BWW Interview: Jenna Russell Talks THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, Menier Chocolate Factory

BWW Interview: Jenna Russell Talks THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, Menier Chocolate Factory
Jenna Russell

Jenna Russell, Olivier Award-winning star of stage and TV, is known for her roles in Les Misérables, Sunday in the Park with George and, most recently, Fun Home at the Old Vic.

She is now playing the role of Francesca in the upcoming UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Who inspired you most growing up?

I was brought up listening to the likes of Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. They were played in the house while I was a child. It was a good childhood listening to that bunch of women.

I saw Nina Simone quite a lot when I was a teenager at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club - she was a big inspiration for me. But I guess my biggest inspiration was when I was about 14. I was introduced to Sondheim and I think his work has been the most constant inspiration to me. Hand on heart.

How did you get involved with this production of Bridges of Madison County?

Well, I obviously - probably like everyone else - listened to the album slavishly when it came out. I thought it was gorgeous.

David [Babani, producer] and I spoke about doing it about 2-2.5 years ago. We had a conversation about it because he has always had a great love for the piece after seeing it in New York.

Honestly, I panicked a little as I just thought, "Oh gosh, this role has a soprano range, not normally the kind of thing I do". Francesca has an Italian accent; I'm going to need to be a bit felt a bit of an odd fit for me, but the more I thought about it, I couldn't let it go.

Last year, I was working in New York, and David and I met up and talked about maybe doing it again. And the more I looked into it, the more I listened to the piece, the more I thought it was such a beautiful story. And of course to sing that score.

What was it in particular about the story that appealed to you?

I just thought it was an exciting opportunity to see a middle-aged woman in 1965, being the age she was and the life she'd had, finding love and the struggle between a true transcendental love and family duty and family love. I thought that was a really interesting dichotomy to be in and play.

How are you feeling about the task of singing a JRB score every night?

Singing Jason's music is a great challenge, and that's another reason why I wanted to do it. I wanted to challenge myself. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself into uncharted territory and just see what happens - and so I'm loving doing it.

I've sung a lot of Jason's stuff over the years and been a big fan of his, so I know the demands of his music, but also the great joy of doing his work because the lyrics and the melodies are so rewarding.

I'm doing all right at the moment. Ask me again in a couple of weeks! At the moment, I'm feeling that there are challenges, but not unsurmountable ones.

Is it nice to be back at the Menier Chocolate Factory?

I love it here. I love the possibilities of what can happen here. It's like a little Pandora's Box: you never quite know what you can do here. The great joy of the Chocolate Factory is the intimacy that you can achieve in that space and that's something I always relish.

When you rehearse something for a big stage, there's obviously a different kind of feel. You have to push things and reach places because of the space you have to fill. Doing the show in this theatre means there's an intimacy that we have access to, which is beautiful for such a small, quiet little story. It's a gentle story and to get to play that in such an intimate space, it should all work beautifully.

The lovely thing about the Chocolate Factory is that you can retain what you have in the rehearsal room space, which is a fantastic thing. We're able to bring things like naturalism, which - especially in a piece like this - being as honest and natural as possible, in the space downstairs and on stage.

I'm really looking forward to creating that aspect of peeking into someone's living room. I'm hoping we will see very delicate things happen. It's wonderful.

Francesca is such a central character in this piece. How are you finding being involved in so much of the show?

You're right, as Francesca in this piece, I walk on the stage and hardly leave, so I always get to be in the moment. It's almost like playing it in real time.

It all feels enormous and slightly fear-inducing right now, but I ultimately know in the playing of it that it will be a great advantage that I don't have to sit in the dressing room for 20 minutes, then having to figure out where we are in the play. I'll be feeling it as I'm doing it so at the moment, there's not one particular bit. Who knows?

It's a real privilege when you get to be on stage. It doesn't happen often that you get that kind of opportunity to really walk through a role and not leave her when offstage. You're also able to feel the temperature of what's happening in the space because you're in there all the time. That really doesn't happen often.

