A Shoot the Glass Theater Blog Post by Ryan Nielson
The following is edited from a phone conversation that took place between Ryan Nielson and Jennifer Malenke on September 16th, 2017. Click here for Jen's website and bio.
Kerry O'Malley, Stephen DeRossa, Vanessa Williams, and Jon McMartin in the Broadway Revival of Into the Woods.
Vanessa Williams as the Witch in the Broadway Revival of Into the Woods.
Six Degrees of Stephen Sondheim
RN: Tell me about the audition process for Into the Woods – you were pretty new out there, weren’t you?
JM: Oh my gosh, well- I was in Chicago. I was doing Big: The Musical at the time - I was like 21 or something and my friend Johanna said, “Hey: there’s this audition. You should go.” So I went to the EPA [Equity Principal Auditions] -- I didn’t even know what that was -- but I had just turned equity from Big so I thought, “I’ll go!” There was this guy Jeremy Rich - who I actually owe a whole lot to because he found me - I auditioned for him. I got a callback, went to the callback the next day, and then I got a phone call to come out to New York. So I had about… six callbacks? [laughs]
Jen was not a theater major; she was a music major. Because of her major Jen was not awarded the leading roles so deserving of her talents: those roles went to the theater majors. As a result, Jen was often relegated to the chorus or to leading roles in the college's opera productions - and while the operas were lavish and entertaining in their own right - Jen longed for the compelling characters and self-expression afforded to plays and musical theater.
Fast forward a few short years to 2002, and Rachel and I were delighted to find that the talented and under-appreciated music major Jen Malenke had been cast in the Broadway Revival of Into the Woods. Jen was given the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to work on Broadway side-by-side with composer Stephen Sondheim and writer/director James Lapine. As we prepare for our own production of Woods, Jen - who is living and working as an actress in New York - happily agreed to share with me her experience with Sondheim, Lapine, and the gift of working as an actress on Broadway. I hope you find the insights gleaned from the following conversation encouraging, enlightening, and inspiring.
Shoot the Glass Theater
In 2002, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine reunited to bring their beloved classic Into the Woods back to Broadway. My gracious and beautiful friend Jennifer Malenke was fortunate enough to be a part of the original revival cast which included Vanessa Williams, Gregg Edelman, and Laura Benanti.
Jennifer Malenke and I attended college together at Millikin University in Decatur, IL: a terrific liberal arts college with a fantastic theater and music program. The distinguishing memory I have of Jen was that not only was she an incredibly gifted singer, performer, and actress (I remember she gave a definitive performance of the song 'Stars and the Moon' from Songs for a New World in front of 2,000 people that was simply unforgettable), she was extremely demanding of herself as a person and an artist. Jen never did anything half-way, and she held herself to an artistic standard only found in the most personally driven and passionate of artists. When I heard that she had been cast in Sondheim and Lapine's Broadway revival of Into the Woods right out of college, my response was simple: of course she was.
RN: Did they record the initial audition with Jeremy Rich and send that to New York?
JM: I think they probably did? I don’t remember, actually – I think they did – yeah. So then they flew me out to New York, and actually one of the times I went out – I think I had to fly myself the second time, but – it was right after September 11th. I was supposed to go before September 11th and it happened, so, of course they postponed it. So it was right – it was like the 17th I think -- and it was when planes were starting to fly again. So I went and I remember sitting at this callback – first of all, I remember this plane flying overhead and everyone being like [very nervous] because there had been no planes for a week – it was crazy being here during all of that. It really was.
RN: I can’t imagine.
JM: And also I remember about that callback: I’m just sitting on a bench and I look over and there’s a guy in kind of wrinkled brown corduroys and a yellow sweater sitting there, and I’m like, “Oh. Hi.” [It’s] Stephen Sondheim. Just sitting next to me. It was pretty awesome.
JM: I have a funny story about that, too: they didn’t let him into the Ahmenson [Theatre] in L.A. where we did more tryouts because he didn’t have his pass and they thought he was a homeless guy!
RN: Oh my god…
JM: James Lapine had to run down and say, “No no no no no no no! No, no-no – this is the reason why we’re here!”
RN: This man is a National Treasure and a genius of music theater: please let him in the building–
JM: Let him in, please!
RN: [laughs] So you went to several callbacks, you had to fly yourself to the second one–
JM: Yeah, and they didn’t know what to do with me. I was up for Rapunzel, I was up for the Stepsisters, and they knew they wanted to use me they just didn’t know where. So I kept auditioning, kept getting called back, and I thought it was done. I hadn’t heard anything for like a month and I thought [sadly], ‘Gah, I’m done.’ But I got a call – I was actually doing a kids show at the time – and Jeremy [Rich] was like, “I’m about to make your life… do you want to come be on Broadway?”
