Jenn Colella was last seen on stage in Chaplin as Hedda Hopper and will be re-emerging next season in the highly anticipated musical If/Then. She has also starred alongside some of the biggest names in the Broadway and has become an integral personality and icon in the theatre community. Stage Door Dish sat down with Jenn to discuss her role in If/Then, memorable stage door experiences, and the lifelong friendships she has made in the industry.
SDD: How is If/Then going?
JC: It’s awesome. It’s so much fun.
SDD: How would you describe this musical?
JC: If/Then is a love letter to New York City, first and foremost. I’ve been with the project for a couple of years and I’m realizing that more and more that it’s a love letter to New York City. It’s this beautiful guide into one woman’s heart where she is deciding, on the brink of turning 40, to make a huge change in her life and to cast fear aside and to just leap, to go wherever the fates take her. She returns to New York, this is Idina Menzel I’m speaking of, to start a new life for herself and it’s just beautiful. It shows how the people we meet and the choices we make affect our entire lives. It’s really beautiful.
SDD: How does your character come to play in it?
JC: LaChanze plays a neighbor that helps Idina move in the first day she moves back to New York. I play LaChanze’s girlfriend.
SDD: What’s your character’s name?
JC: My character’s name is Ann. I just learned this week, through some lyrics, that Ann is a sous-chef who’s a dancer, which are two things that I can’t do. I find that amazing. I’m an okay dancer. I definitely can’t cook at all, as my girlfriend will definitely say is true. I’m mostly there. I’m funny. I’m attracted to LaChanze’s character, Kate, because she is in love with life and full of life and I find that magnetic. Together, we’re really funny and loving. It’s going to be a cool, contemporary lesbian relationship to show on the Broadway stage.
SDD: How do you feel about working with this incredible cast?
JC: It’s bananas. First, the creative team is bananas. Tom Kitt and I are rehearsing in the same room where we met doing Urban Cowboy 11 years ago, which was my first Broadway show and his as well. He was the associate conductor. Jason Robert Brown brought him in. We’re rehearsing in the same room. We happen to open on March 27, which is the same night 11 years later that we opened Urban Cowboy. I will follow Tom Kitt, I call him “T-Bone”, anywhere. I think he’s extraordinary. His music is moving, it’s intelligent and different, and yet you feel like you know the melodies. There’s a part of you that feels like you’ve known them your whole life. Brian Yorkey is a genius. Michael Greif, I would do anything with. David Stone, all of those people, I just want to play in the sandbox with. And then when they comprised this amazing cast…what’s cool about being in the business for a minute, which I have been, I’ve worked with a lot of them. Those of whom I haven’t worked with, I know of. They’re just loving and grateful and talented. We’re celebrating every single moment. We’re having costume fittings and learning songs and everyone is celebrating every single second. It’s cool.
SDD: Speaking of that creative team, obviously they’re famous for Next to Normal. Are there any huge twists we can expect in this show?
JC: Yes! The answer is yes. It’s so hard not to talk about what happens but there are so many cool things that happen.
SDD: So exciting! How did the cast of Chaplin feel once you found out you were closing? It seemed like you all became very close.
JC: We did. We totally got close. Did you hear that a lot of us got tattoos?
SDD: I did!
JC: We got matching tattoos. Mine is white. It’s faint, with the hat and mustache. There were thirteen of us in the cast and creative that got the hat and the mustache. We totally fell madly in love with one another. Rob McClure was the foundation of that particular love. It was such a unique show. I really thought it was beautiful. I was super proud of what Warren Carlyle and Chris Curtis created. We were bummed that it closed, but again, we always know that this is fleeting. Whatever we do, who knows if you’re going to close the next day or in two years. We just try to celebrate it as long as we can. I’m still very close with those people and in contact with them a lot.
SDD: I want to talk about your friendship with Rob McClure. Are you two still close?
JC: We are. I just texted him this morning. He’s starting tech for Honeymoon in Vegas and JRB’s a big buddy of mine. I was sending them some love today as they moved into tech with that show. It’s going to be so good!
SDD: What did you learn from working with him?
JC: It was a reminder that when you’re in a leadership role, to be a good leader and to take on that responsibility. When we get leading roles, it’s not just about being the star of the company. It’s about sharing a positive attitude with everyone at all moments. Even if you’re feeling insecure or not grounded, to still take ownership of that and to not get mad or throw fits. He never, ever did that. It’s something I really believe in. I think being a leader means that you have a responsibility to show people that you’re grateful and that your work ethic is strong and that you’re going to celebrate each moment, even when you’re feeling uncertain. Rob’s sense of play is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. His gratitude and respect are off the charts. I just really love him for that.
