Interview: Jennifer Simard on the Delights of Company, Covering Patti, and Making Sondheim Laugh
In Marianne Elliott's delightful new revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company, Tony nominee Jennifer Simard takes on a role that fits her like a glove: martial arts devotee Sarah, a hilarious turn opposite scene partner Christopher Sieber. Here, Simard talks about the delights of that role, what it's like to simultaneously stand by for legendary costar Patti LuPone, and her acting moment that made Sondheim belly laugh.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This production has been through so many hurdles — starting and stopping in 2020, restarting in 2021, Sondheim passing days later, most recently a Covid outbreak — how is it going?
It's one of the reasons I hope it does get nominated and win the Tony Award for Best Revival, because I want our esteemed leader, Marianne Elliott, to have the opportunity and that cathartic experience to describe just how many obstacles we had to face and get over in order to have this be the wonderful experience it's been. And it has been, despite it all, a wonderful experience. This was our pandemic show. It's a one in 100-year experience. It's not something you're going to forget.
Sarah is so perfect for you. Tell me about your audition.
When the show opened in London, I was aware that it was a gender-swapped revival, but I didn't know quite what that meant, so I didn't think there was any role in it for me. It wasn't on my radar, and I was happily ensconced in Mean Girls, where I was having the best time. I had seen War Horse, and I was flabbergasted by it, so when I got this audition, I was going to accept it, not thinking that I stood a chance at all. It's Sondheim, it's Marianne Elliott, they're so fancy. So, I'm just going to do what I think the role should be.
I walked in wearing workout gear and a bright orange raincoat over it, I sang the song, and then when the scene happened, I took off the coat and there was the workout gear. Anyway, they got it, they wanted it, and I was shocked. You know, you just do your thing and they either like it or they don't. I later found out from Marianne that she liked me the minute I walked into the room because of the bright orange, because she's all about color, and she said she was hoping in that moment that it would work, because she liked the energy.
What was it like to work with Sondheim, and what was it like to do the show the night he died?
He came to rehearsals in 2020 prior to the pandemic, and then he came to that first preview on November 15, 2021. I did get to speak with him that night and it's something I'll never forget. He told me that one of his new favorite moments in the show is when I throw the present at the end, which made him belly-laugh. He loved to laugh, and making him laugh was the most satisfying thing. So if there was ever any threat of that moment being cut, Stephen sealed the deal for me, cause he just loved it.
We had a matinee the day he died, and they called us to the stage afterwards, which, when you've been in the business long enough, you think it's your closing notice. Marianne's ability to rise above and be the leader that you need when she's feeling emotions herself is unparalleled. She told us, and she gave a wonderful speech, but she kept her composure. Collectively, it was very sad. It was very sad to get through the show that night, but also somehow poetic and appropriate. I'm grateful he saw Company on Broadway just a few days prior, that we're able to celebrate his work and legacy in this form, I'm grateful that Assassins was downtown, that he had the West Side Story movie. What a way to go out, is what I'm saying. The best way to honor him is to come see this man's brilliant work.
On a lighter note — I think — tell me what it was like when you went on as Joanne when Patti got Covid back in February.
It was a Saturday matinee. My brother Chris was planning on coming to the matinee with his wife to see me as Sarah. I was in my Sarah makeup, I was in my Sarah wig — it was about 45 minutes before the show, and they texted me. You know, Nikki Renée Daniels [who plays Jenny but also covers Katrina Lenk as Bobbie] and I are in the unusual position of being featured actresses in the show on our own, so we sort of taught ourselves the show with the help of others, but with eyes on the back of our head, because we'd never been swung out. I'm a big believer in doing your homework. My favorite phrase is "Hope is not a plan." So I felt ready. Any sort of nerves, which of course there are, was tempered by the fact that my brother was out there and I knew that that would calm me down.
And to be clear, Anisha Nagarajan is Patti's understudy as well, and when she went on previously, she was the first BIPOC and South Asian American woman to go on and that was wonderful. It's more complicated for me because…I'm Sarah. That is my role and I'm proud to do it. When they asked me to cover Patti, I thought it was a good idea, because, you know, Patti's safe with me. It's not like I'm in the wings with marbles like in Showgirls. We know each other. I wanted to treat it like I'm a ghost. I haven't posted any photos. Patti hasn't asked me to do that, I just want her to feel respected and safe at work. I did my job and now I'm happy to back as Sarah, until the next time I have to do it.
What did it mean to you to see how the theater fan community mobilized to drop everything and come see your Joanne?
You're gonna make me cry. Someone else asked me this and I cried that time, too. I didn't expect it. I coordinated with the office to put out one respectful tweet when it was clear that I was going on for the week, and then I kept my head down and did my job. But to get that kind of love felt like an acknowledgement of the fact that I've been doing this for 30 years, and I didn't know that people noticed. It was really nice. It made me feel like hard work pays off. It was quite a shock, that's all I'll say. I didn't expect it and I really appreciated it.
But it's also very important for me to say how much I think Patti is incredible in the show and I really love being Sarah to her Joanne. She is one of my idols. It is not lost on me that I get to cover her.
How happy were you to get back to Sarah?
Oh, my God. So happy. They're such completely different energies, too. If Sarah is Betty from Archie comics, Joanne is Veronica. And Sarah is my role. I'm proud of the things we discovered with her. I feel like she is me. It felt like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. And it's the best job in the world. I am having so much fun doing it. It also makes me feel like a bad ass, because I get to do jujitsu every night with Sieber. When we're on the floor, sometimes I whisper in his ear "We're in our 50s, babe, and doing this every day." There are times when our legs are all taped up. It takes an enormous amount of discipline and effort, and I love that challenge. I'm very proud to be able to keep doing it. It keeps us young, it's fun, and it's a delight to come to work.