GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jen Sese of 'Carrie'
Right out of college Jen Sese had a principal role in the Chicago-based tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and then she was in the Las Vegas company of Mamma Mia! But both those shows had already been running on Broadway. When she made her Broadway debut in 2010, it was as a replacement in the Tony-winning revival of Hair.
Thus, the thing Sese (pronounced sessy) has been itching to do professionally is a new show, where she’s in the original cast. “I’ve never had a chance to start a show from the ground up, and that’s what I was really seeking…the experience of having previews, and having a tech process, where we’re all exploring together,” she remarks.
This year Sese has gotten her wish. “I was excited to get to work on a new piece with people who were so passionate about creating something,” she says of her current project, MCC Theater’s Carrie, which opened off-Broadway on March 1.
Except, of course, Carrie really isn’t a new musical. It ran—for five ignominious performances—in 1988, Broadway’s most expensive flop ever. It has been reenvisioned, downscaled, overhauled for the MCC production, with so many changes to the book, score and production design that it feels like a new piece. The revisions were done by the musical’s original creators, composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen, along with director Stafford Arima, who’d seen Carrie on Broadway as a teenager and always believed it deserved a better fate.
“The passion of Stafford and the writers and MCC was so evident and pervasive,” Sese says of working on the show. “Stafford has this amazing energy where I just knew it was going to be a really exciting process as an artist. He’s such an open person, and listens and takes time. He’s an actor’s director, which is great. It’s been amazing to try something one way and the next day try it another. The writers have been so collaborative with us, especially our book writer, Larry.”
The revisal of Carrie has been only a partial success. While it curtailed the camp and bombast that doomed the Broadway production and did get some decent reviews, critical reception overall was not positive and MCC has moved up the closing date two weeks to April 8.
“Whatever people’s opinion is,” says Sese, “while it’s happening they’re engaged and captive. Every night when we’re on stage, we can tell people are with us. And that’s something special in and of itself. People may walk away and think one thing or the other—I’ve heard both extremes, and I believe both extremes—but while they were sitting in that theater, they felt something, and there are some amazing things happening on that stage.”
Carrie has been luring not just the musical theater geeks who know all about the original production but also fans of the Stephen King novel on which it’s based and of the 1976 Oscar-nominated film version. “I’ve never been in a show where everyone’s walking in with an idea of what it should be,” Sese says, adding: “It’s exciting—I like that dialogue. But I think what Stafford and the whole team was trying to create is something different from what the reviewers wanted. I think they wanted something that was a little more horrific, more sensational. And we wanted it to be very human and relatable. That was our choice, it was a very specific choice.”
In Carrie, Sese plays bespectacled Frieda, one of the title character’s classmates who attends that fateful prom where the bullied Carrie uses her telekinetic powers for revenge. But Sese couldn’t simply draw on her own high school experience for the portrayal, and not just because her prom didn’t turn into a bloodbath. “Usually, if I’m going to play someone in high school, I’m going to play someone that’s kind of awkward—because I was,” she states. “I was certainly not cool in high school. Since Carrie is an outsider, we are all the kids who are ‘in,’ so I had to remind myself that in my choices: ‘You’re a cool kid, you’re a popular kid.’”
She quickly points out, though, that Frieda’s not as bad as the students who engineer Carrie’s humiliation at the prom. “Frieda’s definitely in with cool kids and wants to be part of the gossip, but she’s just there to have fun and doesn’t get too, too involved in the BS. That’s what I tried to find with her—not just a malicious mean girl, someone that’s just following. She’s the kid at prom that really accepts Carrie.”
Sese is also Molly Ranson’s understudy as Carrie, though she hasn’t yet had the chance to go on in the role. During previews she took one night off so she could watch Ranson’s performance—and see how the prom massacre (conveyed mostly through lighting effects) looks to the audience. “Some of the stuff in Kevin Adams’ lighting is really amazing,” Sese says. “I found myself on a strong emotional journey. Molly really pulled me in, I felt so much empathy for her.
“For understudying,” she continues, “it’s trying to find that balance between my own thoughts and feelings about the character and watching Molly. She’s absolutely fantastic, and she’s been doing this for two years—since the first workshop—so she’s had a long time to develop the arc of the character.”
Sese didn’t do the workshops where Carrie was being re-created, but she was in the special preview (open to the public) MCC hosted last summer that featured performance excerpts and Q&A with the creative team. The next day, she actually auditioned for the show. She’d been hired for the preview presentation because those casting it knew her from previous auditions, but the audition that ultimately got her cast as Frieda came later.
Six years out of college, Sese is playing a high schooler. Well, that’s older than her grade-school role in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in which she was cast during her senior year at the University of Michigan. She left school six weeks early in 2006 to join the Spelling Bee tour—a sit-down company in Chicago—and played overachieving bee contestant Marcy Park for about a year. (She completed her schoolwork via correspondence.) While Marcy is Korean-American and Sese has a Japanese father, she says she related to her character, who details her achievements in the song “I Speak Six Languages.” “I was definitely the brown-noser kid in the front row, hand up, being asked to not participate so much so the other kids could speak,” Sese laughs. “But with Marcy it comes from her parents and a fear of failure. My parents weren’t overbearing at all; it just came from a natural, obnoxious desire.”