RN: That’s so cool!
JM: [laughs] I know! They offered me Sleeping Beauty because at the end she has the “Ah, Excuse me!” thing and that was all I was going to do. And then cover [understudy] lots of other roles.
RN: Just like Sleeping Beauty in the original Broadway cast.
JM: Exactly- but then they ended up cutting that part at the end of the show.
RN: I noticed that!
JM: So I was only other roles, yeah. It makes a lot of sense, because – well, I can get into how it related to September 11th and all that stuff later.
RN: Tell me about the rehearsal process…?
JM: When I got there- goodness gracious, it was crazy because I was the new girl and all these people had been on Broadway before except for one other person– no, two other people: the kids hadn’t been on Broadway before.
JM: Jack and Little Red. Because they were actual children.
JM: And… it’s so crazy, like – the first day I get there, ‘What am I doing?!’ There’s Paul Gemignani [Sondheim’s long-time friend and conductor] and there’s James Lapine… also Donna Murphy stopped by and James introduced me to her and I had no idea who she was [laughs]. All of this. Crazy. I was up there, like, BOOM- I was here and I was up there.
JM: It’s insane! It was insane. Funny thing is, is with rehearsal - oh I hope James [Lapine] doesn’t read this because I really like him a lot – James I felt was a little too close to it. Because he kept changing jokes and kept changing things because they weren’t funny to him anymore: Paul Gemignani even called him the comedy police because he would change things that were working perfectly but weren’t funny to him because he’s lived with this [script for so long]. But we were like, [lovingly] “But it’s gonna be funny to an audience…!”
RN: Were rehearsals very structured? Collaborative? Was there a lot of blocking, or-?
JM: Oh yeah, it was just normal rehearsals. We did music first, we blocked, did all the usual stuff. The funny thing is during rehearsals I was the cow. I was Milky White. And so was another girl named Kate Reinders who is pretty famous right now - she just did Something Rotten on Broadway - but we were both the cow. We were going to share the role between us because we [had been] Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
RN: Did they cut those roles before you opened?
JM: They did. They cut the roles, I think, right at the very beginning. I mean, they did design costumes for us- but then they cut them right at the beginning because they wanted to go a more serious route with Act Two. But yeah, we made up all the bits for Milky White and then the costume came [laughs]. It was waaay too heavy for poor Kate – she’s like five-foot-nothing – and I was like, “Well, I’ll try it…” I did it for three days and I couldn’t turn my head. So they had to give it to a boy.
RN: [laughing] Who, according to critical analysis of the production at the time, became the star of the show in many ways!
JM: It sure did! I’m like, 'Why didn’t I just stay Milky White??'
JM: [laughing] 'For my career??!' No, had I stayed the cow I might have been broken. The actor who replaced us actually hurt himself, too. He’s a really great guy, Chad Kimball- and I don’t begrudge him anything. He hurt his arm like big-time because this costume was crazy heavy. I actually worked with it again when I did Into the Woods at Fulton Theatre because we got the costumes from the 2002 Broadway Revival of Into the Woods and I kind of had to show the dude how to use it, you know? It was weird…!
JM: I was like, “My god! This thing is coming back to haunt me!”
RN: It looked tough!
JM: It was so hard.
RN: So they cut Sleeping Beauty and Snow White but they’ve kept you in, and you’re understudying Rapunzel and Cinderella, and you’re listed on the cast album!
JM: Yeah! As the cow. Or the pig? No, it’s the horse! [laughs] I played a lot of the animals. I was the pig because they added the three-little-pigs, I was the brown cow when they tried to cover it with flour, and then I was the horse that Cinderella rode on. I was on stage every day… but it was because I was an animal. [laughs]
RN: Did you get to sing on the recording?
JM: I did, yeah- that was fun. Just the chorus stuff.
RN: Were James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim involved in the recording?
JM: Ooooh, yeah. Absolutely.
RN: Let’s talk about – let’s start with James Lapine, and what he’s like to work with. I think it’s fascinating that you felt he was a little too close to it.
JM: Yeah, that’s- I mean…
RN: Because in general – like in the 80’s – I’ll just say I think it’s pretty commonly believed that James was a bit of an enigma in his ability to both direct and write because so often those two things don’t seem to go together very well. But James managed to win a Pulitzer for writing and directed the magnificent original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George. He did the same thing a few years later with the original Broadway production of Into the Woods. Then thirteen years later – a little early for a Broadway revival, I think many would agree – he decides to do Into the Woods again. Being a part of that, what was your experience working with James Lapine?
