Rachel Bay Jones‘s soothing vocals, stage presence, and personality are winning over audiences yet again. After appearing Off-Broadway as two of America’s First Ladies in First Daughter Suite last fall, she is now playing a different kind of matriarch.
In Dear Evan Hansen, Bay Jones portrays the mother of a high school student (played by Pitch Perfect star Ben Platt) whose classmate has just committed suicide. The story goes on to explore the ways in which we relate to and love each other in the modern world. The stunning new show, which features music and lyrics by Dogfight songwriters Pasek and Paul, opened Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre to rave reviews on May 1.
Additionally, Bay Jones’s sweet and comforting vocals are featured on the recently-released cast recording for First Daughter Suite. Written by Tony nominee Michael John LaChiusa, the show seeks to take a vibrant and captivating peek into the private lives of some of America’s most public women. Bay Jones appears on the album as both Rosalynn Carter and Laura Bush.
Bay Jones took a break from her busy schedule to chat with Stage Door Dish about the strength of America’s First Ladies, the importance of mental health research, and her advice for shy aspiring performers.
Why are you most excited for people who may not have seen First Daughter Suite to get an opportunity to listen to this music?
The run was so short that I don’t know how many people who love Michael John LaChiusa could actually come. I also feel like this continues to expand his audience. Having the album out there will give people who weren’t given the opportunity to come to New York to see it an opportunity to experience the glory that is Michael John LaChiusa. It’s beautiful.
From your experience working on the show, how do you believe the lives of the presidents’ daughters and wives differ from those of other women?
Mostly what we tried to do was to draw the parallels between these women and all women, how the issues that they deal with are really issues that we all deal with. We were focusing more on the similarities between ourselves and these women that we were portraying. Our goal was to understand the universality that exists for all of us as women, mothers, wives, and daughters. It was interesting that Michael John titled this a “fantasia.” All of the scenarios that are played out in First Daughter Suite are behind-the-scenes. They’re part of the private lives of these very public women. So we were given the opportunity as actors to imagine what they’re like behind closed doors and out of the public eye. We were able to put together the bits of information that we have about them from their very public personas and create what we believe their private lives to look and feel like. All of that has to be from our own experience and the experiences of other women that we know. It was a really interesting process.
What do you think would be the most difficult part of being constantly under the nation’s scrutiny as a woman?
As women, there are a lot of expectations placed on us and our behavior. We’re not allowed the freedom to be ugly or to show any kind of ugly emotion. We’re not allowed to show anger or rage or anything that’s considered to be some kind of negative emotion. This is doubly frowned on when it’s perpetrated by a woman. I can only imagine how much harder that would be for these women who are not only responsible for their own image but whose very image can taint that of their husbands or fathers. I cannot imagine the stress that must produce and the amount of self-control that must be done in order to sustain that life. Some of them were obviously more successful than others at doing that. The dream sequence where Betty Ford goes wild is beautiful for that reason. These are all private moments, and Michael John played off of that so beautifully. You’re witnessing these women with their hair down, and with some of them, it comes down pretty far.
So you think the women of the White House possess a special kind of strength?
I would imagine that they would have to have an enormous amount of strength. The fluidity with which they maneuver their lives in the public eye is really admirable.
What was it like to step into this world that Michael John LaChiusa envisioned for these women?
It was very emotional for me. Michael John writes from the heart and the gut. He’s a man who’s so full of passion, and his music is full of that. That’s really the key to unlocking the performance that you’re asked to give. Everything is inside of the music that he’s written. It’s deeply layered and extremely intuitive, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to get inside of it. But once you are, the freedom and joy inside of this music is really extraordinary and singular. There’s nothing like it. There’s never been anything like it. What he does is simply stunning. It was interesting to play actual historical figures and to be able to do research on their public lives and the way they moved inside of the world. We could then take this knowledge that we ingested about who these women were and go further inside of their imagined private lives in this fantasia through Michael John’s incredible songs.
They’re amazing. Every one of them was more fantastic than the next. It was wild and wonderful; I don’t know how else to explain it. We were all in awe of each other and it was a beautiful experience. The depth of each of these women was astounding, and watching each other work every day was a master class.
One of the characters you portrayed was Laura Bush, the daughter-in-law of Barbara Bush and wife of George W. Bush. What kind of insight did you gain on this famous lady through playing her?
I immediately had to put myself in the shoes of someone whose job was to defend and love someone who was under constant criticism from the world. To even imagine what that must feel like, and for someone to emerge from that experience with such grace…I really admire her fortitude and what must be the depth of her love and commitment to him. It taught me a lot about what love is and what love can be. The people we love are never going to be perfect. Obviously there will be varying levels of imperfection, but how can we continue to love them and defend them and defend our right to love someone who is less than perfect? How do we, and do we? It’s a good question to ask myself night after night.
You also portrayed Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter, who has been very outspoken about the need for mental health research. What are your own thoughts on promoting this need?
She was amazing to bring that into the light. It’s still a taboo topic, isn’t it? People are now talking about antidepressants and they feel a little bit more freedom, which was unheard of back then. Even so, there’s still a huge stigma attached to the life of the mind and the ways in which it strays from ‘normalcy.’ We’ve got a ways to go. But Rosalynn is such a beautiful woman with so much heart.
