BWW Interview: Jennifer Cody Previews Her Fringe Show
Playwright Owen Panettieri, whose 2010 Fringe Festival entry The Timing of a Day won a FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award and later had an off-Broadway run, returns to the festival this year with a new play, Vestments of the Gods, and this time he's got beloved Broadway gypsy Jennifer Cody and Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda--not to mention Sophocles--in his corner.
Miranda's company 5000 Broadway Productions is producing Vestments of the Gods, a musical that updates the classic Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story involving bullying, peer pressure, and discrimination in a suburban grade school. The cast of 16 is led by Cody, an alumna of eight Broadway musicals and innumerable regional shows, including The Addams Family last month at St. Louis Muny (she played Grandma).
Cody and Panettieri previewed their Fringe show during a chat with BWW in a midtown diner last week. We were joined by David Carl, who composed the music for Vestments of the Gods. The play has its first performance this Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at Theatre 80 on St. Mark's Place; four additional performances are scheduled through August 24. Click here for tickets and production information.
Owen, which came first: the idea to revamp Antigone or the desire to write a play about bullying?
The impetus to write it was definitely that wave of gay teen suicides in 2010. Antigone is just a story that has sort of followed me throughout my life; it's always popped up. There were similarities [with] the structure of this conflict that really spoke to me. [My] play is a lot about thoughtlessness, how thoughtlessness really can impact our lives. The thing I like about Greek tragedy is that there are usually people who have very understandable differing points of view. Even if they agree with each other, they go about things in a way that is in conflict with each other--they're not working towards a common goal--and if they had taken a moment and just figured out, tragedy would be averted. I feel like we still face that conflict today, where well-meaning people go their own route to try and solve a problem instead of figuring out how to do it together and that leads to more conflict, and tragedy as well.
How closely does your play hew to Antigone?
There are a lot of illusions to Antigone in there. There's "Annie," who's a child; there's Principal Creon; there's Miss Mene, who's her teacher. They all sort of function similarly to how it plays out in Antigone.
DAVID And the themes are definitely very strong between Antigone and this: the sense of justice, of trying to create that for yourself...
Jen, how did you get involved in the show?
I go to Mark Fisher Fitness, which is a gym on 39th Street. A lot of actors, a lot of people in the industry go there. Owen and I took a six-week intensive class together, and we got to know each other through that.
The thing about the play that's exciting to me is: When we're in New York, we're surrounded by people who have like ideas and like thoughts and like values. So you think you're right all the time. I go out of town a lot, and it's interesting when you go just to upstate New York and you speak with someone who has a completely different point of view, and they are just as passionate about it. That's the thing I love about the play: Whatever side you're on, you think [of the other], "Oh my god, how could you possibly think that?" It reminds me of Urinetown, which started at the Fringe. When I did Urinetown, people would see the play and would think it was about corporations having to regulate things. And that is not it at all--we're [the play is] against that. But people would see that aspect of it, and that's what this reminds me of. Some people are going to think my camp is completely right, and others will see me as a villain.
Why did you think this would be a good part for Jennifer?
OWEN She plays a character named Vera, and she is the president of the PTA. I thought Jen would not make her a one-note villain. I think there's a lot of humanity in Vera that Jen could bring forth on stage. And I was not wrong! There's humor to her, there is an edge to her--they say in the play she's a very passionate person--so I wanted somebody who was going to bring all that, and to bring a perspective and humanity to her.
JENNIFER I've gotten a lot of work from people that I know--writers--at the gym, and they're always parts like the meanest person ever. I'm always shocked. What kind of persona do I give off at the gym? One of the writers from Blue Bloods was in the gym and she asked me to come audition for this part [in an episode], and it was, like, the naked crack whore off the street. I must give off this really intense energy at the gym!
How'd you get Lin-Manuel Miranda as your producer?
OWEN Lin and I have been friends for many years. We went to college together, and I work for his dad--he's my boss at my day job. They saw a reading of it before it had music--it started off as a straight play--and they were very responsive to it. When it got into the Fringe, they wanted to produce it.
What made you turn it into a musical?
After that reading about two years ago, it felt for me and my director that it needed music. In the riff on Antigone, there's a chorus--a school chorus--and they now sing, as an elementary-school chorus would, at a Halloween festival. I knew what it needed, but I wasn't really sure how to do that. It took a while to figure out the structure, and it's been about a year and half that David and I hooked up as writing partners.
How did that come about?
