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BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETT

For this lifelong musical storyteller, the story of her own life is about to hit center stage.

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETTAs the days of the new year broke and everyone focused on new beginnings, Jessica Hendy went public with news of something that was beginning that was really new for her. WITH BECKETT, a new musical based on her own life, has been created and is heading into the light. With Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker providing a score for her own script (adapted from her memoir) Jessica has gone through an artistic birthing process unlike any she has ever known... or ever dreamed she would. She has turned a book into a cabaret and a cabaret into a play, and that play is one for which she is ideal suited to play the lead. Now, with No Reverse Records poised to record the concept album, Ms. Hendy is ready to take her work as a performer to the next level as she takes her life as a single mother public.

And she has done it all with Beckett right by her side.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced with minimal edits.

Jessica Hendy, welcome (finally!) to Broadway World Cabaret! I have been longing to talk to you for ages now and I am so happy to finally have you here with us!

Hi Stephen! I'm so happy to be here. I've been looking forward to this time with you.

So, Happy New Year, happy new administration, happy new everything. How's life at Hendy House?

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETTHappy New Year to you too! Life is good at the Hendy house. I'm happy to be healthy. Beckett is healthy and my family is healthy, I'm so grateful for that because I know there are many people who have died and suffered during this terrible pandemic. Beckett and I have been very mindful about trying to keep ourselves as safe as we can during this time. And it's not been without its difficulties for sure, however, we're happy to be starting a new year with a positive outlook. We will get through this, and on the other side, I know it's filled with light.

Ok, we have to get this out of the way, immediately: tell me about Grizabella.

What do you want to know? I'm ready, hahaha.

You have had an intimate ongoing relationship with this character for longer than just about anyone. The stories of show business have presented actors who come to resent the roles for which they become known, while others embrace it. What has been your experience of two decades with Grizabella and "Memory"?

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETTHoly cow 2 decades?! I never really thought about it that way. Ok, so my first cat life was the national tour, then, I made my Broadway debut on the Winter Garden stage playing Grizabella. I joined the Broadway cast about a year before it closed. It was an incredible experience. At the time, I was the youngest person to play Griz...however, now I believe that has been broken by the most recent Griz on tour, the incredible Keri René Fuller. If at 10 years old someone told me that someday I would be making my Broadway debut singing Memory, I would have never believed it. But it happened, and it was everything and more I could have dreamed about. When I was cast in the revival of CATS, it was such a full-circle moment for me. See, I'd been away from New York for 11 years. When I left, I was younger, married, not a mom, and every casting director knew me. When I came back to New York, the playing field had changed. The business had moved on. I was 11 years older, a single-mom, and basically starting over from scratch. But I knew that would be the case, so it wasn't a surprise to me. It just fueled my determination to somehow get back on the boards. When they announced the revival of CATS, I thought, "well stranger things have happened. It's CATS, it could just happen again for me." And it did. When we opened, it was almost like my Broadway debut all over again, it meant that much. Singing MEMORY now took on a whole new meaning. It was deeper, wiser, and more meaningful than ever before. I had lived a whole life in those 11 years out of New York and lived through a lot of hardships, but like Grizabella I never gave up and continued to look at another day, as a new beginning. That sounds a bit cheeseball, I know, but it's the truth. So, to answer your question I've embraced Grizabella 100%. She will always be a part of me, and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to tell her story so many times. I might add that I am the only person in the world to have played Grizabella on the national tour, and in both Broadway productions. I'm proud of that. I've always said, every time I say I'm done with CATS, another production comes along, so hahaha maybe I'm not done. Although, I'm happy to pass along the torch.

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETT

You are much more than this character and this song, though. Let's talk about your memoir, Hendy Nation - what prompted you to author this personal story?

I'll start by saying I never aspired to write a book. Writing hadn't been a part of my wheelhouse. However, several years ago I found myself writing essays about being a single mom in New York City. I thought they were sassy and fun. After I wrote several essays about different situations and mishaps of my single-parenting, I sat down and read them all at once. They were HORRIBLE! Hahaha, seriously, they were. They had an edge and I found myself not liking the author...who was me. It was a relief in a way, ya know? I thought, "okay, tried that, it didn't work, move on." But then something very bizarre happened. A thought began popping into my head. A statement, really. It would happen in the quiet, like right before I fell asleep, or right when I woke up in the morning. The statement was, "finish your book." I discounted it for a while. But this thought was persistent, and calm, and quite frankly annoying because I had already tried writing, and it didn't really work. Why was this thought coming every day? One morning I woke up, and once again the thought popped into my head, "finish your book," and I actually said out loud, "WHAT BOOK?" And then right there, I asked myself a question, "What if I told the truth? What if I told my story about what actually happened?" And from that moment on, I sat in front of my computer every day and began telling the hard and scary truth of what Beckett and I went through.