It might happen, I guess, if you played Piaf, where you're the central pillar and everything happens around you, so it's always a great privilege as an actor to have that. I'm really looking forward to that. It's daunting, but the payoff is brilliant.

What's your favourite thing about playing Francesca?

She's quiet. She's a very gentle, quiet thing, Francesca. She's a delicate creature. She's a thinking person, and you just have to trust that that will read - and I think it will in a space like the Chocolate Factory.

I'm not running around exclaiming things, or rushing to fill a space, I'm just inhabiting that space. Again, that doesn't happen often. Those characters aren't written much where you're just being. Hopefully, the audience will come along on that journey with her and just experience something she never thought she'd ever experience as a woman of her age - 46? - with two almost grown-up children in 1965.

We forget that today, being aged 40-50 isn't as much of a big deal, but in 1965 you were coming towards the finishing touches of what your life would be. It was far more unusual to suddenly meet someone and fall in love, to feel things you've never felt before as a woman who's had a life, had children, a husband and all the things she's had living in a very rural part of America.

It's very quiet there. Nothing much happens. You just look after your farm, you eat, and you go to bed. To suddenly have this opportunity for something else and what that means to her is quite an extraordinary thing. We just don't often see a story of a woman of a certain age experiencing stuff like that.

Is there a particular number or moment in the show you're looking forward to performing every night?

At the moment, I don't know because we're only in week two of rehearsals. I'm really looking forward to doing a whole run of it, because of Francesca and her lovely story I guess.

I was talking to our MD, Tom [Murray], about this yesterday, who did Sunday in the Park with George with us in New York. He's Jason's MD, does all his shows, works as his supervisor etc.

I was saying that, with Sunday, I recorded the album without having rehearsed it, so I just learned the songs and made an album. Then I think I had about 10 days' rehearsals. I had no idea that my favourite moment in the show would be "Children and Art".

On paper, I always thought I'd love to play Dot, but I had no idea that the grandmother, Marie, for me was going to be - and still is - someone who always moved me. I still can't talk about it much without feeling a lump rising in my throat of that character and what she was, her role in the show. So with Bridges, it might also be a bit I'm not expecting.

You're on a bit of a roll at the moment. This is your second role in a recent Broadway transfer after Fun Home. Any highlights from that?

I was really pleased to be part of that. I thought it was an extraordinary piece of theatre and an important one too. It's one of the reasons I really wanted to do it - and to work with Sam Gold, who is an amazing young director. Such vision.

I defy anyone to read that script and not struggle with "How am I going to stage this?". It was a monumental piece of directing, and to do it at the Young Vic, a brilliant theatre, I absolutely loved it.

Fun Home has such an important story of having a female protagonist in Alison being visible for the first time in a musical. It was also about pushing the art form, which I really feel that show does: the writing of it, the idea of it, everything about it again pushes the art form, which has been a passion of mine for at least 20 years.

Why do you think it's important to do that?

I want people to really see that when it's done exceptionally well, musical theatre can move you and take you to places like nothing else and can be seen as a serious art form. There are writers and directors out there who can do it, who have the vision.

Jazz hands are legitimate and wonderful. We all love a show like that, but I'm always very happy to be part of a project that makes people look at the art form differently.

It's one of the hardest things to do, put on a musical. It's harder than anything I've done. Any actor I've met who hasn't done a musical, then comes in and does one, says they can appreciate that afterwards.

I don't think people realise how central the writing; it's so important how you step into a song, how you move out of a song; why there's music; keeping true to the character in the music. There's so much to it.

Is there anything you would change about the industry?

I appreciate musicals can be a bit more expensive to put on because you have to pay for a band etc., but I wish people didn't just look at them as a possibility of becoming mega-rich from them. I'm not talking about the actors, more the producers.

Sometimes, we should think of musicals as plays: a 12-week run of an important piece of writing is considered a big success. It doesn't have to run for two years in order for it to "be successful".

The more thoughtful musicals that are out there should be protected and put on, I've always thought, in smaller spaces, studios etc. with theatres like the National supporting them and protecting them from the commercial world. I don't know why people think they always need to have commercial value.