OWEN We knew each other as friends, and then I saw his work on Rise, which was sort of an opera musical.
DAVID It was a play with operatic scenes, I think is how we billed it. But I had seen Owen's other play before that. I knew his work.
OWEN Yeah. We had known each other socially, and as artists beforehand. After I saw his, I thought this could be a good match.
What was the collaboration like?
DAVID Owen knew where he wanted to put the songs-to comment on what's happening in the action and try to contrast that sometimes. That's how it began. The rest was all about trying to capture tone--to try to find something that's silly and lighthearted and sounds like Halloween music, whatever that might mean, and hope people take it seriously also.
OWEN We envisioned it that the songs are the spine of the show: They go through. And yeah, every couple of songs the notch turns a little bit from lighter to darker to darker. The challenge for us was, how do we turn up the heat, how does each song push the energy of the piece forward and still maintain that sense of melody that you would hear within an elementary-school Halloween concert.
Why is it set during Halloween?
I wanted to play with that heightened reality of the costumes. One of the characters come dressed as a fabulous Jesus, and there's a twist on his friend Annie, what she's [dressed as]. I wanted to give them all costumes that were in contrast to their goal. So Creon, the principal, happens to be dressed as a clown--which sort of diminishes his authority--and the teacher Miss Mene is dressed as a witch, when she wants to be helpful and gain the confidence of students.
Jen, do you sing and dance in Vestments of the Gods?
I don't. The kids sing. I say "kids"--the ensemble play elementary-school kids. They do all the singing. And then there's four of us that are adults in the show. We don't sing.
DAVID [Laughing] I think there's an eight-bar dance break...
JENNIFER It's movement.
OWEN The songs are basically times of transition, so it's movement-based.
You've been doing more and more nonmusicals, right?
JENNIFER I actually do a lot of plays now. I just finished The Odd Couple at Geva and then at the Cape Playhouse, and before that I did Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Hangar.
It's an interesting transition. When you start to talk, you stop dancing. They let you sing and talk, but very rarely do you get to dance and talk. I like to do everything, all the time. My husband is like, "Just say no once in a while." But I'm happy as long as I keep working. And this character is a dream character. Everyone wants to play this part. She says things you shouldn't be able to say, and she treats people poorly. She's fun. That's what drew me to it.
The play's tagline is "Tricks, treats, tragedy." Should we be prepared for a tragic end?
OWEN I feel there's an uplift at the end--it's not strictly a downer. At the end the message is more about how do we communicate and how do we avoid more tragedies and how can we come together and stand up and say something.
DAVID I think the ending leaves people wanting to take action. There's something propelling about it.
Have you seen other plays or films that you think addressed this issue well?
JENNIFER I just watched this documentary about 16-year-olds that murder people and should they be given life in prison without parole. The idea that 16-year-olds have the ability to hurt so deeply, that's the underlying message I was so shocked by. I think I was still playing with Barbies when I was 14! The Internet has changed everything, and there is a thoughtlessness that happens with it.
OWEN One play that I saw recently that stands out to me was a cautionary tail, by christopher oscar peña, at the Flea. [It] took on how quickly something can spread, a rumor can spread, especially with the Internet, and what that can do to anybody but especially a young person, a child. I felt a spiritual kinship [between that play and mine].
Pretty much everything that happens in the show that's a discriminatory act comes from a real-life instance. Not all the details are the same, but there are very young children--sixth grade, seventh grade--who are committing suicide over this pressure and this feeling of hatred and shame. It's crazy, but it is happening.
You had a good experience your last time at the Fringe.
OWEN The Timing of a Day won Overall Excellence for Ensemble. I liked getting that one a lot, because I felt like [doing the play] really represented the spirit of ensemble. It's such a team effort, trying to grow this show together.
And what about you, Jen. It must take some adjusting to the Fringe life, since you're used to working on Broadway.
It's terrifying that you have to put this show up with so little rehearsal. And I'm most scared about the performance process--where you do a show and then don't do it again for, like, eight days. Do you still know it? I don't know! [Laughs] There's not a lot of bull. We're here, we're doing this play, we're not doing it so Broadway producers see it and move it. That's not what it's about. It's about doing the play, and that's very refreshing.
I did a show down at Theater for the New City, which I think is going to be like this. That space was three or four different theaters all sharing one bathroom. I could write a play about the intermissions, with everyone sharing the bathroom. Amazing! People were walking around in, like, bloody loincloths and mixing with, you know, a guy in a bear suit. I feel like that's going to be this experience.