Jennifer Simard sparks Forbidden Broadway and Eric Millegan gets his big break in Harold & Maude: The Musical.
The show -- which also features the multi-talented Ron Bohmer, Megan Lewis, and Jason Mills -- is sparked by Jennifer's hilarious send-ups of Kristin Chenoweth as Galinda in Wicked, Bernadette Peters as Mama Rose in Gypsy, and Julie Andrews as -- well, Julie Andrews. Putting this edition of Forbidden Broadway together was especially challenging in that, not long before the opening, understudy Lewis had to step in full-time for an ailing Christine Pedi. "Megan really stepped up to the plate," says Jennifer. "I have a particular fondness in my heart for her because she's 25, this is her first New York gig, she got her Equity card and her agent through Forbidden Broadway -- and what most people don't know is that this show did the same thing for me when I was 22. When I look at Megan, it's a full-circle kind of thing."
Asked how she prepares her imitations of Broadway's best, brightest, and quirkiest, Jennifer says that "Nothing can replace going to see the live performance in the theater, so that's number one. You can also study videos and recordings. I think the secret is not just doing an impression, not just being a mimic, but trying to become the character that the star is playing. Then it can go to a whole new level." Which of her impressions has she found notably easy or difficult to do? "Bernadette Peters is the easiest, because I've been a fan of her my whole life and I really love doing her. The most difficult is Julie Andrews. I actually have a very high voice but, ironically, I don't get to belt that high in this show; I do a lot of lower stuff, and it's a challenge to stretch my voice into that range."
Originally from New Hampshire, Jennifer attended the Boston Conservatory of Music, "but I left early. I didn't graduate. I started working in Boston and I had to make a choice, so I left school but I kept studying privately with the head of the vocal department, Mary Saunders. I credit her for really teaching me how to belt and sing soprano. I also studied improvisation in Boston and took private acting lessons all around the area while I was working."
Her résumé is nothing if not eclectic. "I've played Wendy in Peter Pan twice, Liesl in The Sound of Music, Eliza in My Fair Lady," Jennifer tells me. "I also did a lot of Shakespearean work back in New England, but in New York you have to be very realistic about where your bread and butter is; you have to go where you're most marketable, at least when you're breaking in." Perhaps the most high-profile credit of her career thus far is that she was a member of the original cast of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. "Lately," Jennifer notes, "I seem to get cast in shows where I play a lot of different characters." (She served a similar function in The Thing About Men last season.) "It's good because it lets people see that can you do many different things -- but on the other hand, at this point, it would be a breath of fresh air to sink my teeth into one character from the beginning of a show to the end!"
The great success of I Love You, You're Perfect... has shocked some observers of the theater scene, but not Jennifer. "There was one night when we did the first incarnation of the show at the American Stage Company in Teaneck, New Jersey," she recalls. "I was standing backstage listening to the audience response, and it was one of those moments in the theater when you think, 'There's magic happening onstage right now.' From that moment, I knew that it was going to be a huge hit. At the same time, I've known early on that other shows weren't going to run. There's this little X-factor thing as to whether a show is going to resonate with people or not."
Says Jennifer, "I guess I've always thought of myself as a character actress, from the time I was a little girl. The people that I emulated were Madeline Kahn, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters. Those are all very attractive women but I don't think they ever classified themselves as ingénues. When you're a petite woman and yet a character actress, you may often lose a role to someone who's more of an ingénue or more of a character woman than you are in height or weight or look. It's no surprise to me that I sometimes get cast in shows where I have to do a variety of things, because I'm sort of in the middle and I can go either way."
Eric Millegan has performed in the Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Encores! presentation of Hair, and the New York City Opera production of Dead Man Walking. He's been seen in readings of a number of musicals, in Fringe shows, in the indie movie On_Line, and as a frequent guest at Jim Caruso's Cast Party on Monday nights (most recently at Birdland). You may also have caught his television appearances in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, 100 Centre Street, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now, Eric is about to co-star as Harold Chasen opposite Estelle Parsons as Maude in Harold & Maude: The Musical.
