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BWW Interview: Laurel Harris of Broadway's JAGGED LITTLE PILL

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The Raleigh native opens up about her career, surviving COVID-19, showmance with Rob Marnell, and more.

BWW Interview: Laurel Harris of Broadway's JAGGED LITTLE PILL

Laurel Harris is an actress and native of Raleigh, North Carolina who I was lucky enough to have seen on stage twice before in the Triangle area back in 2015. First, as Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Then, as The Baker's Wife in North Carolina Theatre's production of Into the Woods. On Broadway, she has appeared in Evita, In Transit, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Though most recently, she was seen in the ensemble of the now Tony nominated musical, Jagged Little Pill. I had the great pleasure of interviewing her about what she's been up to in the months since Broadway shutdown, her reaction to the show's Tony Award nominations, and more.

To start things off, how have you been doing during this time of lockdown due to the coronavirus? I understand that you and your husband, actor Rob Marnell (who was just in The Tina Turner Musical), have both managed to recover from COVID-19 earlier this year.
LH: Yeah, thank you so much. We feel very grateful and lucky of course to be on the other side of having gone through the COVID virus and continuing to take it very seriously. Of course, we're always wearing our masks. I hope everyone here is as well. We're still wiping down our groceries. We are taking it very seriously because it is a pandemic. Like so many millions of people who are without jobs, the more that we can get a handle on this as a country, the sooner that we'll be able to go back to work. So anytime we see someone not wearing a mask, we get very angry because we're like "you're why we can't go back to work." As for what we have been doing? Well, we've been taking it day by day. We've been lucky enough to be able to do a little bit of work here and there. Some concert work and just random kind of like virtual gigs here and there where we've been asked to sing some songs or speak to people and do Q & A's or teach classes. I have been teaching a bunch of classes actually, which has been really fulfilling for me to get to connect to youth, of course. I've been doing a lot of acting through song classes, which I love to do. You can find me on I'm just really trying to prioritize family and being healthy and being responsible for lots of time that we didn't use to have that we've been trying to fill in really meaningful and proactive ways.

How did you get involved with Jagged Little Pill?
LH: Kind of like any job in our industry, I had to audition for it. When I found out there was going to be a musical based on Alanis Morissette's album, I emailed my agents right away. I said "I don't know when this is happening, but I really need to be a part of this. So please put it in your calendars. As soon as the casting notice goes out, I want to audition." That had been on my radar for about six months before auditions even happened. Then of course, as soon as they were announced, I went in for the Mary Jane cover. I sang part of 'Forgiven', then I did several of her scenes, and then I read for a whole bunch of other characters. The ensemble of the show is really cool because every person plays many different roles. So you kind of get to try on a bunch of hats in the two and a half hours. I have a really fun role because I carry a lot of good comedic scenes. It is quite the journey playing some characters that are not me obviously, but it's fun to get to do a lot of different things within the show. Then I did a dance call, which actually lasted I believe it was two or three days. Our choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is an incredible choreographer. He's based out of Belgium and he does stuff all over the world. His choreography is very nuanced and it takes a while to kind of figure it out. So it was quite a journey learning that style of dance and it is a big part of the show. It didn't actually used to be, but now it is very much part of the show. It's a very dance heavy show, so that became a big part of the audition as well. Then I got it, which was great. I began my journey with the show and it's been almost three years. I've done several workshops, readings, labs, then obviously the A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater) production that happened two years ago in Boston. Then, we finally opened on Broadway this past December. It has been a journey, and we actually just had a big zoom meeting yesterday with the whole cast and crew and creative team. Alanis was also there, which was really neat. We got to talk about all of our Tony nominations, which has been very exciting. We're still connecting when we can virtually and just trying to stay positive while we're also all very socially active and getting out the vote and doing all of that work as well. So that's my Jagged experience.

So I take it that you were a big Alanis Morrissette fan prior to the show.
LH: Oh yeah. Major, major, major. I actually learned how to sing by listening to the Jagged Little Pill album in the 1990s. I would like mimic Alanis' voice as well as Jewel's. Those were my two girls and I actually learned how to yodel by listening to them as well. So it's kind of funny because every role that I take on, I kind of add like my signature yodels to it. People are like "How did you learn how to do that?" I say "Well actually, I would mimic the yodel sounds that you hear and these voices of these albums that I listened to on repeat." So yeah, she was definitely very instrumental in me pursuing a career in singing for sure. Alanis is just so awesome to get to know her and it's wild. Like I never would've thought that I would be working with Alanis Morrissette one day, and she'd be like coming to watch me in a show and listen to me singing her stuff. It's just like crazy.

