Sarah Jones
(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
Sarah Jones
(Photo © Brian Michael Thomas)
The year 2004 was full of memorable theatrical experiences, but few compared with the sight of the striking Sarah Jones standing on the stage of 45 Bleecker and instantaneously transforming herself from an old Jewish woman to a wheelchair-bound Mexican union organizer to a middle-aged Chinese mother trying to come to terms with her daughter's lesbianism. While her show, Bridge & Tunnel, gained some cachet from its famous producer Meryl Streep, it was Jones's deep understanding and her amazing portrayals of 14 different characters that had fans lining up for months, critics singing her praises, and awards organizations bestowing nominations left and right.

There was talk of an immediate Broadway transfer, but various circumstances -- including Jones's marriage -- delayed the trip uptown. Now, as proof that good things do come to those who wait, Bridge & Tunnel is in residence at the Helen Hayes Theater for a strictly limited eight-week run. I recently sat down with Jones, whom I've known for over five years, at Café des Bruxelles in the West Village to discuss the current production, her celebrity idols, and her plans for the future.

********************

THEATERMANIA: How much different from the Off-Broadway production is the Broadway show?

SARAH JONES: It's largely the same, but there are a few important changes. In the same way that the world has changed, there wasn't any way that I could let the characters live their lives again the way they did the last time without incorporating shades of difference. One character has actually changed very much, from one age to a younger age. I know you all want the formula for that, but it's not available!

TM: Do you have more elaborate costumes, make-up, or set this time?

SJ: No, I didn't want to have bells and whistles to distract from the reason I wanted to do the show in the first place. It's about what happens when so-called "ordinary people" have a few moments onstage to say what's important to them. I don't want characters popping out of trap doors on the floor.

TM: Is it a blessing that it's taken so long for the show to get to Broadway?

SJ: You sound like my mother: "Sometimes, these things are blessings in disguise!" Yes, it is. As I've learned, having a false start is not an unusual stepping stone along the way for any show, and certainly not for a solo show. What a gift it turned out to be! The characters got another gestation period.

TM: Why did it take so long for the transfer, and why didn't you end up at Circle in the Square as was first announced?

SJ: My husband Steven [Colman], who's also the assistant director, really helped me mold my plan. We knew that we wanted the most diverse possible audience to come in and enjoy this show when we did it again -- and that meant Broadway. But we also realized that it had to be the right theater. The Helen Hayes is unparalleled for the kind of intimacy we were looking for, but we just couldn't get it until now. I like Circle, but I realized that the show was going to get real acrobatic in that space.

TM: Is there some way that you're going to try to make Broadway more affordable for younger and minority audiences?

SJ: Well, it's something that I've really grappled with. Whether it's using some kind of discount code or student rush or another strategy, it's essential we do that. We're very grateful to those who can afford the traditional Broadway prices, but we are going to make sure that all kinds of people get in and see the show. John Lennon once said, "All the people up there, clap your hands, and you down here, rattle your jewelry." I don't just want the jewelry rattlers.

TM: Were there people who came to the show downtown and didn't realize that you played all the characters?

SJ: You'd be amazed what I heard afterwards. I want to emphasize that I think these are highly intelligent people, but when you take on a kind of unconventional persona, the audience's ability to see a face can disappear. So I'm pleased to report that I got a lot of people saying things to me like, "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I really thought you were a Mexican guy -- and I said to my husband, 'Wasn't he good?' "

TM: Do you come up with an elaborate back-story for each of your characters?

SJ: It's all written down -- on scraps of paper from different hotels, because I'll wake up in the middle of the night and write, "Mohammed missed his kid's soccer game." It doesn't necessarily have to be in the text, but if he missed it, it figures into the performance. At one point, I even thought the show might be better if I could just brush up on my Russian and learn some elementary Hindi or a little bit of Arabic. But I finally decided that, if I ever wanted to work and be able to earn a living, I'd have to let go of trying to learn the languages of all the characters. Otherwise, I'd be financing Berlitz academies across the country.

TM: Have you ever woken up and thought, "I don't want to do this today?"

SJ: To frighten you into a better understanding of how these characters figure into my life: When it's time to hit that stage, I call all of them into the dressing room and have them shed whatever headaches they've had during the day. I'm happy to be every single one of those people, for different reasons.

TM: You don't have an understudy. Isn't that dangerous, especially during the winter?

SJ: I never get sick. I'm addicted to these Airborne tablets. Of course, another reason I don't get sick is that I don't leave my home very often. I don't interact with other human beings, and I even keep contact with my cat to a minimum. I do whatever I have to do to insure that I'm hitting the stage in good form every single time. It's asking a lot of people to come out of their homes to see me.

TM: Who are some of your performing idols?

SJ: Lily Tomlin was one of the first for me. It's one thing to make an audience fall in love with you, and it's another thing to make an audience fall in love with all these permutations of you. It's not that she's relying on her Lily-ness anymore; she's able to imbue these people with so much life that you love them. I also love Tracey Ullman. My parents were very strict about the TV, so I'd have to be sneaky to get to watch her. Then there's John Leguizamo; I just love his energy. If I had to name the people who I think are doing the most deeply sensitive, accurate character work out there, Danny Hoch is high on my list. And, of course, Meryl.

TM: Is there a person whose opinion you trust more than any other's?

SJ: Probably Steven. He sees more angles than anyone I've ever worked with or had a personal relationship with. I step out into the street and I see the cars; he sees the tops of the buildings and the windows. He brings a kind of perception that I'd never see otherwise.

TM: What celebrity impressed you most when he or she came backstage after seeing your show?

SJ: I lost my mind when James Earl Jones came, because he's the voice of Mufasa [in The Lion King]. That's an embarrassing thing to say, since he's also a giant of the stage and screen. Maybe it was something about having listened to that voice in all those various contexts over the years, like Darth Vader. And I loved it when Rita Moreno came to the show that we did at Berkeley, because I love all things Sesame Street.

TM: Do you know what your next project might be?

SJ: I have a few ideas. I had the great fortune to meet with Bernie Gersten and Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center, and Bernie was kind enough to say, "What are your plans for the future? Do you want to write something? Here's a commission." That was just fabulous. Let me tell you, I'm not bored.

TM: Being bored is my cardinal fear in life. What about you?

SJ: I'm right there with you. Even the French can't make it appealing by calling it ennui.

Editor's Note: Jones will be hosting a series of Tuesday night Talkbacks following the show, in which she will speak with other performers who have created one-person shows. The series will begin with legendary actress Ruby Dee (January 17), Tony Award winner Bebe Neuwirth (January 24), and comedian Mario Cantone (January 31).