SDD: I know that that you read that biography about Hedda Hopper. Did you do any other research going into the role?
JC: There’s Hedda’s From Under My Hat, which was awesome, and a lot of her radio publications were important because I had to listen to the voice and the whole 40s ‘Look here, see!’ thing. She just really bit into that. It was super fun to get to know her in that way. What’s interesting about playing a villain, because I’d never played a villain before, is that they don’t know they’re a villain. She thought she was just doing what was right for the country and her followers. She really believed that she was upholding the moral fabric of the country. Instead of playing all “twisty mustache”, which is hard, I had to fight that and play that I was doing what I thought was best. That was the most important thing with her. I don’t know if I succeeded all the time. Sometimes, I found myself falling into the trap of the [villain laugh]. Mostly, I just tried to play her objective, which was to take care of the Republicans of the country.
SDD: Was it difficult to give her your own voice while honoring who she actually was?
JC: That’s a great question. I think that’s the challenge. That’s what makes good acting so difficult which is why it’s so great when it happens. I don’t even know if I was great in the role. I was just starting to approach being pretty alright in combining those two things, which is what I try to do in every role, combining who I am and who the character is. When you’re playing an iconic figure like that, there’s a responsibility to honor who she really was but to bring some Colella into at the same time. The role that I’m playing in If/Then is really close to Colella. I’m pretty much just being me. It’s also a challenge because I have to trust each and every time that that’s enough.
SDD: I heard that you were occasionally booed when you played Hedda. Did you find that, because of that, your performance was effective or were you taken aback by that? Lots of actors feel differently about it.
JC: No, I was taken aback the first time because I wasn’t used to it. Then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s success! I’m being successful.’ It was the mixture of cheers and boos, which means I did my job right. I was supposed to play the villain and they didn’t like the character. Had it been all boos and no applause, I think my ego would have been a little hurt, but it was a nice mix of the two.
SDD: What went through your mind each time you sang “All Falls Down”, since it was such a show-stopper?
JC: What’s interesting is that what went through my mind was, ‘You’re going to say the wrong lyric. Don’t say the wrong lyric. You’re on a Broadway stage, why is that other voice talking? Who’s talking?’ Those are the kinds of things that were happening. Fortunately, most of the time, I think Rob made that number. Watching his physicality and looking in his eyes, he just turned into this puppet and would allow me to do anything. There were some nights when I thought to myself, ‘Oh god, here comes the big note. Do you have it? I don’t know if you have it. This cat has going for an hour and a half and you’re coming on basically to do this one big number. You’re going to have it because you have to respect the work he’s done up until now.’ Just watching him do his thing fueled me into saying, ‘I’m going to continue to succeed in honor of what he’s done.’ That’s pretty much what was happening in my head.
SDD: Do you think that your background in stand-up comedy has made you fearless when it comes to big numbers like that?
JC: I do, yes! That’s exactly why I did stand-up. There’s nothing like being on a stage, in a comedy club, knowing people are expecting you to make them laugh. It’s your own jokes and there’s no one else to blame. It’s not the writers, it’s not the timing. If a joke of your own fails, there’s no feeling like that. It’s just like, ‘Oh, man, that was the worst thing ever!’ Then, if you take a deep breath and stay true to yourself and say the next joke and they’re on the floor, you say to yourself, ‘Wait, the world will keep spinning if I fail in this moment. It’s not going to cave in. Everything is not going to stop. I can get them back and I can trust myself if I fail.’ I think that was a huge lesson for me not only as an artist but as a person, to allow myself to stumble and to keep the voice inside a little gentler, saying, ‘That’s alright, you’ll get them next time!’
SDD: How did you get into character for Hedda?
JC: I would always sing the song in my dressing room right before I went out, like full on do the song so that I could get it. I think that the costumes were so beautiful and having that cinematic gray-scale makeup really helped. I would check my look out in the mirror and I really felt like I was this conservative woman going out to save the country. I had this awesome, posh dressing room, a star dressing room off of the women’s ensemble dressing room. I’d walk out and they would all shiver and act like they were all terrified of me. I was like, ‘That’s right!’ The girls helped me tremendously.
SDD: I feel like ‘cinematic gray-scale’ was a term I heard a lot while this show was in production.
JC: They coached us! They told us to say it so we’d feel proud. It was like a drinking game where we’d get a point or everyone would do a shot every time we heard ‘cinematic gray-scale.’
