Good Golly Miss Polly: Q&A with Jessica Grové

A few years ago, while Jessica Grové's classmates at her Columbus, Ohio, high school were slogging through chemistry and trig, she was over the rainbow—or at least singing about it almost nightly in cities around the country. Jessica was cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she was only 15 and played the role for two years in a North American tour that included two runs at New York's Madison Square Garden. She planned to return to high school for her senior year but instead went to Las Vegas to costar in Notre Dame de Paris, a pop-opera take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Though she did take a few days off from Notre Dame to fly home to participate in graduation (she was in the National Honor Society and junior-year homecoming court), her higher education plans have been foiled—by near-continuous employment. During what would have been her freshman year at NYU, she made her Broadway debut as Eponine in Les Misérables. That was followed a year later with a part in the original cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Now, at 23, Jessica's already a musical theater vet—with a résumé that's practically a catalog of virtuous girlhood: Anne Frank in the musical Yours, Anne (which she did in Columbus right before Wizard of Oz); Kim in City Center Encores!'s 2004 Bye Bye Birdie; the girlfriend Allison in Neil Berg's Christmas Carol sequel, Tim and Scrooge, at last fall's New York Musical Theatre Festival; and her current role, poor little rich girl Polly Browne in The Boy Friend, running through Sept. 24 at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn.

Polly Browne is the role that made Julie Andrews a star in 1954—and it just so happens that she directed this production, which will go on tour after the Goodspeed run. I spoke with Jessica about the beloved Ms. Andrews, and about her past roles and future plans, over brunch last week in Manhattan. Jessica was back in the city during Goodspeed's Monday/Tuesday off, and right after our interview she headed to a weekly four-hour musical performance class taught by composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia.

So, tell us about working with Julie Andrews.
She's amazing. She's an incredible director. Maybe it's just because it's a show that she has done, she actually hears what it's supposed to sound like. It's in her ear what the show is. So she's very specific, which I like. I like a little bit of room for interpretation, but I put a lot of trust into a director, and I trust her so much because she's so smart and so accomplished and she's good at everything she does. She's a very positive influence in the room. Like you walk in and she's: "Hello, darling, how are you?" She's just so pleasant and positive. That is so important. I felt that in my audition, and I felt that every single day in the rehearsal studio.

Was it nerve-wracking to audition in front of her, or are you past nerves?
Oh, my God, I will never be past nerves. Auditions make me a nervous wreck, and especially when Julie Andrews is in the room. I remember I was sitting outside the room and I knew she was in there, and I thought I was going to throw up. I was shaking, I had to stand up, and I was pacing. I walked into the room, and she came over to me and shook my hand and was so lovely, and all of that anxiety and nervousness just washed away. I felt good, and I was able to give the best audition possible because of that calm, warm environment.

What have you learned from Julie?
The way she has directed this, she really wants us to be honest in everything that we're saying 'cause that's what makes the humor work. If you play the line like you really mean it, the funnier it is to the audience. Honest and real has been a big thing for her, especially with my character, because if Polly's not honest, the audience doesn't care about her. It's not a deep piece of theater; it's toe-tapping. Everybody in the audience leaves happy. You go for two hours and sit there, and you're transformed. The sets and costumes are bright and beautiful. It's such a fun show. The personalities all mesh well, and I think that comes from Julie being our director. She's so—I'll say it again—positive. That positive energy, everyone feeds off of it, and it lends to a really happy work environment.

Let's backtrack a bit. You've been performing professionally since your early teens. How'd that come about?
I'd be coming into New York since I was 10 to do auditions. My first one was The Secret Garden, for replacements or the tour. A friend of ours was living in New York with their kid who was working in the business, and they heard about these Whistle Down the Wind auditions, so they told us about it. [Jessica didn't get into Whistle, but the Andrew Lloyd Webber show, which had run in London, never opened in New York anyway.] When I was there for that, the casting director said, "Have you been working with any agents?" So he hooked me up with an agent, and from there my first audition was Wizard of Oz.

What do you remember about finding out you got the part?
I was home in Ohio. I kind of had a good feeling about it, because when I left my audition, my mom and I went to Macy's to shop, but we called Nancy [her then agent] to check in. She's like, "Hold on, they're on the other line, they want you to go back right away. One of the producers who wasn't there just got there, and they want him to see you." So I basically had my callback on the same day. We flew home the next day. I didn't hear anything for about a week, and then my agent called me. She's like, "Jessica, you got Dorothy." I was screaming and screaming! My mom was: "Don't scream! You'll hurt your voice." And I remember my friend Jennifer came over and we cleaned my room. I was so geared-up, I guess I had to clean.

