Singer-actress Jenny Powers has done the impossible. She has managed to make that warhorse of a song, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” fresh, exciting and unexpectedly moving. In fact, her belty rendition of the Jim Jacobs-Warren Casey tune is one of the highlights of the current revival of Grease, which recently opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall, the much-in-the-news production features Max Crumm (as Danny Zuko) and Laura Osnes (as Sandy Dumbrowski), who were cast in their roles via the TV reality show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want.” Powers, who made her Broadway bow in the musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
, recently chatted about her Broadway outings as well as her work in the out-of-town tryouts of Bounce
and The Glorious Ones
Question: How did the role of Rizzo come about for you?
I was in the second round of auditions for this production. They had had one round of auditions in the fall, and I think they had trouble casting the role. It was actually Megan Larche from Jay Binder’s office who asked me to come in and do a work session with Jay because he didn’t think I could be tough enough. [Laughs.] He’s like, “I know Jenny can be a bitch — we’ve seen her do that in Of Thee I Sing as Diana Devereaux,” but he thinks of me as too sophisticated and classy to be a tough broad. So I went in, and I had had this awful run-in with this cab driver right as he was dropping me off. He brought me in the most roundabout way to the audition, and so I bitched him out. I was like, “Just drop me off here.” It was a freezing cold day, so I showed up ready to just be a loose cannon. So [Binder] was like, “Oh my God, you are Rizzo, Powers. I had no idea.” I mean, just the mode I was in — that was working in my favor. So I did the work session with Jay. He brought me in front of Kathleen [Marshall], and she really gave me no notes but said, “Unfortunately, we have to wait for a month and a half before I can put you in front of David Ian,” because of his schedule. [He is] the lead producer. It was hard. A lot of us were on hold for months. . . . It was crazy. It was insane. I remember on New Years, I was like, “What is this year going to hold for me?” because I also was a part of The Glorious Ones
, the new Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens piece, which is coming in now. I went out to Pittsburgh with it. I was planning on coming [into New York] with it as well, but I had already signed my contract for Grease
when they were going to make their move. So I had to say goodbye.
Question: Was that a difficult decision to not be able to be a part of that show?
You know what, doing it in Pittsburgh… It’s a gorgeous piece, but I felt like that was enough for me. It was a beautiful woman who I got to portray, and she got to sing this glorious song that Stephen and Lynn wrote, but she was more [someone] you would categorize as an ingénue. For me, Rizzo was an opportunity to at least show the Broadway community another side of me. Since I’ve come to this city, it’s like, “Oh, you have a pretty face and you can sing high. Ingénue!” You know what I mean? Literally, one of my first auditions in New York was for Les Miz, and I came in belting because I wanted to be Fantine or Eponine, and they handed me the Cosette music. [Laughs.]
Question: Were you watching the reality casting program for Grease while you were waiting to hear?
Yeah, it was funny because it started airing while we were on hold. So I said, “Let’s see what this is about.” And my father, who is outside the business, was like, “Well, you might start watching it and hope you don’t get the role, Jenny.” [Laughs.] To be honest with you, I only got to see a couple episodes. I had a really busy winter performing in some TV stuff, and then I left for Pittsburgh to the The Glorious Ones
at the Public. It was hard because my Sunday nights were really precious. I got to see it a couple of times, and at the time I didn’t have DVR!
Question: What do you think of casting via a reality TV program?
I have no qualms with it. I really think it’s no different than plucking Hollywood stars, who have never been on a Broadway stage, to be in our New York community and star in shows here. I really don’t think it’s any different.
Question: It’s just another way of trying to get an audience for a show.
Exactly. And for us, the supporting cast, it’s great because they didn’t have to put in a huge name as Rizzo like they have done in the past. I got to do it. Kathleen really got to cast people based on, hopefully, talent, versus name recognition, in the supporting roles, because they cast the two leads from the reality TV show. But, honestly, [Max and Laura] got a crash course in what it’s like to be here anyway. They were there for like three months, between the Grease Academy and then having to perform on live TV every Sunday. I think they got more than enough training in how to deal with the public and also to carry a show, because they had to keep their stamina up. Can you imagine? They were rehearsing non-stop — it was like doing a Broadway show over those three months.
Question: What has it been like working with Max and Laura?
They couldn’t be more real and down to Earth. I think they’re both perfect for their roles. I don’t really know Laura, but to me, she’s like Sandy to a T. She really is, because she’s such a nice, warm soul offstage and, obviously, onstage. So for me, it feeds my character. When I first met her I was like, “Are you for real? Is this chick really that nice?” So I’ve gotten to use that onstage with her, but she really is that nice! [Laughs.] And Max is just a laid-back guy who knows who he is and what he can do, and he’s not trying to be anything more than that, which is nice — it’s refreshing.