JM: James is a wonderful man- I really like him. He really believed in me. He’s… it’s funny to see these geniuses be hard on themselves. He wasn’t as hard on himself as Stephen Sondheim was [on himself], but– it’s just hard to see it because we can see the genius and we can see… I don’t know, what they can’t see… because they’ve lived with it so long and they judge themselves so hard. James, I think… one of the biggest things we lacked in that production was we all didn’t sit down and talk about what we were saying, what it meant. And we had some younger people in it – Jack and Red – and everyone was acting in a bubble. There was no, like– what we’re saying with it. And I think it did get across – what we were saying – but we never had that conversation about how it was so similar to 911 and how it was very apropos to the time, you know?
RN: Ah, I see…
JM: I just thought we all could’ve been on the same page a little bit more. I think James was so close to it that he kind of just assumed that we understood… but I know a lot of us did not. Like, I got it– but I know the kids were on a different page: they were just in the show. I mean, it wasn’t a political statement, it wasn’t… like, if we had that conversation, if we sat there and all talked about it together, it would have been a different show.
JM: He wanted to Disney it up a bit; he wanted to make it for kids. And I don’t think this show is for kids at all.
RN: No, I don’t either. I think that’s what Shrek is for-
JM: Yeah, exactly.
RN: What’s funny is I’ve watched, seen, and listened to the Original Broadway Production of Into the Woods countless times. I put it on in my car every day when I’m driving on YouTube. I turn off the picture but I just listen through-
RN: -over and over and over. The other day I listened through- I’m sure you’ve seen the YouTube recording of your production with Vanessa Williams.
JM: You know, I think I have…? I don’t know if I’m in any of those-
RN: I don’t know, I don’t know when it was taken, I don’t know how they filmed it, but– it’s all there. The original Baker and Baker’s Wife, Vanessa Williams-
JM: Yeah, I think I’ve seen that one but I don’t think I’m it. Which is sad because I went on for Rapunzel over 90 times- they called me the other Rapunzel.
RN: Oh, really?
JM: Oh, yeah.
RN: Greg Edelman is in it, the original Cinderella-
JM: Laura [Benanti], yeah.
RN: But what I was going to say was I think you’re… you said you felt like everyone was ‘acting in a bubble’, and that was my first thought as I got through the end of the opening: ‘I feel like everyone’s acting in a bubble right now…’
RN: ‘I feel like nobody is on the same page-‘
RN: ‘-and this is a very… colorful yet presentational version.’
RN: I thought Vanessa Williams was portraying a character right out of a Disney movie like Hercules.
RN: I thought the Baker and the Baker’s Wife were a little too… I don’t know, I just didn’t feel the impact from what they were doing.
JM: Exactly. I thought Kerry O’Malley was fantastic, but it was just- it was just hard. I mean-
RN: Yeah, and it has nothing to do with the talent of the actors. I mean, I’m certain you know there are plenty of amazingly talented actors who end up in a project that just doesn’t make them look good.
JM: Exactly. I was also going to say that… I think we had an opportunity to really say something. And I feel like we missed it because of September 11th.
RN: Do you feel like 911’s influence was being had on that show and it was not being acknowledged?
JM: I think a lot of us knew it, but we never named it and we never talked about it, so not everyone was on the same page with it and that probably is the reason why Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were cut. Because it was so… there were so many parallels, you know? I know they were going for a more serious ending to it. They were trying to… not get back to the end of Act One; how it was written.
JM: They end up in a different place. The Princes even: they’re affected by the Giant falling. They’re not moving on to the next Princess, you know? Which is pretty wry in itself, but… this time they were affected as well by the Giant falling.
RN: I see, yeah. I saw that ending: I thought it was… I thought it was interesting. It’s hard to see on the tape. It looks like [laughs]- here’s what I thought: it looks like there’s a tower that’s collapsed on the back of the stage and I couldn’t figure out if that was a Giant’s arm or if it was Rapunzel’s tower or what it was.
JM: I can’t remember now, gosh- was it a Giant’s shoe? I can’t remember. I’ll have to look at it now and see if I can remember what that was-
RN: I just wonder if he wasn’t going for something like [a collapsed tower]. That’s interesting.
JM: Well, the cool thing though - that I think was part of that show - everyone started cleaning up [at the end]. Everybody took a broom. Everybody started cleaning up the leaves. Everybody, you know- and that’s… picking up the pieces, you know? And that’s exactly what America did; New York did after 911. Everybody just started going on and trying to cope with what they had with their new families. And so did the Baker and Cinderella and the kids.
RN: I never thought about it in that context, that’s fascinating.
