BWW Interview: Jennifer Leigh Warren Talks About Her Success, Famous Puppets, and What Makes Broadway At Music Circus So Special
Summer can officially begin in Sacramento! Broadway at Music Circus kicks off its new season on June 11 with Shrek the Musical. Shrek brings something for the entire family to enjoy and is the perfect accompaniment to PRIDE month with its message of inclusion. As one of the Fairytale Creatures says, "It's time to stop the hiding. It's time to stand up tall." Jennifer Leigh Warren, who plays Dragon, wholeheartedly agrees. She was last seen in multiple roles on television in "Rent Live!" in January. She spoke to Broadway World Sacramento about the importance of the show, her role as a lonely puppet, and her impressive career.
Welcome back to Sacramento! It's always wonderful to have Broadway at Music Circus favorites return to us. Can you tell us some of your favorite things about Music Circus and Sacramento?
I have worked there so many times. I've performed there when it was a tent. I've seen the growth of Music Circus and I love working there. For one, it's in the round, which you don't normally get to perform in. You have to work certain muscles that you never get to use. You have to be on all the way around. It's not like a proscenium stage. Every piece of your body has to be directed towards the audience. Everybody has to feel they're a part of it. They are so supportive of performers coming in. They're kind, which is not always the case in other places. You just feel good when you come here, you know? You're happy to be working in Music Circus. You get here, you work really hard, and they really appreciate it. It's a great organization and that's why it's lasted so long and why it WILL last so long. It's a well-oiled machine that puts out quality work and the audiences know that. They know that it's going be quality.
You've worked with Shrek director Glenn Casale in the past and at Music Circus in Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma, and Big River. What stands out in your mind about those experiences?
I love working with Glenn because he's an actors' director. If you have a suggestion, he listens to it, he hears it, but it's about the quality of the work. I love working with him because it's a collaboration but it's about the book and what's on the page and being true to the work. I love that about him. I was cast as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof and the first African American as Ado Annie in Oklahoma and now it's happening again at Music Circus. That's another thing that I have to thank them for. That was many years ago in Oklahoma and that was very brave of Sacramento Music Circus. Casting me, an African American woman, as Ado Annie. It was very brave and I felt so welcomed and it was a sign of change in the country and Sacramento. Sacramento Music Circus is right there ahead of the game.
The last time you were at Music Circus was in 2015 for Big River as the character Alice, which I was fortunate enough to see. We were all blown away by your talent and what people may not know is that you originated the role of Alice's daughter in the show on Broadway in 1985. How does it feel to perform the different roles in the same show so many years apart?
The song that I sang at Music Circus was written for me on Broadway. I came back to play Alice but I still sang the song that was written for me as Alice's daughter. I've grown with the show and since I was there from the beginning I know what was needed for that role.
Expanding on that, what were your thoughts when you found out that the great Roger Miller wrote "How Blest We Are" in Big River specifically for you?
He came to me one day and said, "I wrote you a song," and I said, "What??? How do you want me to do it?" He said, "Just sing the way you sing." It was an honor and every time I think about it, even now, I get goosebumps. It was something special that I will never forget.
That song has a very gospel sound. Did you start your singing career in church?
I sang a little in church but not a lot. My mother and 2 aunts were singers and did 3-part harmonies together in church. I went to Dartmouth College and theatre wasn't on my register but it was predominately white and male and they decided that they were going to do the musical Purlie and they put up fliers looking for African American people. I came and auditioned and got the part of Lutiebelle, the female lead. One of the professors said, "Maybe you should consider this as a career." I hadn't thought of it but then something clicked. Once I was on the stage, I loved performing. It's not about the applause for me, it's about the truth and giving life to a character.
You also originated the role of Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway. It must be a thrill to have helped create a cult classic.
I worked with the uber-talented Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. I can say I've been lucky. Lightning struck twice for me. Roger writing the song for me, working with them on the show. We had no idea what was going to happen with the show. It was my first big audition. It wasn't a big thing because it was Off-Broadway and everyone was like, "A show about a man-eating plant?" No one knew what it was going to be. We didn't know what it was going to be. We were just enjoying it. It was fun. It was the same sort of feeling as with Shrek, you are so amused by each other and enjoying each other. You get to sing that music. I'm happy that I was a part of it. I love that they were giving and they listened to us. I am appreciative that people appreciate it. I love how we were honored for what we had done in the past. I feel like Sacramento brings you in and honors what you've done before and they appreciate it.
You were most recently seen in "RENT: Live." Can you tell us about that experience?
