BWW Interview: Jenn Gambatese Talks Past Roles, Rodgers & Hammerstein as She Prepares for Feinstein's/54 Below
Long-influenced by the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jenn Gambatese has often found ways to express her love for the legendary songwriting team. The Broadway starlet released an album last year, called Jenn Gambatese: Cockeyed Optimist, featuring a merry mix of Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes. (The album of course, was titled after the South Pacific song.)
Gambatese's last solo show at Feinstein's/54 Below, A Rodgers & Hammerstein Valentine, played to a sold-out audience, another loving tribute to the music that we know so well. On April 17th, she will take the 54 Below stage again. This time the show, titled Once Upon a Melody, will combine R&H with the melodies of Disney songwriters among the ranks of Alan Menken and Phil Collins.
As she prepares for her upcoming show, Gambatese spoke with BroadwayWorld about her past projects (Hairspray, Tarzan, and Wicked to name a few), and the why Rodgers & Hammerstein have appeared in her work again and again.
Let's first rewind a bit: do you remember the moments just before you made your Broadway debut?
I remember A LOT of adrenaline in the moments just before my Broadway debut in Footloose. Especially when that iconic guitar riff from Kenny Loggins' title song started! I also remember trying to act like I didn't have all that adrenaline coursing through my body because I was a replacement going into the show and everybody else, though excited for me, was just having "another day at the office." It's a lot more fun when you're in an original company and everybody is excited ("well, excited and scared") together.
After Footloose came a string of equally huge shows: Hairspray, All Shook Up, Tarzan. What did you learn while on that whirlwind journey?
I learned that it's not always that way! I certainly didn't take my good fortune for granted at the time, but it wasn't until later that I truly realized how rare it is to jump from one great big show into another great big show, and then another, all in a row. And when you factor in the great little shows amongst them like A Year With Frog and Toad and Is He Dead?, well I was in creative bliss for 7 years straight!
You recently reunited with your fellow Hairspray cast members at Broadway Belts for PFF! After 15 years. What was that like?
With our Hairspray family, it is always as if no time has passed! The term "show family" is used frequently and it's always true (whether a happy or dysfunctional one), but I have to say with that show in particular we were, and remain, a truly tight group. Always there for each other, always each other's biggest cheerleaders, and almost always laughing. Based on the number of times I used "always" in answering this question, I guess I could sum it up like this... HAIRSPRAY ALWAYS - IN ALL WAYS!
Within the past few years, you've played Carrie in Carousel, Maria in The Sound of Music. What is like tackling iconic roles in comparison to originating new ones onstage?
For me, the process of approaching the character remains the same, making choices based on my interpretation of the author's intent that comes across on the page, guided by the director's interpretation as well. The bigger difference in the process comes in tackling an iconic role in a still running show, like "Glinda" in Wicked. In that case, one has the added task of fitting into the needs and expectations of those already in and running, the show.
It's amazing that you've been able to sing the tunes of such an array of noted artists - Rodgers & Hammerstein, Phil Collins, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Was it the songwriting that first piqued your interest in musical theatre?
My interest in musical theatre, particularly participating in it as an actor, was first piqued by a desire to escape from some tough times my family was weathering when I was in elementary school. Having an outlet to play and express all kinds of emotions was, and remains, very healing. Of course, great songwriters, like those you listed, add to that experience immeasurably.
Your 2017 solo album, Jenn Gambatese: Cockeyed Optimist is titled after a song from South Pacific. When it was released, you describe yourself as a cockeyed optimist. Where does that mindset come from?
For me, an optimistic mindset sure beats the alternative. I would attribute that tendency to my amazing family. As for the "cockeyed" part (colloquial for "foolish" or "absurd"), if that is other people's interpretation of my choice to focus on the positive, so be it. To quote a popular phrase, "Haters gonna hate."
What is your connection to Rodgers & Hammerstein? Tell us about when you heard their songs for the first time, and why they continue to be a part of your work.
Oh my goodness, I could write a book on this question alone. I feel like Rodgers and Hammerstein are such an enormous part of our cultural consciousness that I can't even remember the first time I heard one of their songs. Probably my Momma singing one of them to me in the rocking chair as a baby. But I will say that with R&H, every time I sing their songs it is as if I am encountering them for the first time. The seamless integration of melody and lyric, the way they just soar, to me it is magic.
How will their longstanding classics intersect with the new Disney classics at 54 Below?
The connecting thread of the evening is what R&H pioneered and Disney on Broadway carries the torch of...glorious melodies and great storytelling. I'm really proud of what I've put together and excited to share it!
Jenn Gambatese: Once Upon a Melody will play Feinstein's/54 Below, Broadway's Supper Club on Tuesday, April 17th at 7:00 p.m. Tickets and information are available at www.54Below.com or by calling (646) 476 - 3551.
Photo credit: Emma Mead