March 12th of this year was the day that performances all over the New York theatre district got suspended until further notice. What was going through your mind when you first saw that announcement?
LH: It was pretty wild. I was actually on the train down to go to physical therapy before work, because our show is so heavy that a lot of us get physical therapy to sustain our bodies so that we can do the intense choreography eight times a week. I was on my way to the clinic and then this text popped up on my phone and it just said Broadway's shut down or it announced the shutdown. There's so many people that live in my neighborhood, but like the majority of us artists take the train. So just within my car, I could hear other people's phones dinging, and they saw the same message. I didn't even know these other people, but we kind of all looked at each other and we were like "Oh, were are you in a show too? What do we do?" But we all just stayed on the train and got off at Times Square. I went to my physical therapy session and then I just got a call from my stage manager and one of the producers. They said they had a big phone call with all of us. Then, we were able to go to the Broadhurst Theatre that night and kind of pick up whatever we needed to take home with us. At that point, it was only going to be a month. So they were saying "Take what you all need for the month, and then we'll be back." Some people left their plants there, but I said, "you know, I'd hate to be Debbie downer, but I really think this is going to last longer than a month." So I took one of my friend's plants and I'm so glad I did because they surely would have died by now. Since then, they've let us come back a few more times to get more of our stuff, but that's the only time that we've been back to the theatre.

Recently, Jagged Little Pill received 15 Tony Award nominations (including Best Musical). Not only is that the most of any show this year, but it's also now tied with Billy Elliot and The Producers as the second most nominated production in the history of the American Theatre Wing (Hamilton still holds the record with 16 nods). What does it mean to you to see Jagged Little Pill get all this recognition just seven months after the Broadway shutdown began?
LH: Obviously, it's so exciting, we're very thrilled, and everyone is so happy. Of course, it's also multilayered because it does feel strange to be celebrating anything right now with a global pandemic going on, Black Lives Matter, and everything going on in Nigeria with police brutality. There's so much work to be done. It feels a little strange to be having the Tonys this year, and a lot of artists feel this way. Especially because it's virtual and we don't even know how it's going to happen this year. So that has been an interesting dynamic to add to this celebratory time. Though with that being said, this is really exciting. We're so happy to be recognized while also recognizing that it was a shorter season and like the world is turned upside down right now. I'll say that it's very humbling. Obviously, we want the theater to come back as soon as it can. But for now, we just want everyone to be healthy. We want to come back when everyone's going to be healthy and we can do it in a safe way. I mean, it's awesome to be able to celebrate something right now, to have that joy and happiness, to gather the cast, and be like "We did something really cool." So that's really great too. I think there's just so much unknown right now. We don't know when it's happening or how it's happening. So perhaps when we get that information, it'll just make it that much more real. But right now, it feels very surreal. Like "Wait, there's a Tonys and it is happening? Oh, wow." I've never been a part of a show that has been nominated for so many Tonys ever. It's like wild.

This is the second time you've been in a show that garnered major Tony nominations. The first was The Michael Grandage-helmed revival of Evita back in 2012, which happened to have been your Broadway debut. Obviously, there are major differences between now and then, but what do you remember of your experience doing that show during Tony season?
LH: Oh my gosh. That's the other thing that I'm a little let down for. We have 13 Broadway debuts in our show. That's another reason that I feel sad that it's not going to be at Radio City or the Beacon Theatre, and they're not getting the full Tonys experience. I'm sure they're still going to find a way to make it really cool. As for getting to make my Broadway debut in a show that was nominated for Tonys? We didn't get to do it at Radio City Music Hall that year, but we did it at the Beacon Theatre. It was just so exciting. It's kind of like all of the dreams and goals that you have as a kid growing up and wanting so badly to be a part of this community and a part of this world of theater and artistry and so many amazing people who came before us. It's like "It's finally here!" You feel like you're at the top of the mountain. You get to the theater, and you get all your makeup on and your costume and your wig, and then they take you in a bus to wherever the Tonys are happening. Then, you're sitting in this holding room with basically the show before you and the show after you that's going to perform. So you're all like gathered up and talking to each other there. Then they announce when it's your turn to go on, and then you go on stage and there's all these cameras. It's just so exciting. I haven't thought about this in a long time. So thank you for letting me revel in that joyous moment of my life. It was very exciting to be a part of, and something that for sure I will never forget.