It was a wonderful experience and it was unfortunate that we didn't get to do the finished product. The world saw the dress rehearsal. It was sad because we worked for 2 months on that. There's all sorts of hubbub about what they should have done and they did the only thing they could have done. They didn't find out that Brennin Hunt's foot was actually broken until the morning of the performance. There are so many pieces to the puzzle. There were amazing artists connected with that, from the beautiful orchestra to the prop masters to the sound people and the costume designer. It was another wonderful experience working with Michael Greif, who was an associate director on Big River. He cast me because he knows I can play a comedian, different roles, different voices and sounds. Mrs. Cohen, Mrs. Jefferson, the deep-throated voice of the bag lady. She is known as the "who the f lady" but they changed it to the "who the hell lady." I got to play all of these different characters but no one got to see the finished product. There's still a pain in our hearts because there was so much good work. In every way you could think of there was quality. There was no hierarchy, we were all a part of the show. It was a lovely experience but it was unfortunate we didn't get to do the live show.
You've played the role of Dragon in Shrek before. "Forever" is a perfect song for your awe-inspiring belt. Are there any variations to the way you play the role in different venues?
Tuacahn, an outdoor amphitheatre in St. George, Utah, is when I first played it with Andre Jordan, who is playing Donkey now. An artistic and life friendship was formed. He's a remarkable actor. Now I have new friends with Jacob and Kristen, who play Shrek and Fiona. I can't wait until you hear them both. Glenn Casale casts well. He's very good at casting. It was different because Tuacahn was an outdoor thing and this is in the round. You have actors as the puppeteers. Jonathan Savage plays the head of the puppet so he and I have to work together. He has to know what I'm singing and where I'm singing so it doesn't look like this thing is flopping in the air and the voice is coming from somewhere else. He has to learn puppetry along with holding it up and maneuvering it. It's heavy. He's a wonderful dancer, actor, and singer. We become one character.
How do you get into character when you're channeling a puppet and singing offstage? What are the challenges of showing the audience the emotions of a puppet?
I'm channeling a character and the words that you're singing in the song. Everyone wants to rescue the princess but no one wants to be with Dragon. It's more of a voiceover job. You think about the words and the emotions about what you're singing. Just like what I would do if I'm standing on the stage but this time I'm standing in front of a mic doing it.
You've now been in shows with two iconic evil puppets. While Audrey II is definitely deranged (and hungry), do you think that Dragon is just misunderstood?
Yes, of course. But then you grow to love her if you know the show. For those that don't know it, tell them to come see it to see what we're talking about.
Shrek is a timely show to highlight during PRIDE month since it celebrates all of the things that make us unique. What would you like the audience to take from this show?
Exactly, loving yourself and being true to yourself and who you are. You are beautiful, like Shrek says to Fiona. There's a line about Farquaad, I can't give too much away, when someone says that Farquaad is a halfling and someone else says that that's a lovely thing to be. You were born who you are. It's a perfect show for PRIDE and for everybody. It's a perfect message for us all. We are all beautiful as we are, including Dragon. She says she's "no princess, no great beauty."
The show is so funny and heartwarming and the music is so beautiful. Jacob Keith Watson as Shrek is so lovely. There is such heart in his portrayal of Shrek and on top of that he has this great singing voice. Kristen Beth Williams as Fiona is fiery and sweet. Mr. Andre Jordan. Wait until you see him as the Donkey. He is something else. He and I did a show together and you have to see him and I'm so happy it worked out. I messaged Glenn about him. The Donkey is really the true mind of the show and embodies accepting who you are. He is the one person who accepts who he is. The man, Richard Bay, who is the puppet master, is a retired professor from Sac State and it's beautiful. It's wonderful, magical, fun. I get to be able to be the voice of the character, that beautiful puppet. Our conductor is so fantastic and yesterday we worked with the orchestra for the first time. We were just blown away by the sounds. I'm doing Mother Ogre and Mama Bear, also, so I have to dance in there and I'm excited because I don't dance. Robbie Roby, the choreographer, got me dancing so that's fun. It's a challenge but it's fun.
What is next for Jennifer Leigh Warren?
What's next for me is I head to Goodspeed in Connecticut to do a new musical called Passing Through. I did a workshop of it in February and now they're doing a production of it, so I head to CT to do that. It's by Eric Ulloa and Brett Ryback. It's a lovely new musical that's coming out of Goodspeed and I have great hopes for it after doing the workshop. It's great to be part of a new musical. Little Shop and Big River were new musicals when I did them. I hope lightning strikes a third time for this show. After that I go back on tour for A Night With Janis Joplin, which I've been doing for the last 3 years. It's the 4th tour and it's going to be on the East Coast and some of the Midwest. I would like to mention my mother, Ruby Warren, and especially my brother, Michael Ward. I wouldn't be able to do it without them. He is the "wind beneath my wings" that allows me to be able to do this.
Tickets for Shrek the Musical start at $40 for kids 4-12 and $45 for adults, and are available by phone at (916) 557-1999, online at BroadwaySacramento.com, or in person at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office, 1419 H Street in Sacramento. Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday, June 11-15, at 7:30 p.m.; matinee performances are Thursday, June 13 and Saturday, June 15 at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday, June 16 at 3:00 p.m. For more information, visit BroadwaySacramento.com.