I look at the version of Sunday in the Park with George that we did. It was stunning. We did a good run at the Menier, then a 12-week run in London, then we took it to Broadway and did a beautiful run there and that was it.

A piece like that is never going to run for three years. It's not that kind of work. It's more like a play in its content and isn't going to appeal to masses. While it will appeal to a certain group of people, they are also not the people who will be come to see it 20 times and queue around the block to meet the stars afterwards, because it's more like a play.

Are you excited about the newly announced Broadway version of Sunday with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford coming over? Any other shows/writers you're excited about?

Yes, it's just wonderful that it's coming over.

Last year, I saw Daniel Fish's Oklahoma!, which was outstanding. Outstanding! I saw it at the St Ann's Warehouse. It was amazing. I went with James Lepine and we spent the whole night going "What the hell?!", but they didn't change a word of the script! They didn't change anything in the score.

It was all there, but it was just stripped away and staged it in a different way that made you look at the piece in a different way. It made you think about the history of America in a different way. That production has now moved onto Broadway into the commercial sector, and I would love it to come over here. It's a real eye-opener as to how you can reimagine a piece.

Nothing in the book had changed, but it's just showing you that, with a startling design and different idea of casting, the beautiful old classics can be relevant to today's society. That production is a shining beacon for the future as to how we can look at the classic canon.

In terms of writers, we have Stephen Sondheim, who picked up where Rodgers & Hammerstein left off and keeps pushing the envelope. Then there's Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jason [Robert Brown]. There are extraordinary writers out there who are just moving through it.

There's Jeanine Tesori too. I defy anyone to sit through something like Caroline, or Change and not be astounded by its strength. There's not a wrong note in that show. Everything was there for a reason to push the story along, exposing truth we don't want to talk about. It was a piece of art.

Do you prefer playing yourself on stage or a character, after your concerts with Seth Rudetsky?

Seth's great fun. I'm definitely a person who likes to play a character. I find concerts and things like that so stressful. I do them to remind myself I can do them.

I enjoyed those shows with Seth because I know him. He's chatting to you and I know how naughty he is! I love the spontaneity of having 20 songs, doing only 10, but not knowing which ones we were going to do, so that aspect was fun.

I always wish I was someone who could just turn up to do a concert and say "Yes, here I am", but I guess the older I get, the more I've learned I like to play a character. There's always a lot of me in my characters anyway, but I prefer a rehearsal process and knowing what I'm doing.

I also never ever think of myself as a singer. The idea of standing up and just singing songs always terrifies me, but if it's part of a scene, then I can work my way into that and what I'm supposed to be doing.

Taking a leaf from watching Judy Garland, and always thinking of the beauty of performance, the aspect I love to watch is the imperfection. I'm not one for seeing a perfect, finished, polished thing.

I love the rough edges, and I guess in a concert it's more about the perfection than being rough around the edges like characters are. They're flawed, they struggle with things. Perfect singing isn't required as much because you're in the world of the character.

I did one with Damian Humbley a couple of years ago and he was brilliant. He has amazing balls of steel and sang like a dream. I am in awe of people who can do that. I probably do a good impersonation of someone who knows what they're doing, but that's not how I feel inside!

Of Dot, Michelle, Francesca, or any of the many roles you've played, who would you go with on a road trip and where would you go?

Edie Beale! I'd take that woman anywhere. What a character.

Why should people come to see The Bridges of Madison County?

It's a beautiful, beautiful, delicate story. There's a lot of heart, a lot of honesty and the most amazing, beautiful, lush score. I think Trevor Nunn is on a roll at the moment. He's doing some extraordinary work.

If you like your theatre gentle and not shoved in your face, a gentle peek at a quiet person experiencing something they never thought they'd experience before, this is your show. There are funny bits, but it's a gentle, beautiful tale told with extraordinary music and lyrics and great emotional scope and range.

Jenna Russell in The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier Chocolate Factory from 13 July

Photo credit: United Agents

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