Disaster! star Jennifer Simard on how she has grown with her character Sister Mary Downy, what drives her success, and how she would survive a real disaster situation

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As Sister Mary Downy, it is Jennifer Simard’s job to turn to the most recognizable comedians in theatre and tell them they’re ‘going to Hell’ with a straight face.

Simard, a four-time Drama Desk Award nominee, joined the company of Disaster! off-Broadway in 2013 and has arguably one of the most difficult roles by playing a no-nonsense character in the kooky, laugh-out-loud musical which parodies disaster films of the 1970s and features some of the most beloved songs of that era. Simard’s stoic Sister Mary boards a cruise ship in hopes of steering passengers away from the casino but rekindles her own gambling addiction in the process.

Disaster! is the most star-studded show currently on Broadway. Simard counts Faith Prince, Kevin Chamberlin, Roger Bart, Adam Pascal, Kerry Butler, Rachel York, and Max Crumm as just a few of her co-stars and friends. The limited-run musical, created by three-time Emmy and Grammy nominee Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, is set to close on July 3.

Even with a host of famous faces in the cast, Simard stands out as the scene-stealer. Tony buzz has surrounded her brilliant comedic performance since the musical opened on March 8. With her rendition of “Never Can Say Goodbye”, during which she serenades a Hawaii 5-0 slot machine, and Sister Mary’s quick decline into madness and addiction, Simard’s self-righteous nun is both relatable in her struggle and farcical in the scope of the hilariously wacky musical.

Simard sat down with Stage Door Dish to discuss working with some of the most creative minds in theatre, the road to Broadway with Disaster!, her relationship with her late mother, and much more.

Clifton Davis, who wrote “Never Can Say Goodbye”, was just at the show the other night. How was that?

It was wonderful. It couldn’t have gone better. He works at Aladdin across the street with my husband. I’ve been a fan forever and a day and I was fortunate enough to see the production in Toronto and again here on Broadway. Now we’re right across the street from one another. They pieced it together. I think my husband told him that I was singing his song and I dropped off some candy and a thank you note because I couldn’t wait for him to see it. I wanted to make sure he knew how much I appreciate the song. It’s probably my favorite thing to do in the show and it truly is an honor. I can’t imagine when he was writing it all those years ago that he would have ever imagined it would be used in this way. I’m so delighted. He was such a gentleman, such a kind human being, and I feel very fortunate.

This show had quite the run before Broadway. What makes your love for this show continue?

You have to start with my love of people, and in this case, my love of Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick. They’ve been my friends for almost 25 years. A lot of people think about doing things and then they never do them. The thing I admire about Seth and Jack the most is that they truly are entrepreneurs. They’re doers. You have to be a very brave individual to put your stuff out there knowing that it’s going to be loved by many and not loved by a few. Once you share your creativity, it’s up for everyone’s opinion. I’m so proud of them for doing this and assembling what amounts to a Christopher Guest film on Broadway. I always wanted to be in one of those movies like Best In Show. I look to my left and right, and I can’t believe the company I’m surrounded by, both on Broadway and off. I’m very lucky with the casts I’ve been able to do the show with. It’s an ever-expanding joy.

How has your relationship with your character, Sister Mary Downy, changed over such a long period of time?

It has developed and now it has a mind of its own. You can read the text on the page but it develops beyond the written word. Luckily, Seth and Jack are so secure, they welcome that kind of input from me and my fellow cast mates. She is so dark and there are so many layers beyond what you initially see. It’s so fun to pull back her outer layers every night. She’s one of those people that you find in life, where you say, ‘What happened to them?’ The thing I love about her the most, like people in general, are the things we find least lovable about ourselves; the dark, gooey center. Sister Mary has so many issues and I think the audience can relate to that. We all have something we want to change about ourselves. A lot of the humor comes from that push-pull of trying to be a good person but truly having this big problem. The pathos of that creates a lot of comedy.

Did you grow up with faith?