SDD: What has been your favorite kind of role to play, now that you’ve done a few different types? Do you prefer playing villains?
JC: It’s interesting. As I’m getting older, I find that the roles are getting a little juicier and a little meatier. I think I’m getting better. I would love to play another villain. I’m usually the fun girl that you can trust who’s going to throw some wisecracks but is also really vulnerable. That’s where I live because that feels like who I am. I have a lot of love in my heart and I play a big game about being tough and ready to take on the world, but I will cry at any commercial. I am a true softie. Those are roles that I prefer but to stretch myself and to keep getting better, I think I want to try on some other roles. Some mom roles, some villain roles. I want to play a lawyer. I’m open to just about anything. I think the sky’s the limit.
SDD: What I find interesting is that on Broadway, you’ve only done original pieces. Has each process been different?
JC: Absolutely. I’ve been really lucky that people keep trusting me with their new work. I say that in all honesty. I feel deeply honored that these creative people, the best creative people, have trusted me. The best of the best come here to do their thing and the continually reach out and trust me with something that they’re creating. I’ll cry right now just thinking about it. That, to me, feels like the ultimate goal as an artist. Yes, each time is different and new and I do all of my homework and work as hard as I can so I can continue to honor that gift that they’ve given me.
SDD: What did you take away from High Fidelity and Urban Cowboy?
JC: Again, Urban Cowboy was so delightful because we all fell in love with one another and got to meet Lonny Price and sing Jason Robert Brown songs. High Fidelity, again, we fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the music. They were incredible. The fact that they closed so quickly was absolutely heartbreaking, for sure. It’s part of why my sense of gratitude is so deep, I think, and why when I go to a costume fitting, I’m like, ‘Yes!’ There’s never any time during a show when they ask me to do something that I do it begrudgingly because I know that it’s fleeting and that there are millions of people who are dying to take my place. I know that even if it’s a show that runs and runs, it’s going to close. It could be the very next day after you open. Enjoy it, celebrate it. Be grateful and treat everyone with respect. There’s no room to be at the level we are and to complain about it. I don’t believe in it and I don’t have a lot of tolerance for it. I think we’re the luckiest people in the world to get to do what we do. Would I have loved for those shows to have run longer? Of course. Am I honored and grateful that I had the chance to be up there, even for a second? Yes.
SDD: Do you have any dream roles that you would like to take on in a revival?
JC: That’s a good question. I’ve always wanted to play Sally Bowles but I think that has gone by. Violet is cool but I think that Sutton’s got the lockdown on that one coming in. I’d like to do plays. Viola in Twelfth Night, I’d still do that one. I played Annie Oakley at PCLO in Annie Get Your Gun and there are just some roles like that that seem to fit me. I’m from South Carolina, so any Southern girl with some pluck seems to really, really fit me. I’d like to play that one again. A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia is awesome. She plays a God. Sarah Jessica Parker did it originally. I played it in South Carolina in a professional theatre where I worked but I would love to do that one here. Those are some off of the top of my head.
SDD: What’s your favorite show that you’ve done?
JC: Urban Cowboy was so special because Matt Cavenaugh and I were sharing our Broadway debuts and we were sharing that with the rest of the cast. Most of them, it was their Broadway debut. We were so madly in love with one another. I think I made out with every single person in that cast, not even in a sexual way, just an ‘I love you so much’ way. We bonded together like a family. Lonny Price is one of my best friends. He has championed me since the first moment I auditioned for him. That changed my life, really, so that one holds a very special place in my heart. I met Jason Robert Brown, I was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle award. I didn’t even have my Equity card and, all of a sudden, I was a lead on Broadway. That one is pretty special to me.
SDD: Do you have a favorite performer that you’ve worked with?
JC: I’ve worked with all of these dreamy leading men like Matt Cavenaugh and Will Chase. They’ve all been astounding. And LaChanze, she’s my leading man now. Rob McClure is up there just because I respect him so much as a person and as an artist. He is a sweetheart. He’s a good friend and a good artist. He loves what he does and more than anything, his foundation is gratitude, which is my religion. I think I’m going to have to say Rob.
SDD: What is a typical show day like for you?