Question: I was impressed with your rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” I thought you managed to make it fresh and powerful. I was wondering how you approached the song.
Well, I love the song, so that helps. It’s one of those songs where, for a female, it sits right in your chest voice. You don’t have think too much, technically, about it. You can just sing the words. You don’t have to worry about the breath control or this or that. For me, the way I approached Rizzo, I play her the whole show as this really confident, vivacious, quick-witted and astute girl who loves to play with the girls and loves to keep all the boys in their place. She really thinks of herself as a man’s equal, but she does always have her guard up, and I think that’s her identity. So, when her world comes crashing down because this guy she’s in love with, she just, probably for the first time, has lied. She screwed herself by saying, “Oh, don’t even worry about it, Kenickie.” And then she realizes as he walks out the door what she has lost and what she has done and how alone she feels. And then [in] dealing with Sandy — every night I hear those words, “Good luck, Rizzo,” and it’s like, “F you! You have no idea where I’m coming from, what I deal with on a day-to-day basis, what people think I am or the label they slap on me.” But I’m not any of those. I probably just lost my virginity to Kenickie just recently, and I’m just bold and uninhibited and not afraid to be a sensual being. Back in the 1950s, in that very polite society, I think Rizzo is projecting all of that onto Sandy, thinking of her as this inauthentic or insincere person, just another Sandra Dee, like a cardboard cutout. [Laughs.] . . . . In the world we live in, everyone likes to pinpoint or label each other. That way we all feel safe. And it’s like, “God, you have no idea who I am.” . . . . And that’s what goes through my head, “Don’t judge me.”
Question: What was it like working with Kathleen Marshall? Did she have much to say about Rizzo or what she thought the character should be?
She didn’t really say what she thought the character should be. I think she was really hoping in the audition process for someone to come in and be what she had imagined. There wasn’t a whole lot of, “I think you should do this — or this needs to be this.” She was like, “Jenny, I want you to be yourself. I want you to come on and really infuse the character with as much of yourself as possible.” And also give a sense of reality, so it wasn’t some cartoon that we’re producing. It was really a collaboration.
The only dance call that I had — it was close to my final callback — Kathleen brought in like six of us to do a little dance call. She said, “This is not an audition. This is really so I can better create for you all. I want to watch you guys work and [see how you] take what I give you. And if we end up working together, I’ll know then how to throw choreography on top of you — what will best suit you.” I thought that was awesome. She really is all about co-creating, which is so rare. She wasn’t like, “Fit into this role. Go be like Stockard Channing.” [Laughs.]
Question: If you had to describe Rizzo to someone, how would you describe her?
I would describe her as this pillar of strength and courage but also an incredibly vulnerable soul as well.
Question: Do you know anyone like Rizzo? Did you model her after anyone? Do you see parts of yourself in her?
I do see parts of myself in her. Also, my younger sister, I would say is a little more Rizzo than I am. My younger sister Jackie, who’s 20, she’s one of the most uninhibited, bold spirits I know. She doesn’t know how to not be honest. As a result, [she can be] an intimidating presence. [Laughs.] But she is so much fun. She’s the life of the party.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Rizzo?
I would have to say my favorite moment in the show is singing onstage to Sandy. The difference between [this staging of] “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” and others is that it’s an actual scene. I really am feeding off of [Sandy] listening and how she’s reacting to it. . . .In the original, they blacked out the stage and spotlighted Adrienne [Barbeau]. So it was just her singing, whereas this, it’s definitely a scene. It’s a very dramatic moment.
Question: The night I attended the response from the audience was like a rock concert. What’s it like getting that kind of reaction?
It’s awesome. How could it not be? It’s so much fun. It really feeds us. At the top of the show when those locker doors slam open and we hear [the audience], it’s like the Beatles have just landed at JFK. [Laughs.] It’s crazy.
Question: Had you ever been in a production of Grease before?
I have. Actually, my senior year of high school I played Rizzo.
Question: What are your memories of that production, and how does that inform what you’re doing now?
I definitely misremembered how I performed it. I watched the video of myself over Christmas break this past year. I turned it on. I couldn’t even get past “Summer Nights.” I’m like, “Oh Jenny, you were so bad. You’re awful.” Oh my God! I was like, “Mom, why didn’t someone tell me?” I was so over the top. The one thing I did have going for me was that kind of engine that Rizzo has. She’s always churning, she’s always thinking; she doesn’t miss a trick — that kind of young, high school energy, where you have fireworks going off in your head almost. You don’t want to miss anything. So that kind of youthful energy I’ve definitely drawn from, to try to remember what that’s like because, obviously, I’m not in high school anymore.