I did. I lost my mom a year and a half ago. I grew up around nuns and went to church every week. My parents went to Catholic school. I went to public school but I went to CCD classes for eight years after school and my father still goes to church. My mom gave me a miraculous medal and I carried it with me on opening night. Although my faith is private, and I like a lot of the teachings of Unitarian Universalism which are ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, and I believe that there are many religions that are wonderful, my Catholicism is part of my blood. It’s part of my culture. My parents made it fun so I had a good experience with it. It’s been really nice to play this character because it makes me feel close to my upbringing and very close to my mother, whom I miss every day.

You’ve talked about how this was the last show your mother saw you in. It’s so lovely the way you speak about her.

My mother’s name was Yvette. She was sick but she saw the show off-Broadway, even though it was difficult for her to come. She knew the show was probably going to happen, although there was no guarantee. She knew how excited I was for that and she knew how great this role was for me and how passionate I was about it. I dedicate it to her in the playbill rather than spend it on my credits. People come up to me and say, ‘You don’t have many credits, do you?’ But it doesn’t matter, I’d rather spend my 50 word count on something that matters to my heart. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t remember her. A few people have mentioned the bio and it really moves me when they do. Whether they know it or not, it makes me think well of them that they take a moment to care about something like that and not the business side of it. It is show business, and as much as I’m grateful to do it, it’s a very competitive field and it’s a little bit of a wild carnival ride. Family and friends are the real stuff. That never goes away.

In your Broadway.com vlog, you talk about the word ‘help.’ Is the value of teamwork something you were brought up with?

Yes. My father was a little league coach in our small town, and my mother was my softball coach. One thing they always stressed was that they would rather have C talents with A attitudes than A talents with C attitudes on their team. I’ve had to check myself in my career, when I have done the opposite of that and had a poor attitude. I sort of slap my own knuckles and say, ‘This is not how you were raised, get it together.’ So when I say ‘help’ and those kind of values, while I may not always succeed, it truly is what I’m striving for. If you have a set of core values, you can really ride out a lot of ups and downs that you have no control over.

You made a statement about how fear is a catalyst the show and how negative emotions can become the most positive in the end. Which ones do you struggle with the most?

I just lived through my greatest fear which was the death of my mother. Now I know I’ve survived that. My new fear would be not living up to what I can be. There’s a quote, ‘Whatever a man can be, he must be.’ Sometimes I’m afraid that my own demons will get the better of me. I don’t want to look back and regret my life so I’m very much afraid of not being the best person I can be. We have choices in life and if you make the wrong choice it can really veer you off the path. I hope I’m making choices with integrity and that I’m making the best guesses so that I don’t have many regrets.

What is your relationship with the film Rocky?

I was a card carrying member of the Sylvester Stallone fan club. These were the days when there was no Internet so you got your Tiger Beat magazine which had ads. I saw a coupon in the back of one of these magazines that said, ‘If you want to be a member of the fan club, send this to the president, Tony Munafo.’ When I got my pictures and my card in the mail, it said that if I carried my card with me and I ran into Tony, he would try to set up a meeting with Mr. Stallone.

I grew up in a farm town in New Hampshire, but as a child, I was thinking ‘Where the heck do I find Tony?’ The most public place was the country store so I would try to find him there. I was inspired by so many people: Penny Marshall from Laverne and Shirley, Madeleine Kahn, Bernadette Peters. As far as the gentlemen go, I think Rocky is a darn near perfect film, and I found it very inspiring.

One day that I had food poisoning and I thought of that film because I had some bad sushi and I was terribly ill. I was just trying to motivate myself mentally so I thought of that movie and it helped me. It was a two show day. I was drinking ginger ale and I disassociated. I just had to get through it and I was trying to think of things that made me happy. I know this isn’t a perfect correlation but I felt equal to having been beat up. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was lucky. Sometimes mind over matter doesn’t work but in this case it did.

What have you learned from Seth, Jack, and the cast?

You can have fun with one another and not have anything to prove. One of the nice things about working with this group is that they have nothing to prove, even if they have it inside secretly, they never come across that way. They’re very secure human beings. It’s lovely for everyone to do their job and be generous on stage. We really do want the best for one another.

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Sister Mary is addicted to gambling. What are your addictions?