JC: It depends on the show. It’s interesting that this time around, the role is a little bit smaller than what I’m used to. It’s going to be a littler chiller. I’m going to be able to support the cast in a different way. I’m also understudying Idina and I’ve never done that before. As daunting and terrifying as that is, I just want to let the creative team know that I’ve got it. Really quickly, I want to let them know that should you need me, I’ve got it. Jackie Burns is her standby, so hopefully I’m way down the line. I want them to know that should they need me, I will honor the production and what Idina is doing. I think that this time around, it’s going to be about taking good care of myself. Full eight to nine hours of sleep, a great breakfast, yoga is important. A little bit of warm-up, but I don’t believe in warming up your voice too much. Some people, I think, waste it. I hear some people warming up as loud as they can and I’m like, ‘You are wasting that!’ It’s going to be about being aware that the show is paramount. For however long the show is open, my focus is on being well and taking care of the production and the people around me, being positive and supportive and loving.
SDD: I didn’t know you were understudying for Idina!
JC: Isn’t that nuts? Not a lot of people know. I don’t think I’m putting it in the Playbill. I’m mostly doing it because the creative team asked me and I respect them and I want to support this endeavor in any way that I can. I’m honored by it, but it’s something that I’m not telling a lot of people.
SDD: Do you have any pre-show rituals? We know that Rob used to run around the theatre…
JC: Isn’t that amazing? I tried to connect with each person in the cast before. I’m a big hugger, so I’ll try to hug everyone and look everyone in the eye and check in and give everyone some love. That’s important to me. I want to make sure that each time before we get started, we feel connected and that they know they’re loved and appreciated.
SDD: That’s such a wonderful ritual.
JC: It’s important to me.
SDD: Since you were so close with Rob, did you ever break when you were doing your number together where he was literally acting like your dummy?
JC: He started to mess with me towards the end. As I mentioned before, when he was doing the puppet and I was controlling him, he was dead-eyed and totally in it. I would do a riff that I hadn’t done if I was feeling saucy that night and he’d raise his eyebrows at me like, ‘Look what you did there!’ He knows that that would kill me. I’d really have to hold it. The funny thing about me playing the villain and this woman that hated his character is that we’re mad about each other. We love each other so deeply and have such respect for one another that if he would do anything like that onstage, he knows he could break me like that.
SDD: What is your favorite hobby?
JC: I’m digging yoga. Yoga is something that I’ve found recently that helps me spiritually and physically. It’s a gift that I’m giving to myself that feels really, really good. Reading, I love reading. I usually read four or five books at a time, depending on my mood. I love to sit quietly. I spend so much of my life outwardly giving love and expressing myself that I try to balance it with a lot of time being quiet and still. Spending time with my girlfriend is important. I love to travel. I’m going to Nicaragua in January in our down time. I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America in the past year and a half. I think traveling, yoga and reading are among my top three, for sure.
SDD: I saw one of your video blogs where you briefly juggled your makeup tools. I was very impressed. Is that a secret talent of yours?
JC: It is! My family owns a golf store on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and I was so bored working there one summer in my college years. There are those brick balls that are supposed to make your hands stronger, so I literally taught myself how to juggle out of sheer boredom. I think it’s funny to find other items that are completely mismatched in weight and size and try to juggle them. Thank you for the shout-out!
SDD: Do you have any other secret talents or is that the extent of it?
JC: I spin poi. It’s like a nylon string with a tennis ball and there’s fabric on the end of it. Hippies will spin them in the park and eventually, I’ll learn how to spin fire. I want to be a fire spinner. I can hula-hoop with the huge hoops. I met a lot of cool hippies in California when I went to grad school out there. I can do stuff like that.
SDD: You traveled a lot before you got to New York, didn’t you?
JC: I did, that’s right.
SDD: But New York theatre is something you’ve always wanted to do?
JC: It is. I caught the bug pretty early on, I think. I would sing Barbra Streisand. I can remember listening to my mom and seeing my mom happy and connecting music and Barbra Streisand with my mother’s happiness. I think that lit something up inside of me. I think singing in choir was part of that. I was a total choir nerd. I loved feeling the vibration of perfect harmony and everyone celebrating inside the music that way. I think I’ve just always been a nerd for it like that.
SDD: If you could trade places with anyone on Broadway right now, who would you choose?
JC: What’s a show that’s running? Not a lot of my shows run. I always ask my buddy Stephen Oremus, who’s the vocal arranger and conductor and brilliant music arranger for Kinky Boots and, before that, The Book of Mormon, I ask him, ‘Any white girls in Book of Mormon yet?’ There aren’t any. Any cast member I see, I’m like, ‘Any white girls in Book of Mormon?’ I would love to be in Book of Mormon because it’s a show that’s hilarious and fun and it’s going to run forever. Another show I’ll never be in is Motown. Not a lot of call for chicks like me in Motown. Those are shows that I would love to be in.
