roles after that, in part because I was not a good dancer so I really had to hone what I was good at [Jennifer laughs].♦