Television is the number one thing. It’s my favorite way to come down. There was a time when I got rid of cable but now it’s back. As far as addictions go, that’s a pretty livable one. I don’t know what I would do without my Walking Dead and my Better Call Saul. I think this is the golden age of television, so I’m going to stick with this addiction as long as they keep making brilliant shows. Fargo, Breaking Bad, The Wire; these are some incredible TV shows. They used to say that film was the goal but look no further than the TV in your living room. It is some excellent work and I would give my left eye to be on one of those shows.

Sister Mary tells people they’re going to Hell. In your opinion, what is the ultimate sin?

Let’s go through the ten commandments. Killing someone is the big one. There’s no takesies-backsies on killing. Sister Mary would say gambling because she’s so tunnel-visioned about it. She actually would rather commit suicide at one point. She’s an active addict. It’s a very difficult thing for her. She’s not in recovery.

You share a dressing room with Lacretta Nicole. As someone so established in the theatre community, what’s it like working closely with someone in their Broadway debut?

It’s very equal. I’m so proud of her, even though I have no right to be proud of her. I consider her a new friend. She’s making one h-e-double-hockey-sticks of a debut. She lost her mother four years ago. We have that in common. I know I keep talking about it but I’ll still be talking about it 20 years from now. When you go through something like that, there’s no need to finish each other’s sentences, you just know. It’s something we both share and I’m very blessed that she’s my roommate in the show. We can talk and we can stay silent, and there’s an innate understanding. We were both with our mothers when they passed and I’m very grateful for that and I think she would say the same. We’re very lucky that we had them as our mothers. I know in my heart that Lacretta’s mother is so proud of her. As her colleague, dressing roommate, and friend, I’m proud of her.

What’s one of the best memories with this company that you’ll still remember years from now?

Roger making us all laugh. Faith Prince is lucky, because she has a purse in front of her mouth and a scarf to stuff in her mouth, as opposed to someone like me or Seth who has to be stoic. Another thing is seeing how down to earth the cast is. A great deal of them are Tony winners and Tony nominees and they’re just regular people. They’re so nice and funny. What I’ll take with me the most is how much of a fun experience it is. We laugh every day.

What would you say to someone to get them to come to the show?

There’s nothing like this show on Broadway. I don’t like it when shows close; these are my friends and colleagues and I wish we could all run forever. With the closing of Mamma Mia! and Rock of Ages, there’s a window that’s opened for this kind of show and it’s ours. I’m picky about my comedy and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it. There’s something cathartic about laughing until you cry. I have my list of favorite movies and this is right up there with how funny they are and it happens to be on stage. There’s nothing like a live experience. These are some of the best actors in the business, and they’re all in one place. Why wouldn’t you want to come be a part of that? It’s like you’re on the boat with us, in this floating casino. It’s just a blast. There’s so many good things on Broadway right now. Like I said about television, it’s another golden age of Broadway. I’m so happy that, for the most part, we’ve been treated so well by the critics. It’s good for everyone.

Have you seen anything recently that you were moved by?

The last thing I saw was Fun Home, and that was just wonderful. One of my dearest friends, Rebecca Luker, just temporarily took over for Judy Kuhn. Jeanine Tesori did such a great job, as did the rest of the creative team and cast.

How would you fare in a disaster situation like what happens in the show?

I would fare very well. I’m good in a crisis. I stay pretty calm. I’m pretty task-oriented and organized. I will say that my competitive dark side would come out, so I might be a little bit like Rose Nylund from The Golden Girls when they get stranded on the beach. She’s like ‘You, over there!’ Dorothy says to Blanche, ‘I don’t think we’re allowed to talk.’ I might get a little bossy.

Which character would you most want to step into for a night?

It’s a toss up between Jackie, Rachel York’s part, Shirley, Faith’s part, or Baylee [Littrell]’s part. The one I would probably most likely do is Faith’s part but in a read through, they needed someone who could sing Baylee’s part and it was really fun.

If you were not an actor or musician, what would you want to do?

A writer would laugh at me for saying this, because I have the fantasy version of what a writer is, but I would want to be a creatively respected and astoundingly financially successful writer. I picture myself in Newport, Rhode Island, on a porch, looking at the ocean, and writing the novels that everyone has been waiting for. Like J.K. Rowling, I’d be J.J. Simard.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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