Her other roles in major productions have been as adults, albeit free-spirited young adults. Post–Spelling Bee, she performed for 14 months in the Las Vegas production of Mamma Mia! and she spent most of 2010 and 2011 in Hair. She first joined the Tribe in early 2010 when the entire original Hair revival cast was relocated to London, then after the show closed midyear on Broadway she was on the tour—which included a return engagement on Broadway last summer. Her featured number in Hair was “Black Boys” (coincidentally, also the featured number of the Hair Gypsy of the Month, Megan Reinking, also coincidentally a Michigan alum like Sese).
Sese’s regional credits include Les Misérables at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars and Miss Saigon at the Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, both in 2009. That year she also appeared in The Cure, a vampire-themed entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival by Mark Weiser. While in college, Sese performed in the summer 2005 productions of A Chorus Line, Aida and Seussical at Music Theatre of Wichita.
With Marcy Park, Miss Saigon’s Kim (which she understudied at Pioneer) and Connie in A Chorus Line on her résumé, Sese has already had some of the premier Asian roles in musicals. She also, obviously, has played many parts not specifically for Asians. Her ethnicity has both expanded and restricted her opportunities: It opens her up to Asian roles, but may get her eliminated from consideration for other roles if casting isn’t color-blind. And because of her mixed ethnicity, she’s gotten both the “not Asian enough” and “not white enough” kiss-off. “It’s kind of tricky,” Sese reflects. “Honestly, I’m still figuring it out, because the way I see myself is different from what the business sees for me. So it’s a constant battle of trying to own what I do well and also trying to push boundaries and be seen outside any kind of ethnic box.”
In these aspirations, Sese looks to one of Broadway’s superstars for a model. “Audra McDonald has really inspired me,” she says, “because she's a woman who has been able to push through boundaries.... I've always admired her career.”
What Sese has missed out the most on in her own career so far—due perhaps to her ethnicity, perhaps to her nose piercing or hipster eyewear—are musicals from the golden age. “I love the old musicals,” she laments, admitting “I don’t really get seen for them.”
Yet it was in one of those classic—and classically white-bread—musicals that Sese got immersed in musical theater. In middle school she played Amaryllis in The Music Man—the local high school production, which used younger kids for some roles. So for a couple of years she got to perform in plays at both her school and the high school. Sese and her family (she has two older brothers) lived in Lexington, Kentucky, at the time. She also worked professionally when she was a child: in Stephen Foster–The Musical, an outdoor summer production that’s been performed for over 50 years in the state park in Bardstown, Ky. (about 60 miles from Lexington), and at Kincaid Regional Theater in Falmouth, Ky., located halfway between Lexington and Cincinnati.
Her family moved to Cincinnati when she was in 10th grade. There she attended the School for Creative & Performing Arts, a public school later featured on MTV’s 2009-10 reality show Taking the Stage. Sese had attended Lexington’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts starting in seventh grade, so by the time she matriculated at the University of Michigan she was ready to broaden her horizons. “I wanted an opportunity to do some intense academic work,” says Sese, who double majored in musical theater and political science. “Michigan not only allowed it but really encouraged it.” She gives credit in particular to the head of the musical theater program, Brent Wagner. “He was such a mentor to me, and he encouraged me throughout college to explore my own thing,” she says. “I would have expected pressure from him to not take time off...[but] he really gave me the faith that in my life I could have balance, and he gave me the opportunity to explore.
“I made a conscious effort to cultivate other things,” Sese says of college (where she first met her Carrie castmate Andy Mientus). “None of the girls I lived with were in the theater program. I took a semester off to do only academic work. I took another semester to study abroad.”
Sese spent that semester in Melbourne, Australia. Years earlier she’d lived abroad when her family moved to Japan for a couple of years while Jen was a toddler. She would return to her father’s homeland as an adolescent on a three-week tour of Japan with Stephen Foster–The Musical. Touring with Hair, Sese—who was born in Decatur, Ill.—got to see a lot of the western United States for the first time. She especially liked Tempe, Ariz., living in a beach house in Costa Mesa, Calif., and most of all San Francisco, where Hair played for a month. “I absolutely fell in love with that city; I want to move there some day,” Sese says. “The vibe is more laid-back. The pace of New York City—the frenetic energy—sometimes is a little much for me.”
She also loved the preponderance of farmer’s markets and locally grown and organic produce in San Francisco. “That’s really a passion of mine,” says Sese, who reads a lot about nutrition and farming and has had a garden where she’s been living on Long Island.
Another offstage pursuit is boxing, which Sese began doing merely for fitness but now trains in seriously (four times a week) at Mendez Boxing in the Flatiron District. She hasn’t competed in any fights yet but has sparred with another boxer.
Photos of Jen, from top: offstage and casual; second from left, in Carrie with (from left) Christy Altomare, F. Michael Haynie, Blair Goldberg and Jeanna de Waal; as Marcy Park in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, with Lucia Spina and Bill Larkin in background; backstage at Mamma Mia! with Libby Winters (center) and Kate Morgan Chadwick; performing on Broadway in Hair. [Carrie photo by Joan Marcus]