JM: And the lyric “Sometimes people leave you half-way through the woods,” that’s HUGE!
RN: It is.
JM: And “No One Is Alone,” that’s HUGE.
RN: It is.
JM: I mean, 911… [Into the Woods] couldn’t have picked a better time to be… to be revived. I just wish that we would have… said a little bit more about it and been on the same page with it. You know?
RN: Yeah. I do. I do. Well, let me ask about – because people will want to know – what was it like working with the cast? What was it like working with Vanessa Williams?
JM: Ohh, she’s a dream. She is the sweetest woman. Oh my god, she’s just- she had her door open to us all the time. We would watch American Idol in her dressing room.
RN: Awww, that’s awesome.
JM: Yes, she was the coolest. And you know, she would think of people – and granted, yes: it took a little bit to get her to trust you but I mean I understand that because all of these people – when you’re famous you don’t know if people are really your friend or if they want something from you. But it ended up that she just- she did love us and was so sweet. And she would think of people, like, “Jen, what size shoe are you?” And I’d be like, “8 ½…?” She’s like, “Hang on,” and she brought me these, like, $400 Bally Alligator shoes, “These don’t fit me, they’ll fit you!” For [the] Tonys – people just give her things, they just give her dresses all the time -- so she brought us this huge rack of dresses: beaded gowns to give to everybody. She said, “I’m not going to wear all these!” Unfortunately I could not wear them because they were beaded, and… I’m not as well-endowed as she is [laughs].
JM: So I could not wear the dresses. But it was such a generous gesture. She’s such a generous human being. Her kids are so great.
RN: That’s awesome.
JM: And also we had a whole lot of moments together since I played her daughter at so many, you know, 90 times- we had a good rapport. Like five years ago she was in L.A. shooting Desperate Housewives right next door to me and I went over and asked if Vanessa was there and left her a note because she was at lunch or something and she called me back and I’d already left for work! I was working for Disney at the time and we never connected.
JM: She was only there that day and I was like, “Nooo!”
RN: But that was super sweet!
JM: [Vanessa said] “I’d love to see you! I’d love to reconnect!” She’s just a really lovely person.
RN: What about Greg Edelman?
JM: Oh, he’s wonderful, too.
RN: And he’s had a very good career on Broadway.
JM: He sure has. I just saw him. I just saw him like a couple months ago at Glass House Tavern and we were reminiscing about the days. The crazy thing is [that] he had two little kids back then and they were like 9 and 7 or something – Ethan and Zoe – and now they’re in college. And it just is so weird… it’s like, ‘What?!’ They’re out of college, actually. I think his oldest is out of college. It makes me go, ‘What. Happened. To. Me…’ [laughs]
RN: [laughing] Tell me about your experience with Stephen Sondheim.
JM: Oh my gosh, I had some amazing experiences with him. I had experiences with him that I will never forget. The first time I went on as Rapunzel, he- this was in previews in LA - literally our third performance I had to go on and I was waaay under-rehearsed, but - I did it. And [laughs]… at intermission James Lapine comes backstage and goes, ‘Stephen LOOOVVVESS you!!!’
RN/JM: [laughing hysterically]
JM: It was ammmmazing. I couldn’t- I couldn’t even. I’m like, ‘Oh my god!’ And I remember: …I saw him composing. We took pictures because we were like, ‘Oh my god, watch this…’ He was like doing some little intro music or interlude music and he was composing and he was changing keys for Vanessa and we saw him at the piano and it was just an… an iconic moment. So we took pictures of him being silhouetted at the piano. But here’s the thing: so Paul Gemignani – amazing guy, really dry humor, he’s really funny – one time, something wasn’t working (like for Vanessa or something) and Paul goes, “Well… now Stephen’s gonna go home and beat himself up again.” And I remember hearing that going, [to Paul] “What? What do you mean…?” And he says, “He’s going to go tell himself how much he sucks...” Are you kidding me? I was like, the genius composer of our generation has, like, the same self-doubts as I do…? That was really weird for me. I was like, ‘Oh. Okay. Does he know he’s a legend…?’ I mean… it doesn’t matter, apparently, how high up you are… you still have self-doubt.
JM: Another thing that happened was – I remember at the end of the show, the very, very last performance – I was watching from the back because I was also the dance captain. So I was watching from the back because I wasn’t in the last scene and just crying and everyone’s crying and I’m standing back there with all the swings [understudies] and right next to Stephen Sondheim. And I looked at him, and I said – and he would never have a seat. He would always stand in the back of the house and watch - and I was like, “Thank you so much for including me in this experience, it’s been more than I can ever imagine…” He said, “No. Thank you for being in it.” It like… killed me.