During the creative process, did you have apprehensions about sharing so deeply and intimately of yourself and your life?

Oh my God, yes. I have been extremely private about the struggles I faced as a single parent. I would go so far as to say I kept a part of my life hidden. But once I decided to tell my story, it came pouring out of me. I leaned into my truth and began shedding my shame. Memories of things I blocked out, returned. And I realized the importance of my journey that got me where I am today, is a conversation worthy to bring into the light. Enough time had passed, I was stronger, Beckett and I were okay, forgiveness had happened, so I was ready. But I had to make sure Beckett was okay with all of this, it was his story too, ya know? I've had many conversations with him to make sure he's cool with our life being opened up in this way. And I've been careful to tell our story in a way that is truthful but still protects him.

I know that you shared publicly your search for an agent and publisher, but an online search for a copy of Hendy Nation yielded no results for me. Did Hendy Nation evolve into the musical WITH BECKETT that was announced last week?

No results, that is correct. And yep, it did evolve into a musical...and I will get my memoir published. This is all just not happening in the order I thought it would happen, but that's okay because I'm liking this order.

Walk me through the trajectory of With Beckett, won't you please?

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETTSo, as I said, I was having trouble getting any real attention from any literary agents or publishers for my manuscript. I had the idea to do a cabaret in New York with stories from my memoir woven in between songs. I was hoping to invite some lit agents and get some attention that way. However, once I began putting the cabaret together I realized my story was more than a cabaret. I had 273 pages of material to draw from so, why not write a play? I originally wrote the play with two characters, and I ended up inserting a few pop songs ('cause I love to sing so why not). The show went through several titles, WITH BECKETT is, I believe, the fourth title my show has had. Once I had a good draft, I sent the play to a few very close friends to read. Every single one of them encouraged me to re-write the whole thing, but without the second character. That was super terrifying to me because that second character made me feel safe to be able to tell my story. They all encouraged me to step out of my safety net and stand alone. So I reluctantly tried it, and I found that the show actually works best as a one-woman show.

For anyone who knows you or who has seen photos of you and Beckett, it is clear that he is the love of your life and an amazing young man. A lot of people reading this interview don't know that, so would you like to use your writer's prowess to introduce him to the Broadway World readers?

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETTWell, I'll start by saying that I think all single parents are superheroes. It's a difficult job, especially in a pandemic. However, I have an extremely helpful support system with my family and my close friends. I live by the phrase "it takes a village." And Beckett, well, he is the absolute love of my life. He is the greatest child anyone could ask for, and I am so lucky to be his mom. I would go to the ends of the earth for him. He is kind, thoughtful, super smart, and wise beyond his years. We make a great team. Moving to New York as a single-parent was challenging in several ways but also easy because Beckett has always been okay with the world around him. He's always been up for an adventure and what an adventure it's been for us so far. We moved here when he was seven, and starting the second grade. This year, he started high school, and I'm so proud of the young man he is becoming.

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETT

Your collaborators on this musical are some pretty weighty industry artists. Were these folks friends that wanted to work with you, or are they new to your creative family?

When I got my script to a place where I was happy with it, I sent it out to a few other friends to read. One of them was my good friend Richard Oberacker. Richard and I have been friends since we were in high school. We attended CCM together, as well. I sent Richard the script in Oct of 2019 and asked him to read it and if maybe by chance he had a "trunk song" that he'd let me use, I'd love it. Two months later he contacted me and told me he'd shared my script with his writing partner, Rob Taylor and they'd like to have a meeting with me. They proposed a possible collaboration, and would I be interested in them writing an original score for the show. I was like, HELL YES, ABSOLUTELY!! We had a couple of very in-depth meetings in Jan of 2020, and from there we began our journey together.