Going back to the beginning, how did you first get started in the theatre?
LH: Well, I attribute that to public schools in Raleigh, North Carolina. I am forever indebted to Underwood Elementary School, Martin Middle School, and Enloe High School. The public school system is so wonderful in Raleigh. I was just so lucky to get to grow up in that system because my artistry was really nurtured and I got great training really because of those teachers and those classes that I was able to take that I pursued in this industry. Of course, at first it was just a hobby. I didn't think that I would ever actually do it as a career. Though it wasn't until I went to Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, and that kind of kick started everything like "Oh gosh, maybe I could do this as a career." When I came home from there, I started taking lessons with Lisa Blair, who is still teaching in the Triangle area, and is doing incredible work. Then I started doing some community theater in addition to the shows at my school. I did shows at Raleigh Little Theatre and Theater in the Park, which also helped to build my excitement and potential for pursuing this career. When I was like a junior in high school, I said "Well, I guess if I'm going to try this, I should try it." I was lucky enough to have parents who supported me and would still support me and recognize that this field is very volatile and there are No Guarantees and more often than not, it's a no. It's typically a very unstable career, but they said, "You gotta go for it." I was very grateful for that and still am. So I decided to go to college for it. I applied to several different schools, and I got into my dream school, the University of Michigan. That was just another sign of like "Okay, this is really happening, we're going for it. Let's see what happens." I got great training there at Michigan. Then, we had our senior showcase in New York City, so that's how I made it to the Big Apple. That's the journey in a nutshell.

The first time I ever heard of you was when the national tour of Wicked came to Durham back in 2015. Which happened to have been during my first year of writing for BroadwayWorld. I remember when I came across an article from the News & Observer about how you're from Raleigh, I shared it with my mother, and she noticed you were a graduate of her alma mater, Enloe High School.
LH: Oh my gosh, how cool! Go Eagles!

BWW Interview: Laurel Harris of Broadway's JAGGED LITTLE PILL
Laurel Harris in WICKED

So how long were you in Wicked overall?
LH: I've been in and out of Wicked for about six years. I was on tour with the show for three years. I was in the second national tour for two years and then the first national for one year. Then, I did some subbing in and out of New York. But it wasn't until I guess two years ago when I became the standby for Elphaba on Broadway permanently for a year. Well, I guess it was a little over a year until I left to do Jagged. That was a dream come true getting to play that role on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre where I first saw Wicked right after it opened (I got to see it in December of 2003). I'll never forget where I was sitting. I called my mom at intermission, and I said "I have to be in this show one day, I have to do this. I know that I need to do this." That was like the cherry on the ice cream sundae. I knew that I would be in that same theater, but on the same stage? It still just gives me goosebumps. Every time I played the role, I looked up to where I was sitting and hoped that I was singing to a young person who was having those same doubts or questions about whatever career or life path they decide to pursue. Anything's possible. Just keep the dream alive and keep hope alive.

Between you and your husband, there's at least 5 jukebox musical credits on both of your résumés. Not only was Rob most recently in The Tina Turner Musical, but he's also a Jersey Boys alumni from having played Bob Gaudio in the Las Vegas production as well as having a small part as Joe Long in the Clint Eastwood directed film adaptation. However, there is one major overlap where the two of you not only appeared in the Broadway production of Beautiful at the same time, but you both also got to go on as Carole King and Gerry Goffin together. What was that like?
LH: That was so cool! Talk about life imitating art and art imitating life. That was wild. I can't even put into words. When we were on that stage together, singing together, and playing a married couple onstage while married, it was so special. I mean, who would have ever thought we would have been given that opportunity? One of my favorite memories ever was on Rob's birthday, we got to play Carole and Gerry together. We had like all of our family come and I'm looking at him like "Oh, it was a really cool time in our life." I mean, it's something that you can't really put into words. You know, I felt like so much of the time that we were on stage together, I was just kind of like floating. It didn't really feel real. It's like you're watching yourself from above kind of like a dream, but it was real. We have pictures, and when I see the pictures, I'm just like "I can't believe that happened." We got to do it several times together, which was really fun.

