BWW Interview: On Wednesdays, She Wears Pink — Jonalyn Saxer Reflects on Playing the Role of Karen Smith in the MEAN GIRLS National Tour

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BWW Interview: On Wednesdays, She Wears Pink — Jonalyn Saxer Reflects on Playing the Role of Karen Smith in the MEAN GIRLS National Tour

Do you want to see Jonalyn Saxer fit her entire fist into her mouth? Actually, I don't know if the actor can do that, but she is showcasing her talents in the principal role of Karen Smith in the national tour of MEAN GIRLS (Fans of the original 2003 film will recognize that opening line as one of Karen's many now famous tidbits). Now, Saxer is delivering Karen's signature brand of humor eight nights a week-and singing many of the jokes. With book from original screenwriter Tina Fey, music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics from LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL lyricist Nell Benjamin, and direction and choreography from Casey Nicholaw, the first ever national tour of MEAN GIRLS arrives in Chicago on Christmas Day. I caught up with Saxer in advance of the show's arrival to talk about her experiences with the musical and how she found her unique voice in the role of Karen.

Talk to me about your journey with MEAN GIRLS. What has it been like performing in multiple productions of the musical? And can you talk to me about the transition from the ensemble to now playing the role of Karen Smith on tour?

It's been such a crazy adventure being a part of essentially all productions from our lab workshop in the studio to our out-of-town tryout in Washington D.C. to the Broadway production to now being on tour. I'm now the unofficial historian on tour [because I can share details about all the previous versions of the show.] Sometimes I think, "Oh my gosh, I can't even believe all the different versions the show has gone through." It is really awesome because I also feel like it gives me a special look into the heart of the show. As we were building the show, [the entire team] was always thinking about what are we trying to do with this specific song and this character.

Going into the tour now with people seeing the show as it is [currently] and seeing the small changes we made for the tour, I can go, "Oh, this makes sense. [Because I have knowledge of all the changes that led up to this point.} So that's what it's been like working on all the productions.

Going from understudying the role of Karen to playing the role has really been great. The creative team has been so supportive and encouraging of us to do our own versions of the role. [Director] Casey [Nicholaw] would say, "You know, Jonalyn, you don't have to say it the way Kate [Rockwell, who plays Karen Smith in the Broadway production] says it."

They wanted to make sure we found our own honesty and truth in the characters themselves and their intentions. Because something that's really real about Tina's writing and the casting of the show is that they are careful to cast the actors, but the writing is so good that as long as you bring yourself to the words, the humor will land and the story will land. I feel lucky because I went on as Karen about 50 times on Broadway. Kate had a foot injury and was in a boot for a couple weeks. It took a little while on tour [to find my footing in the role again]...It was nice because I went into rehearsals and performances feeling more comfort in what I was doing and what I was bringing to the table. If the [creative team] really didn't like me, they've already seen me do the role so they wouldn't have brought me in, and I know there's that trust. It made me feel sure of my choices and what I was bringing to the show and to Karen. There are things that Kate does on Broadway that I always saw. And the best actors just steal. I'm going to keep doing some of the things that Kate did. I have my own homages to her.

MEAN GIRLS is such an iconic film but also really known for its humor. How does BWW Interview: On Wednesdays, She Wears Pink — Jonalyn Saxer Reflects on Playing the Role of Karen Smith in the MEAN GIRLS National Tourthe show go about finding that balance between capturing moments that audiences want to see, while also leaving room for new jokes-because such a huge element of humor is in its capacity to surprise?

The show is, I think, a great balance of the lines you want from the movie, [such as] "That's so fetch!" and "She doesn't even go here!" But when you walk away from seeing the show, the jokes that get the biggest laughs are the new jokes. Tina [Fey] is an endless pit of jokes. When we were in previews on Broadway our principals would have a new joke and a new punchline every night. Tina would hear how audiences responded, and it would get changed or it would go back into the show. Karen's very first line in the lunchroom [now] is a line about touching a tiger. [But] Kate had at least two or three different lines that she tried out.

Jokes are updated. Now we deal with social media and the societal and political situation. We make jokes that make sense now. But there's also some jokes about high school that never get old. Also, I think a couple of the jokes, especially in the gym scene, they are the same jokes from the movie but sometimes the fact that someone is saying it live on stage brings a new hilarity to what they're saying.

Amanda Seyfried is now well known for her portrayal of Karen in the original film and Kate Rockwell has performed the role in both the DC pre-Broadway tryout and now in the Broadway production since it opened. I imagine you've seen both of those performances. How do you go about making the role of Karen your own?