With music by Joseph Thalken, book and lyrics by Tom Jones, and direction by Mark Hoebee, this adaptation of Harold and Maude -- the 1971 film that starred Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon as a death-obsessed young man and a lively old woman who form an unlikely friendship -- is set to open at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey on January 9. "We did a reading and presentation the week of my birthday, in August, at Chelsea Studios," says Eric. "It was the whole cast that's doing it at Paper Mill. There are only five people in the cast: me and Estelle and Donna English, who plays my mom, plus Danny Burstein and Donna Lynne Champlin, who play all of the other characters."
My interview with Eric took place in early December, just before he was about to begin rehearsals for the Paper Mill production, so he wasn't yet sure about all of the details: "David Loud, the musical director, told me that the orchestra is going to be something like 13 pieces. I have no idea what the set's gonna be like -- I guess I'll find that out next week -- but the script talks about projections being used for certain moments. The show opens with me pretending to hang myself, so I've been measured for a Foy harness. I think I have to wear it for the whole first act because I never have a chance to go offstage and take it off."
An alum of the Interlochen Arts Camp and a graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.F.A. in musical theater, Eric is thrilled to be playing opposite Parsons, the veteran theater, film, and television actress who won an Academy Award for her performance in Bonnie and Clyde. "She's awesome," he exclaims. "Everybody seems to be trying to get me to tell a story about her being difficult to work with. Not at all! When you're working with a star, I think some people want to hear about them behaving badly, but Estelle has been totally cool from the very beginning. I auditioned with her twice. She was very easy to get along with and willing to go along with what I was doing. We did the presentation in August, and then I went to Connecticut and saw her in The Bay at Nice [a David Hare play] at Hartford Stage. We hung out a little after that and she was terrific. We seem to be playing out the characters in real life," Eric remarks. "The whole point of Harold & Maude is that, at first, Harold thinks Maude couldn't possibly like the things he likes, but then he realizes that they have a lot in common. Estelle and I have already had a conversation like that. I said, 'You probably don't like basketball.' She said, 'I watch the playoffs every year!' And I was like, 'Oh, okay. Here we go.' "
Adds Eric, "The musical has the spirit of the movie but the story is slightly different. It's not set in the 1970s and Harold is not under the threat of being drafted into the Vietnam War; the script says that it's set 'just before the end of the last millennium.' And, not to give too much away, but Harold doesn't drive a car off the cliff at the end. I had seen the movie before I got the part, then I rented it before I auditioned, and then I watched it a couple of times before we did the reading. I don't understand actors who avoid doing that," he says. "If there's a famous film of the show you're doing, then obviously a whole lot of people have seen it. I think I should be aware of what people will be expecting. Nathan Lane put it really well: When he was doing The Producers, he said 'There were certain notes that Zero Mostel hit that were just right, so I'm going to do those.' And when he did that concert of The Wizard of Oz with Jewel, he said, 'I'm going to play the lion like Bert Lahr did it, because that's the Lion!' I think there's an element of that in my performance of Harold. I don't want people to come and think, 'That's not Harold!' "
Though Harold & Maude is currently taking up all of Eric's time and attention, there's another project that he's tremendously excited about: a stage musical version of the Cher-Eric Stoltz film Mask. "The book is by Anna Hamilton Phelan, who wrote the screenplay," he tells me. "The score is by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote -- everything! The show is a big, flamboyant, rock-and-roll tearjerker. When I first heard about it, I thought, 'Mask as a musical? Are you crazy?' But it totally makes sense because it's about this disfigured guy who's raised by bikers, so we're in this rock-and-roll world to begin with. I'm glad to have the opportunity to do it because it's completely the opposite of Harold & Maude. Harold is a relatively normal-looking kid who acts weird, whereas Rocky in Mask is weird looking but acts normal; it's the people around him that are weird."