SDD: What’s been your most memorable stage door experience?
JC: People are so sweet. It’s astounding to me when people keep coming back. If I’ve been out sick, fans will bring me things. One fan brought me a huge basket with soup and Kleenex and DVDs, stuff to take care of me. I’ve received flowers when it’s my birthday. I think it’s so sweet that people take the time to find out who I am and what I might like. Even if someone says, ‘It’s my birthday and I came here to spend my birthday and you were the highlight of it,’ it’s the sweetest thing ever. What a gift! I was that person at the stage door when I first came to New York, so I’ll spend time with anyone. There is no way, ever, regardless of what I have to do or who I think I might become, that I will ever walk past the stage door without greeting anyone who wants to step up.
SDD: What is the last great show you saw on stage?
JC: Kinky Boots was pretty fantastic. I was blown away. I knew it’d be great because of Jerry Mitchell and, of course, it’s Billy and Stark. I knew it would be fun, but I didn’t know I would be touched as deeply as I was. I went opening night with my buddy Christian Borle. Christian, because he’s so close with Billy, was just a mess and crying the whole time. It was ugly crying. We were sobbing and holding each other and laughing through it. We were so proud and moved by it. I really enjoyed that show. I thought it was great.
SDD: How far back do you and Christian go?
JC: We go back a ways. Christian and I first connected when he was playing one of the Wright brothers and I was Amelia Earhart at the McCarter for a reading of Take Flight. We just became buddies. About a year and a half ago, we dated for almost a year. I might be gay but I’m not stupid! He’s amazing. He’s an astounding human being. From that, our relationship continues to grow and change and evolve. He’s honestly one of my best friends. I talk with him almost every day. He’s the funniest person I’ve ever met and the sweetest, most generous human being. I love him very much.
SDD: Do you have any current obsessions?
JC: I just went through Orange is the New Black. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to love it as much as I did. It doesn’t mean it’s not flawed but I dug it. It’s women’s prison! It’s just awesome. I can’t wait for it to come back. I don’t watch a lot of television so when I do, I get hooked. It’s such an event and a treat for myself.
SDD: What was your involvement in Not Just Another Coming Out Story like?
JC: Any time that any Keenan-Bolger asks me to do anything, I will say yes. I just think that family’s astounding. I think they’re all incredible. Her brother asked me to do Submissions Only. I didn’t even know what the character was and I said yes. Celia is a dream. Any time any of them want me to do something, I say yes. It was basically that. I didn’t know what it was. The scripts were available like twenty minutes before we did it. I read it and I was like, ‘This is something quite beautiful and important.’ Of course it was, because it came from them. Literally, she asked me and I said yes because it was her and then found out that it was something really, really lovely.
SDD: I read somewhere that when you first got to New York, you were advised not to come out. You did anyway, and have you continued to receive love and support from the Broadway community?
JC: I have. Now, 11 years later, there’s no part of me that feels afraid about that or who I am, even saying that I dated Christian. I am who I am and I have a lot of love for lots of different people. Currently, I’m in a beautiful relationship with a woman who I deeply respect and love. It doesn’t fall so easily into any category and I feel safe and comfortable with that. The people that I love and trust have only supported me in that. It feels really, really good, to be honest.
SDD: I’m sure there are people like this, but if there was a performer in the city right now who had been given the same advice as you and is following it, what would you say to them?
JC: I know some who are still struggling with that. Everybody has their own path. Truth is always the best way, even if feels scary. I think being truthful with yourself is the best possible way. Everybody has their own time frame for when they feel comfortable enough to embrace that. My job as a friend and colleague is just to hold space for them wherever they currently are and to say, ‘Whenever you’re ready, we will have balloons and streamers.’ Until then, I don’t want to put any pressure on anybody and say, ‘You have to now.’ Everybody’s got their own thing and a lot of things going on with their family and their own upbringing that we don’t know about. I’m not one that pressures someone into doing something they’re not ready to do.
SDD: Going forward, what we can we expect from If/Then?
JC: If/Then is so extraordinarily different and so exciting and unlike anything that New York has every seen. It’s going to be a huge smash. I’m so stoked. Whatever happens, I’m just going to honor it and celebrate it and support it as much as I possibly can. I have feeling that it’s going to be around for a while.
Thanks to the fabulous Joe Allen Restaurant for hosting us for the afternoon.