I think it's impossible to not make a character your own because as actors we are ourselves no matter what we do. Your interpretation of anything is going to have a bit of your own point of view and your opinions put onto it. I had done some character work obviously as an understudy, but I also had to fit into what Kate was doing. But now with the tour, I have freedom with the other principals and we built the show together. I had a little bit more freedom. You have to go back to the words and remember, "Okay, the first time I read these words, what did they mean to me?" The thing is you can see somebody else play the role and guess what their intention is, but unless they sit down and say, "When I say this line, this is what I'm thinking," you take where they're going. But that's also you as an actor trying to guess what Tina is thinking the character means. It just gives you a different character all from the same base.

What has it been like working with Tina, and how has that informed your way into the role of Karen?

The creative team has always been so supportive. We jokingly call them Mom and Dad. We are a big family. I think what really matters to our creative team, and especially Tina and Jeff [Richmond, the composer and Fey's husband], it's like Tina's first real big screenplay, to make that into a musical there was so much care put into it...They want it to be great. I think the best way as an actor and as an employee is to also want it to be great and to put your best effort into it. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and trust they know what's best. And to work for them and really honor what they created.

Karen is a character known for her unique humor, but she's also unintentionally funny-she doesn't know why we find her so hilarious. How do you maintain the integrity of the role and find that balance between finding moments to make audiences laugh while also preserving the character's truth?

I think it's a lot about coming with honesty towards what you're saying. It's something I often say. People are always like, "Well, Karen is] the dumb one." Nobody ever goes about life thinking, "I'm going to say this line because it's the stupidest thing I could say." I spend a lot of the show observing because I think Karen responds more slowly. Her responses may not have a lot of critical thinking. It's an innocent and naive way of looking at things, but it's unabashedly naive. She's not afraid to say what she's thinking, and she believes that what she's saying is right.

There's a belief in comedy that you have to be so specific that it's almost mathematical. Even in notes with Casey during previews he would say, "If you look forward when you're saying these words, you're gonna get the laugh." If I look this way and say this line, the whole audience will laugh. And then you take that mathematical knowledge and think about why the character would do it that way.

And also, I need to keep in mind that your fourth scene partner is the audience. Sometimes you need to hold back for laughs. The good and bad thing about Tina's writing is that audiences sometimes seem afraid to laugh so loud because the jokes just keep coming, one after the other.

You'll be here in Chicago for Christmas and New Year's. What is it like being on BWW Interview: On Wednesdays, She Wears Pink — Jonalyn Saxer Reflects on Playing the Role of Karen Smith in the MEAN GIRLS National Tourtour during the holiday season?

It's great because our first show in Chicago is on Christmas. I was thinking, "Geez, my family travels at Christmas. But if we didn't have that, we would go see a show." It's really exciting. I'm originally from Los Angeles so I have spent a lot of holidays away from home. And I'm used to working weekends because that's when most people aren't working. This will be my second Christmas I've spent in Chicago.

What's on your Chicago holiday bucket list for this year?

I love the Christkindlmarket! Last time I was here I was doing a pre-Broadway tryout of GOTTA DANCE, and I walked by it every day. I had to convince myself not to get a hot chocolate every time [Editor's Note: This is incredibly relatable]. There's also a beautiful river walk that I love walking my dog along and that's so hard to find in some cities.

What are some of the ways you practice self-care and generally stay healthy while on tour, especially during the winter?

Lots of rest. It's important to get enough sleep. Especially because we travel so often it'll be nice to sit down in Chicago for a second. When your day off is spent traveling, you need to find other days to take some of that time. I try to go to a workout class every day. I get to meet a lot of people living in the cities. Also working out helps my body so I can stay strong and fit into those costumes. For me, yoga has been a big help because I am constantly in high heels so I need to stretch out my legs. And then you spend your day off sitting on an airplane or on a bus. Resting and relaxing. Also you know finding time for yourself but also going out and having fun.

Luckily, our cast really gets along. We just went to a pop up Christmas bar last night and had a blast. You have to remember that even though you work and live in different cities, you still need to have a life. It's really exciting because going to different cities we can check out all the best food places and all the best bars. Every city has their best bars or their best restaurants. I can't wait to go back to Giordano's.

Given the topic of the show is so much a satire of the high school experience, what do you hope that high school aged young women take away from it?

I think you take away that it's important to treat everyone with dignity. The characters come together at the end, but they're not all best friends. We can all get along. Also, oftentimes we think we're making jokes in high school and we're trying to be funny and trying to be well liked, but you end up being mean without meaning to. By doing that, we are actually hurting other people. How do we balance that and view yourself from the outside and think about how you are treating your friends? It's about the struggle to survive high school.

And lastly, I have to know, what would be your ideal "sexy" Halloween costume?

I think for multiple years in college I dressed up as a sexy Princess Aurora.

See Jonalyn Saxer take on the role of Karen Smith in the first national tour of MEAN GIRLS at Broadway In Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph, from December 25 - January 26. Visit BroadwayinChicago.com to learn more and purchase tickets.

Headshot courtesy of Margie Korshak

Production Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Interview by Rachel Weinberg

Responses edited for clarity




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