You could do a lot of name-dropping from your Wizard of Oz experience alone. I'll drop them; you tell us about them. First: Roseanne Barr, who played the Wicked Witch when the show opened at Madison Square Garden.
She was really nice. I don't think she had ever done stage before. She did do a lot of improvising. We went on the Rosie O'Donnell show and she would speak very highly of me. They interviewed Roseanne, and I sang.
Eartha Kitt (who played the Witch on tour).
We're still very good friends. She came to see The Boy Friend in Connecticut. She took to me, probably because I was a child. She was looking out for me, and she really likes my parents a lot. Sometimes when my mom is in town, she and Eartha will go to see a show together. She's a family friend now. She's very down-to-earth.
Jo Anne Worley (who also played the Witch for a while, and who was unknown to Jessica before they worked together).
I had never seen Laugh-In. She's larger than life. Very flamboyant.
Mickey Rooney (who played the Wizard).
He would stand in the wings right before I would sing "Over the Rainbow": "...beyond the moon, beyond the rain..." He's standing right there and he'd go, [loud whisper] "Sing it pretty, sweetheart!"
It was amazing to work with such legends. I don't know if that kind of stardom exists anymore. They're not making the movie musicals anymore. I don't know if that's the difference. There's still a lot of glamour in Hollywood, but maybe just the times are different.
Did he talk about Judy Garland?
Yeah, he did. And he would well up. "I remember when...I went to the premiere of Wizard of Oz with Judy..." He would talk about the studio system and thank God that's not around still. 'Cause they owned them, and these kids could have made so much money.

Last year you played Dorothy again, in Joseph Thalken's musical Was, a dark—and fictitious—backstory to The Wizard of Oz (produced in Dayton, Ohio). But this was the Dorothy Gael who had inspired Frank Baum to write the novel—an abused outcast and eventual mental-institution inmate.
It was kind of refreshing, because Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is just so pure and to get to have this dark side of a character I knew so well, it was so satisfying. I felt like I could really sink my teeth into it. I love darker, dramatic roles.

Do you have difficulty getting cast in those kinds of roles?
A couple of times I've gotten "She's just not edgy enough for this particular project." It may be partly the way I look, and partly the way I walk into a room. I am pretty bubbly. I don't really have much of an edge to me. That's something I'm working on with Craig Carnelia—to get in touch with the woman Jessica, not the little girl Jessica. Because I am a deep, complex person, I do have a dark side—I think we all do. I was working on a song from the Lippa Wild Party. Also, Craig helps me approach songs that you think of as very ingenue-y from a deeper place, like "Waiting for Life" from Once on This Island. He helps me find: What do you pray for? Where do you need to escape to? You approach these things from a personal place—I want to stand on my own as an individual, I want to be seen as a woman, I want people to know that I'm strong and I'm not always happy. If you apply all of these things to the song, there's more going on behind it.
I was going to audition for Cinderella at Paper Mill, so we worked on "In My Own Little Corner." You never really think of Cinderella as a sexual being, but she is a woman. She's 18, and she probably has urges. He brought all that to my attention. "In My Own Little Corner" is a song I've been singing from the time I was 15 or something. Especially with songs I've known for a long time, like The Fantasticks. I tend to go to that [singing sweetly from The Fantasticks' "Much More"] "Just once..." instead of singing it as me and all the things that I need and all the things that I want.
I haven't had a lot of training. I've done a lot of work, and it's all been on instinct and direction. So to have somebody kind of delve deeper into me and show me that there's more to me than I'm showing the people in the room, it's been very helpful.

Did you audition for Wicked?
I went in for Nessa Rose, for the original cast. I had a couple of callbacks, but I guess it wasn't meant to be. [Laughing] I needed an escape from Wizard of Oz!
[Ed. note: Don't be surprised if we see her in this show yet!]

What would you do if you stopped performing?
I love children, and I always think maybe: an elementary school teacher. Like, a music teacher. One of my biggest influences was my music teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade. Every year she would have a musical put on. To have that kind of influence on kids...and everybody loves you because you're the music teacher—you're not making them learn anything too hard and they get to sing for half an hour, or whatever. That would be really rewarding.

Whom have you considered your idols?
Judy Garland was always one. From The Wizard of Oz, from Meet Me in St. Louis...I had all of her movies. Shirley Temple too.
Judy Kuhn is somebody that I always loved the sound of her voice. The Les Miz album and the Chess album.
Career-wise, I'd like to have a career like Bernadette Peters'. Do a little bit of TV, a little bit of film, a little bit of theater, and be very successful in all of it. And you're famous, but...you can go to the grocery store. That's perfect to me, what she's done.