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETT

You rarely have to worry about work - you're constantly on the concert stage, in symphony halls and cabaret rooms, singing other peoples' songs, in other peoples' shows, telling other peoples' stories. By creating With Beckett, you are taking your work to a whole new level, both in artistic experience and in responsibility. There must be a non-stop river flowing from your head to your heart during this process.

It's been really interesting taking hold of my career in this way. I've always told other people's stories, and I love doing that. But telling my own story has been the most surprising and rewarding experience of my career so far. I wouldn't be here doing it without listening to that voice inside of me and being open to walking down that road. It was a terrifying leap and the process has been a long hard one, but so far it's been 100% worth it. And yes, I've been lucky in my career that people continue to want to work with me and use my gifts in the stories that they've written. I'm so grateful for the opportunities I've had. Especially now during this pandemic, having all work completely stop in our business has been shocking. Devastating. Going forward, getting to do what I love is something I will never take for granted.

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETT

Put a picture in my head of the creation of a new musical during a pandemic.

So in January 2020, Richard Oberacker, Rob Taylor, and I decided to begin working together. We went our separate ways for a couple of months, I was out of town for basically the whole month of February doing concerts all around the country. I got back to New York on Friday, March 6th, and a week later the country shut down from the pandemic. So, we had to adjust the way we were gonna do this. We immediately went online. I bought the ZOOM Pro package and we zoomed regularly for hours on end, writing, rewriting and editing, and building the show. Setting keys for the music was a challenge on Zoom, but we did it. We got the score and the script to a place where we were ready to begin working it, and we brought on our director, Richard Hess. Richard Hess was at CCM getting his MFA in directing while Richard Oberacker and I were there as undergrads. We've also all worked together before, so bringing him onto the team was a perfect fit. WITH BECKETT is such a personal show, and it has been important to me that our nuclear creative team is all people who I trust. We also brought on Julie McBride as our music supervisor and orchestrator, and she's wonderful. She's arranged the music in such a cool and current way. We've also done several industry ZOOM readings which have been very successful for us. We haven't stopped editing and rewriting, though. Each time, after a presentation, we ask for notes and take all notes seriously.

Now get me excited about the next leg of the journey for With Beckett.

Thanks for asking this question! Right now we are in the middle of an IndieGogo campaign to fund a fully realized concept album of WITH BECKETT. Our goal is to get our show as ready as it can be for when the world begins opening up again. A concept album that is fully orchestrated is one way to do that. Getting the music out into the public will help bring WITH BECKETT to the world even if the pandemic continues for many more months.

I hear from Ashley Kate Adams that With Beckett will make its debut as a CD on the No Reverse Records label - but the funding for an album can get up there. How are you and your colleagues and No Reverse affording this at a time when there is virtually no income for show business workers?

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETTI've been friends with Ashley Kate since 2008 when we did "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" together at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. So it was a no-brainer to bring our concept album project of WITH BECKETT to her. Ashley has been such a good friend for many years, and I've always been so impressed with her drive and vision in the business. I'm really excited about our collaboration. And yes, it takes money to make an album, and it's a pandemic and everyone is out of work. We have a mountain to climb to get there, it's true. So that is why we launched our IndieGogo campaign. We need help to do this, and if we meet our goal, and I believe we will, we will bring new work and new art to the public. I think WITH BECKETT will be one of many amazing new shows that comes out of this time. And if you'd like to be a part of making this happen, HERE is the link to our IndieGoGo -- Thank you in advance for your support. We're also about to drop a teaser demo video of one of the songs from the show. It's called DIVING BACK IN, and I will attach the video for you. I love this song so much, it's so fun to sing.

I know it's important to remain vague and abstract with stories like With Beckett, so as not to give it all away, but it's also important to say enough to get people interested. What verbiage would you like to use to accomplish both of those goals while sharing this early stage of development with the public?

WITH BECKETT is an impact story about a mother showing her son how to live by example even under the toughest situations. It's a conversation that has been in the shadows for too long and needs to be brought into the light. It tackles big themes, some of which are, single-parenting, mental health, overcoming adversity, shame, and ultimately living the life of your dreams.

Jessica Hendy, I am so grateful to you for welcoming Broadway World Cabaret and our readers into this journey with you. I hope you will come back often with updates and news. Thank you so much.

Thank YOU, Stephen. It's always a pleasure.

Visit the Jessica Hendy website HERE

Studio photographs in this article were by Michael Kushner.

BWW Interview: Jessica Hendy of WITH BECKETT


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