JM: [deep breath] Yeah. So, it’s… it’s pretty amazing stuff, I gotta say.
RN: That’s magnificent.
RN: See, that could be- that would be enough for me. I’d be good.
JM: I know. I mean, it’s not gonna pay your rent, but it’s good to have in your back pocket on a rainy day: ‘Oh, look at that… Stephen Sondheim loves me.’
RN: That’s just… astoundingly cool. I wanted to ask a little bit about how much attention James, Stephen, you, the cast: how much attention did you pay to the critical reception of the revival?
JM: Uhmm, I mean… not much, really. Because we knew it was a good show and that people loved the show and it was gonna run, so - it wasn’t like - it wasn’t a big, big, huge deal. Also the sucky thing is - the reason it closed - was because Vanessa Williams was leaving. She actually stayed for three months more, and we tried to find someone else for it and they were thinking like Susan Lucci, Rosie O’Donnell… just nobody was able to replace her.
RN: When you were working on the revival of Into the Woods, do you remember any of the Original Cast dropping by?
JM: Oh, yes! Actually, the original Lucinda [Lauren Mitchell] was one of our producers, so she was around quite a bit. Chip Zien stopped by, and Joy Franz came over and was the Step-Mother in the first one, and then [for the last three months] was the step-mother in the second one so it was fantastic! She’s fantastic, she’s a really cool lady. Everyone in that show was amazing: I loved everybody.
RN: What is your favorite memory of working on Into the Woods?
JM: Ohh… oh gosh, that’s tough. It has to be going on for Cinderella, because I knew how I wanted Cinderella to be played and I got to do it. And it was… I mean, there are parts of it I don’t even remember… because I was so, like, in the moment. I mean I do remember a lot of it, but... it was just… you know that feeling of when you’re on stage and you can’t remember what you did?
RN: Yes, those are the best. Those are the best.
JM: Yeah. Yeah, that’s how it was for me. I played it how I wanted to play it and how I thought it should be played and it was just one of the most amazing experiences of my life- I can’t even tell you. Also for the Tonys… we were rehearsing for the Tonys on Radio City Stage and Laura [Benanti] had a tooth thing happen (a cap fell off or something) so I was Cinderella in front of all of the casts… everyone does it for [the other nominated casts] for the run through– and that was awesome. At the end to be like, [sings] “I wish…!” Oh, man.
RN: That’s amazing! And you were all of, what: 22, 23?
JM: I think by the time the Tonys happened I was 24.
RN: What would you say is your biggest lesson from your experience working on Into the Woods?
JM: Oh, I know exactly what my biggest [lesson was]. I mean… all actors are the same no matter what level you’re on. That’s one of the biggest things I learned: people are still going to have their issues no matter how far along they are in their career. If you think that things are all figured out and there’s no self-doubt and that you’re going to be 100% in yourself and confident… it just doesn’t happen that way. It just doesn’t. No matter what level you’re at, actors are all the same. They just are. Sometimes even a little more.
JM: Yeah. Another lesson that I learned is that… hmmm, how do I put it? I mean- it’s a huge gift to be on Broadway. Huge, and… you know, I’m trying to get back there ever since. It’s just… gosh, it’s hard to say. If it’s misused, just- never ever take it for granted is the biggest thing. You know? And it’s like, you have an opportunity and kind of a job to say things and make people listen and I do theater because – in this selfish world that we live in and in this media driven world that we live in – it gets people away from their own lives and makes them empathize with somebody else. People get so… spiraling into their own crap. In theater we have an opportunity to say something: we have an opportunity to make people care.
RN: And an opportunity to bring people together.
JM: And to show how we’re connected. We all are, you know? And to make them think. That’s a huge thing. Maybe they can learn something that they didn’t know before- say, ‘Oh… oh, yeah. I get that. I’m like that, too’ …and instead of separating us, it brings us together. Any form of theater… that’s what it should be. It’s not about the money, it’s not about the costumes, it’s not about the critics- it’s about changing what people think sometimes. Or making them happy, making them care. You know?
RN: I do know.
JM: It’s just a really, really, lovely thing to do. And I can’t tell you how it feels to be sitting on that stage singing "No One Is Alone."
RN: Is that your favorite song from Into the Woods-?
JM: Oh my god, yeah. I think that’s what we’re all here to learn. Seriously. I’m not kidding: no one is alone. It doesn’t matter. We’re all brought up different ways, different creeds, different religions, different social climates, different economic climates: we’re all here, we’re all the same. We are all the same. Nobody is alone.
RN: Everything you do affects everyone else.
JM: Witches can be right. Giants can be good.