Talk more about the impact Les Miz had on you as a child.
The first show that really grabbed me was Les Miz. I might have been 8. We saw the production that came through Columbus. I think people told my parents, "Jessica could do that." I remember singing it in the living room. But I was kind of a tall kid, which is funny because I'm a short adult, so I was always too tall for Young Cosette.

And that turned out to be the show in which you made your Broadway debut, when you were 19.
I'd had two auditions for it before, when I was 16 and when I was 17. Both times, they were like, "She's a little too young." After Notre Dame...I was in rehearsal for a Coca-Cola industrial, and I went on the lunch break. I didn't want to audition for the show again. I was like, They didn't take me the two times before, they're not going to take me now. I went in not caring. "I'm so over Les Miz!" I cared, but I didn't put my whole being into it. Which I think is sometimes a good thing: You don't appear too hungry and too desperate for the job. So I went in and sang "On My Own" again, and they called that afternoon: "She starts in a week."

Starring in a national tour at 15, performing on Broadway at 19. How'd you get such an early start?
Community theater, mostly. I did a ton of theater. That was my playground. I would miss slumber parties and birthday parties 'cause I had a show, but that's what I wanted to be doing. It was a bummer to miss those parties, but I had a whole other set of friends with the exact same interests as I did.
I started performing the second I could...speak. When I was 3, my whole family—my mom, my dad, my brother (who's three years older) and I—did a summer theater production of The Music Man, in Columbus at Actors Summer Theater. It's like theater in the park. My whole family did Music Man again there when I was 9; I was Amaryllis that time. And I did Into the Woods there. I did a non-Equity tour of Oliver! when I was 12 and 13.
Actually, my first production ever was Fiddler on the Roof. I was in my mom's belly. She was playing Tzeitel when she was pregnant with me. That was Windsor Light Opera in Windsor, Ontario. I was born in Birmingham, Michigan [across the lake from Windsor].

What about Yours, Anne, the last show you did before you left Columbus?
That was like: more dramatic, nonfictional, a little deeper. It's weird: I got so into it that at one point—this is going to sound crazy here—I was like, I could be her reincarnated or something. I felt that connected to her. I knew this girl. That's how close I felt to her.

You also sing opera—you performed "O mio babbino caro" at Opera Columbus' 20th anniversary gala in 2001 and a duet from Lakmé at a benefit last year.
I had been in children's choruses in Turandot and Der Rosenkavalier at Opera Columbus. The voice teacher I started working with when I was 10 helped me get a good mix, to blend my two voices—my chest and head voices. 'Cause I was really a belter as a kid, very Annie. She helped me find a prettier voice. She and my dad used to sing together a lot, and she told him early on that she wanted dibs on teaching me. And boy, am I glad, because I feel like my mix is one of my strengths.
After I didn't go to NYU, I was going to study voice, so I applied to the Manhattan School of Music and I got in there. Then I got Les Miz so I didn't go, but I study with a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music. We work more on my classical voice. Most of the time in my lessons we don't actually sing a song. It's all about exercises, massaging the jaw and getting everything loosened up, getting all the muscles out of the way so that you can just sing freely.

With all your accomplishments already, what's on your to-do list?
I want to originate a role on Broadway, something that I could really shine in, not just another ingenue. Was would have been great. A new show. I'd like to have that process of creating a role from the ground up.
I would love to get into film. Don Buchwald [her new agents], they're really good in TV and film. Unfortunately, I'm going to be gone half of pilot season this year [for the Boy Friend tour]. But I'd like to maybe go to L.A. and give it a try out there. It kind of frees you up to do whatever theater you want to do. Now that they're doing so much star casting, it would be nice to have more of a name and get to pick and choose my roles.
I'd like to do an album. I'm still trying to work it out in my head what I want it be—whether I want it to be standards, or I've got so many composer friends now, and maybe do an album with a couple of songs from each of them.

How would you sum up your career so far?
I don't know if everybody feels this way about their work, but I feel like every project I've done, I was meant to do. I feel so lucky because everything I've done has been so special, whether I'm working with Roseanne or Eartha or Mickey or Julie Andrews—I don't know how this is possible!—and then working with up-and-coming composers like Joseph Thalken and Peter Mills [in last spring's The Pursuit of Persephone off-Broadway]. Each of my experiences is so unique; nobody else has had the experiences I've had. They're all mine, and that is so cool.

For more information about Jessica, visit her official website at http://www.jessicagrove.com

Photos, from top: Jessica, center, with (from front left) Krysta Rodriguez, Kirsten Wyatt, Andrea Chamberlain and Margot de La Barre in The Boy Friend; Dorothy and the Wizard, a.k.a. Mickey Rooney; on Broadway as Les Misérables' Eponine; relaxing on a recent day off. [The Boy Friend photo by Diane Sobolewski]

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