Question: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I grew up in Andover, which is just north of Boston.
Question: When did you start performing?
I started performing when I was a little girl. I started dancing when I was three and ice skating, but professionally when I was in college.
Question: When do you think you knew it would be your career?
I would say my senior year in high school. My parents allowed me to audition for all the top musical theatre programs or music or theatre programs across the country. They said, “If you get in and we see that you can compete on the national level, we’ll pay for you to go and support you in this.” I went to Northwestern. . . . Chicago was so wonderful. It was a great step before New York City. Just being able to work at the Northlight Theatre and the Goodman and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. It’s a great theatre town.
Question: When did you finally get to New York?
I got here in ’04. It was right after I had done Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce
at the Kennedy Center.
Question: What was that experience like?
Oh my God, it was like the best graduation gift ever. I found out about a month before I graduated that I was going to get to be — they called me the Boca Raton girl, the young little starlet — in Bounce
. To be able to get to work with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman and Hal Prince was the top; it was awesome.
Question: Does anything particularly stand out about working with those three?
I think just the drive and the passion that the three of those men have at their age. They were working around the clock. Our tech process — we would end at midnight, and John would come in the next day on like two hours of sleep. And, the same with Stephen. They’d be up all night. And, so whenever I felt like I was dragging, I was like, “Jenny, pick it up!” [Laughs.] They were so inspiring to be around and obviously motivating.
Question: You were also part of the City Center Encores! Follies last season. What was it like sharing the stage with that cast?
It was great. Donna Murphy and I, around the same time, got to be in an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” together, and it actually aired right around the time we were performing at City Center. I had worked with her before. She and I went through the long audition process of Wonderful Town. I almost played opposite her then. It came down between Jennifer Westfeldt and I, so that’s how Kathleen [Marshall] knew me. When I walked into that audition room and sang “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” she was like, “…Oh my God, I had no idea” because of the role of Eileen [in Wonderful Town] is a soprano.
Question: Is there any word about something happening with Follies?
I don’t think so because to coordinate all of those schedules [would be difficult]. Maybe. Everyone had such a ball doing it, but a lot of those cast members are already contracted to do different TV pilots. It’d probably be a slightly different show. I don’t know if you could get that same bunch to do it.
Question: You made your Broadway debut in Little Women. Did it live up to what you thought Broadway would be like?
You know what, yes, it did. It was a tremendous experience. I loved that cast. It’s very, very different from doing Grease now — we didn’t even have an ensemble in Little Women, and it was mostly women in the show, too — we had like three guys. It did, although after performing at the Goodman and the Kennedy Center, to come into a little theatre — it was the Virginia then — it was somewhat anticlimactic I guess. I grew up in Boston, so we would always go to the Wang Center, which is a really grand theatre. I guess I should say it wasn’t intimidating. It felt like, “Oh, okay, I can do this.”
Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
I do, actually. I’ve been a part of two different pieces. One, Dangerous Beauty
is a piece that Megan McGinnis and I were a part of right after Little Women
closed. She plays my best friend in the piece. It’s based on an independent film about Veronica Franco, who was this notorious courtesan back in the Renaissance in Venice, Italy, who rose to power as a courtesan and then was condemned for witchcraft by the Inquisition. It’s a true story, and it’s in its developmental phase. We performed at the NAMT about a year ago, and Northwestern — before it opened — put forth a lot of money to develop the piece. We did a reading of it this past spring in Chicago . . . and then next summer they’re doing a full production out there.
Question: Will you be a part of that production?
I will be. And, Amanda McBroom is the lyricist. Michele Brourman [wrote the music], and the screenwriter, Jeannine Dominy, is actually writing the book, and she is phenomenal. . . . That’ll be done in Chicago, and they would like to bring that in. That’s like a dream role for me.
Question: And there’s another project as well?
Yeah, the other piece is another Stephen Flaherty piece that I’ve been a part of for a long time. It used to be A Long Gay Book
, and now it’s called Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein
. It’s a chamber musical that I did about a year-and-a-half ago out in Chicago. . . . It’s all about Gertrude Stein and her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, who I got to play. I got to play her lesbian lover. [Laughs.] We did it out there, and we recorded it. It’s actually Stephen Flaherty’s first piece without Lynn [Ahrens]. Frank Galati directed it, and it was really well-received. Frank was tied up with The Pirate Queen
this past season, but we hope to bring it in, even Off-Broadway.