You are currently in a show that deals with mental illness in its own way, Dear Evan Hansen. What practical steps do you think we could all take to prevent suicide, especially among teenagers?
For anyone who is struggling with feelings of isolation, connection is the key. Deep, true, meaningful, and genuine connection with people who love you is a lifeline.
You’re working with another Tony-nominated director in this show, Mr. Michael Greif, who has prior experience directing shows with a heavy subject matter like Next to Normal and Rent. What is it about his style of direction that allows him to successfully tackle these subjects?
He’s really interested in getting inside the way our mind works inside of relationships and stripping away a lot of the artifice that gets in the way of real communication. He really wants to illustrate that and how all of it works. He certainly is doing a lot of that here with this show.
All of it has so much energy, but those boys write the best ‘mom songs’ ever. I don’t understand how they do it. They’re so young, but they have the heart of a mommy. They have the heart of a middle-aged woman. Their music really cuts right to the bone. They understand what a mother’s joy and pain really is, and they’re able to write it, so it’s easy to sing.
What’s it like to have Ben Platt as your onstage son?
It’s glorious. People think he’s an angel, and I think he might be too. He’s so talented and really effortlessly beautiful.
Do you think this show provides real-life strategies for dealing with grief?
It offers us a lot of understanding and it has a lot to say about forgiveness. I don’t know if I would say it necessarily provides those strategies, but ultimately the show is so deeply about connection, and that also means connection with the people who come to see it. The people who come to our show see themselves, they see their loved ones, and they see people they know. That’s the most important thing that we have to offer as artists and certainly in this show. We can see and understand our parents, our children, and our friends. That goes a long way toward healing.
How do you think parents in particular can help their children understand the death of a classmate or a friend?
I’m not an expert on this, but what parents can understand is that children want to feel safe and loved. I can imagine that if children are experiencing a death in their community, their need for that will fully increase. It would be key to fulfill that need.
What message do you think this show has for today’s high school students?
What’s interesting about this show is that it’s not heavy-handed in its treatment of this topic. There is nothing that feels instructive or preachy about the journey of this story. It’s a wonderful, joy-filled story. There’s also a lot of emotion and a lot of depth and a lot of everything, including humor. It’s not as heavy as you would think considering the fact that it’s a musical involving a suicide. I wouldn’t call it a ‘suicide musical’ by any means. It really does feel like a story about connection and how we can connect, the ways in which we choose to do this, what gets in the way of friends and parents and children making those connections, and how we feel loved. It has less to do with how to survive the loss of a loved one and more to do with how we associate and connect with each other in this day and age.
What do you think is the biggest benefit of using a more upbeat method to tackle what could be a very heavy subject matter?
It’s not fully light-hearted. Our book writer is amazing. Steven Levenson is all the things. He’s funny, insightful, so clever, and so smart. The story is endlessly surprising. It’s really true. Even though it’s a completely made up story, everything is about it is truth. The humor is not all lame jokes and making light of a heavy situation, it’s real humor that comes out of the situation. The story feels so real, and the style of the show is authentic. The acting style is very authentic. It feels like you’re watching real people interact. It’s really special.
What’s the first musical you ever saw?
Oh my God, I don’t remember. My parents were actors, so I’ve been going to the theatre since I can remember. I didn’t have that one special, life-changing moment of ‘This is where I want to be.’ I didn’t have that experience.
Do you remember your favorite musical when you were young?
I watched The Sound of Music movie over and over again. I played the record album of Pirates of Penzance over and over again. I watched Oklahoma and it scared me. I watched The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, all those movies. 1776 was a great one.
I’ve read that you consider yourself a shy person. What’s the best advice you have for shy performers?
Just keep forcing yourself. I think that’s part of the reason I’m an actor to begin with. It was the only thing that was going to get me outside of myself. I felt like if I didn’t do this in a big way, it wasn’t going to happen. It’s not enough for me to just sweat and say hi to people when they’re trying to talk to me. I had to really smash myself into a wall over and over again to get outside of myself. It’s easier for shyer people to feel fear when they’re performing. I talked a lot about connections, but it really is about that for me. It’s about communicating and connecting with the audience. That’s why I think theatre is so important. It’s a real experience. It’s really happening. We’re telling these stories over and over again in order to get right, to tell it right this night, and to see what more truth we can mine from the story tonight and how I can better communicate it to you out there. Once you’re focused on moving through yourself to another person, the shyness goes away.
Do you have any personal mottos that you live your life by?
I wish I could adhere to any of my mottos consistently. What I strive for is probably better. It’s going to sound cliché, but being honest with yourself about what it is you’re doing, what it is you want, what you’re willing to do to get what you want, how you want to move around your day, how you want to move around your life, and the effect you want to have on other people. Keep your eyes open and constantly be honest with yourself and with others.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what career path do you think you would have taken?
I would have been a scientist. There’s still time, right? I thought for sure I was going to be a marine biologist. I asked my coworker and dear friend Jennifer Laura Thompson the other day, and she thought it might be an irresponsible life choice for me to quit acting and become a poet. Wouldn’t it be financially irresponsible for me to do that?
The First Daughter Suite Original Cast Recording can be downloaded on iTunes here.