LaChiusa is speaking of Jennifer Laura Thompson. "From the minute Jennifer walked in to audition," he adds, "there was no question in my mind that she had to play Charlotte," the high-strung heroine of Little Fish who faces an early-life crisis when she decides to give up smoking. Based on two Deborah Eisenberg short stories, the show chronicles a year in Charlotte's life as she flashes back to her first years in the big city, learns a great deal about friendship, and takes up swimming and jogging to replace her forgone habit. "I had never known what I was really like until I stopped smoking," she moans at the start of the show. "And by then, there was hell to pay."
"Charlotte is constantly being described as neurotic," explains Thompson, "but that's not the quality I relate to as much as the person who's searching for happiness in New York City. I think it's a constant struggle for creative people to be content with themselves." Like the character, Thompson came to the Big Apple in the early '90s; she arrived after studying at the University of Michigan, which is renowned for its theater program. "When I first moved here, there were very few shows opening on Broadway," she recalls. "There wasn't a lot of work to be had, but it was still the center of the universe in terms of musical theater."
Not many promising young actresses can boast a résumé as diverse as Thompson's. After touring the country as Julie Jordan (opposite Patrick Wilson) in Carousel, she got her big break as a co-star of Footloose, in which she got to belt out such pop hits as "Holding Out for a Hero" and "Almost Paradise" on a nightly basis. But it wasn't until she made a major gear-shift and joined the Off-Broadway company of a little musical called Urinetown that Thompson proved herself as not only a skilled actress, but a brilliantly funny one.
In Little Fish, she's stretching herself again. "I hadn't read the script before I went in to audition, but I happened to be what they had in mind," Thompson says. "I think this one was just luck." She was not familiar with the Eisenberg stories but did know LaChiusa's Hello Again. "I've always loved that score," she enthuses. The involvement of LaChiusa and Graciela Daniele, director of both Hello Again and Little Fish, was the reason why, "even without having read anything, I was ready to jump on the boat."
When I spoke to Thompson, Little Fish had just entered its last week of previews, and she reported that the show had changed during that period: "Not drastically -- we haven't added any giant numbers -- but the dialogue has changed significantly in order to convey the ideas that Michael John wants to get across. And that's been challenging because, on a daily basis, I would be handed new script pages. But it's all been for the better in defining what we're really trying to say."
What are they trying to say? "Initially, the show had several messages," says Thompson, "but I think we're honing in on the larger message, which is that we as humans need to rely on each other to deal with the big problems and the little problems. If we remember that we have each other, we can deal with anything. That's more poignantly said in [Michael John's] song 'Little Fish,' when he writes about friendship: 'It's a job, it's not what we're taught to do, but we ought to do, and if we swim with the tide together, we can overcome it.'"
LaChiusa, whose other musicals include Marie Christine and The Wild Party, is not exactly known for writing simple songs. Was the score of Little Fish hard to learn? "Not hard as much as time-consuming," Thompson replies, "because the notes don't follow generic patterns, so you really have to get them into your head. It is complicated, but I love the challenge. And once you do get the music in your head, it becomes second nature and feels effortless. I grew up listening to pop music, so when I started singing, I was comfortable with things that were written in more of a pop vein. Then I studied classically and became comfortable with the other styles, but I always gravitate towards the contemporary." She's particularly fond of the variety in the Urinetown score: "It felt like it had a little bit of everything in it, and I got to play around."
Asked if she might want to dabble in straight plays at some point, Thompson responds, "I really miss singing when I'm not singing. That's something you don't do in television and film -- though that may be changing! -- so I've always stuck with musical theater. I'm really content with that as a career."
When Little Fish concludes its run at the Second Stage Theatre on March 9, Thompson expects to rejoin the cast of Urinetown, and she's thrilled at the prospect. "I miss the show," she says. "Maybe because I came here when there was no work to be had, I'm of the belief that you should stay with a show for as long as you can possibly handle it. Steady work doesn't happen often enough, you know? So just go with it. Take the money and run! That's been my mantra."