BWW Interview: Melissa Momboisse of HAIRSPRAY at Bay Area Musicals Shares the Joys and Challenges of Returning to a Favorite Role
Melissa Momboisse is thrilled to be returning to her favorite role of Penny Pingleton in Bay Area Musicals' new production of "Hairspray" running from July 6th to August 11th at San Francisco's Victoria theater. Ms. Momboisse (pronounced "mom-boyce") is a veritable fixture on the Bay Area musical theater scene, known for her energetic and varied performances in a long and eclectic list of roles. Melissa also courageously beat Stage IV Hodgkins' Lymphoma 3 years ago, and when she survives 2 more years she gets to officially call herself a cancer survivor. She recently spoke with BroadwayWorld by phone about the joys and challenges of maintaining a thriving theatrical career while dealing with serious health challenges. The following conversation has been edited for length.
When it comes to playing Penny Pingleton, this is certainly not your first time at the rodeo. How did you approach returning to the same character, given that you're working with a new director and a new cast? Have you learned anything new about Penny this time around?
Yeah, a new director and a new cast every time. This is my third time playing her. I love it because I see it as a time to think about her differently and go deeper. This time I really thought about her relationship with her mother. I went back to a line where her mother says "If the police ever locate your father, he'll punish you good." I assumed the last two times I played it that Mom has a taste for the bad boys. Dad's in prison for something. He escaped. That was always my narrative, but then I thought about it, and [the script] never says anything about him being in jail. So maybe the conditions at home with her mother, with how strict and religious she is, were so oppressive that that's what made him leave. And so then I started to think about Penny in this whole new way, how oppressive things must be at home and that's why her mother is so controlling of her. And thinking about the little rebellions she does to make her own space and to create her own imagination within that. One of the things I love about Penny is that she's unabashedly herself and she's not worried about it. Her best friend Tracy is worried about having the coolest sweaters and wants to be on TV, and Penny's really supportive of that, but she's never really interested in that. She never judges herself for being different, and I don't even think she would consider herself different or odd or weird.
Why does this character resonate with you so strongly?
I think of myself as sort of a dorky nerd, and it's finally a character that embraces that. So many times, I'm called in for the ingenue, I'm called in for the princess role, and I never seem to book them. You know, there are girls who are like that - lovely and put together and all these things that I'm not. And instead of standing in the chorus line, where maybe I'm supposed to be a sexy showgirl and I'm thinking "What would a sexy girl do? How would she hold herself? Where would she put her hands?" this time I'm like "Great! I just get to be mostly myself onstage for a few hours." That's wonderful!
What is your own favorite moment in the show?
Definitely the heart of the show is the song "I Know Where I've Been." Penny and Tracy and Link get to be together onstage for it, and in every production I've been in, it's just been a really special moment. Elizabeth Jones who's doing it in our show is amazing, singing deep from her soul so we in that moment get to be allies and get to witness that song every show. We don't even really do much, we're just there experiencing it, but it's pretty magical. It's when the show goes from light and fluffy to "OK here's the real message" [the fight for civil rights]. This is why the show is still unfortunately relevant and it's just the most powerful moment of the whole show.
You've been very open about your battle with cancer. Did you initially have any fears about sharing that information beyond just family and friends?
Honestly, no. It's horrifying and terrible, but in my very first chemotherapy session, a woman came in and she was visiting with her baby and she'd been out of treatment for about a year. She had exactly what I had, and she was so open about her journey and was so helpful just with little tips, little things, and was sort of my representation of "Hey, you're gonna get through this. You're gonna be fine." And I always think about that for other people. I want to be that for someone else and the only way you can is to be open about it. And also because cancer is so big and daunting and terrifying that I feel like not talking about it gives it more power. I want people to know what I've been through so when I'm in the cast of a show when someone's, you know, father gets diagnosed with something, or mother, or someone they're close to, they can come to me and ask "Hey, what does this person feel like? What's the best thing to do for them?" If I can be at all helpful for anyone who's going through it, or someone close to them who's going through it, I want to be able to help them because it's the worst.
Are there any common misconceptions that people tend to have about what it's like to go through a journey like yours, especially as a performer?
I think the biggest thing for me is when people come up and say "Omigosh, you're so energetic onstage I would have never known!" or "I can't tell!" And they mean it in the best possible way; they mean it as a compliment. I have lots of secondary side effects from the chemotherapy. I don't regret doing it - it saved my life - but you know it aged me really fast and I deal with those repercussions on a daily basis. So sometimes that's hard to hear when you're like "Yeah, you see me for 4 hours a night at rehearsal. You don't see how on our day off, I can't leave my bed, and I'm on 18 supplements just to get me out of bed and through my day." The repercussions of it for the rest of my life, especially because I got diagnosed so young, are really hard to deal with. It's really hard to explain to people like "No, I can't go out for drinks after the show because I had cancer 3 years ago." You know? It's like, "No, I need to go home and go to bed or else I won't be able to do the show next weekend."
Have your health challenges changed the way you approach your work as a musical theater performer?
I think it's made me pickier, if that makes sense. When I was young and energetic - just a few short years ago! - I had this insatiable need to work. I would do dance ensemble, I would do featured roles - whatever came my way. I just always wanted to be busy. I still do, but at the same time, now when I even think about what I'm going to audition for and what's worth my time, I am so conservative based on my energy. I'm not only thinking, "What is the time commitment?" but "Is driving that far and - because we're in the Bay Area, all the theaters are spread out - spending that much on transit or BART worth doing? Would it be more fulfilling, right in this moment with how I'm feeling, what I'm dealing with, to do that role, or to be at home asleep on my couch?" A few years ago, I would be like "Dude, it's a new role, you're always going to learn something, it's always going to be fulfilling!" But now I have to think about it more. I mean it's a strategy. If I just did a huge role, maybe I take a break or think "Oh, there's a princess track in this other show that's just two songs and a couple of lines - great!" Every role has to be worth the energy, and I have to make sure I can do it justice, and not show up being too exhausted or burnt-out, which never used to happen to me.
You've played an unusually wide variety of roles, ranging from Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" to Little Edie in "Grey Gardens" to Anybodys in "West Side Story." What is your dream role - the role that you're most hoping to play in the future?
The biggest one that comes to mind is Millie in "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Cause I'm a tapper and I'm a belter and I have gotten close a few times, but it's never been me. So someday I just want to tackle that one.
"Hairspray" has possibly the most joyous closing number in all of musical theater, "You Can't Stop the Beat." It includes the entire cast and is an infectious, emphatic declaration on the inevitability of social progress. What is it like to be a part of that number?
It's awesome! Even if you're tired that day, that number will boost you up. We lovingly call it "You Can't Stop to Breathe" because you get shot out of a cannon and it's 7 minutes of just go-go-go. And it's one of the reasons why I'll never get tired of doing this show, and when I age out of doing Penny one day, I hope to play someone else, maybe her mom. It's so much fun, and it's making a declaration that we hope the world will go in the right direction one day, because sadly the show gets more and more relevant each time I do it.
Bay Area Musicals' production of HAIRSPRAY runs from July 6 - August 11, 2019 and will perform at San Francisco's Victoria Theatre (2961 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103). Tickets can be purchased online at www.bamsf.org/hairspray.
Photo provided by Ms. Momboisse.