BWW Interview: Laurel Harris of Broadway's JAGGED LITTLE PILL
Laurel Harris & Rob Marnell in BEAUTIFUL

I remember when the Facebook page for Beautiful posted about that, I shared it with the people at Raleigh Little Theatre, which was where the two of you first met.
LH: That's right. Although we both had the same voice teacher, Lisa Blair. So we actually met for the first time on her porch as I was leaving and Rob was entering. We were getting ready to audition for Cinderella at Raleigh Little Theatre. We got to know each other during that show and started dating way back when. We also had two or three proms together because Rob was a year older than me and he went to Millbrook High School. So I went to one Millbrook prom with him and two Enloe proms with him.

As of now, the Broadway shutdown is currently set to expire at the end of May next year. What do you expect the theatre world to look like after this pandemic?
LH: I hope that it's going to look very different. I hope that we're all taking this time to reevaluate a lot of things in terms of diversity and inclusivity in terms of equity, in terms of power dynamics between casting creatives and producers, in terms of salaries, in terms of roles written for men versus women and transgender. There's an opportunity for so much healing and progress and positive change. I really hope that we come back from this so much better and so much more knowledgeable and willing to have tougher conversations and really be in the industry that we claim to be. We love to give back, we love to share with an audience. It's like a communal experience. So that's my hope is that we can really apply those values onstage and like put it into commercial theater, which is the hardest thing to do because it is a business, and people always say "Well, it's called show business," but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be moral and it shouldn't be as inclusive and equitable as it should be. There's no excuse for that for any business. So it can't go back to the way that it was kind of like society. We can't go back to the way it was because the way it was before wasn't working. So that's my hope in terms of just how the theater is run and what it looks like on and off stage in terms of COVID. Obviously the dream is to come back when we can have theatres at full capacity, but I don't know if that's going to be possible for many more months, so I'm not sure. I know that the current estimate is the end of May, but who knows? I do think it will look different for quite some time. Perhaps there will be more outdoor theater, plexiglass, shields? Who knows? Though most importantly, we just want to make sure that we don't reopen Broadway until it is a hundred percent safe to do so because not one human life is worth risking, anything.

Most recently, North Carolina Theatre announced that their upcoming season will offer patrons one of two options to see their productions. They can either come in-person or stream the shows online in real time. What are your thoughts on that?
LH: Well, I love the streaming option. I mean, surely they're not at a hundred percent capacity. I think in a way, it could be easier for regional theatres to make this happen, at least at first. I guess I'll just speak on behalf of the theatres that I've worked in regionally, they have been larger than Broadway houses. So I think it is easier to space people out and there's also room regionally to do things outdoors. There's not really any room to do that here in New York. Though I guess you could take over Central Park or something, but a lot of regional theatres are surrounded by places outside that could potentially take the show outside as well. I am all for opening the theatre, as long as it's safe and people can be socially distant and required to wear face masks. I know that a lot of people are doing temperature checks this whole time. I think that's great, but it's also not a surefire way to guarantee if someone has COVID or not. As we know you can be asymptomatic and be a COVID carrier or you can have COVID and experience other symptoms that aren't fever. So that's been the only thing about the temperature check that I appreciate, but it's also not a guarantee to make sure that everyone entering your theater is not COVID positive. So I think the only way really to guarantee would be to test everyone, to like do a rapid test before everyone enters the theater and then make sure that they're negative and of course continue to social distancing and mask wearing, but streaming is probably the safest thing. I know that it can be very intense and very scary, and I would not risk anything to put myself in a position that could potentially cause that again.

Laurel, I thank you both very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
LH: You too. Thank you so much! You had such great questions and you really did your research. I am impressed. You were just like spouting out all the facts and making me feel really cool about myself. So thank you for that. That was a nice little ego hug I haven't had in a while, so I really appreciate it. I wish you the very best and hope that you continue to stay safe and healthy.

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