Interview – Jennifer Piech
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Jennifer Piech, and welcome to haineshisway.com. We are thrilled to have the likes of you join the likes of us. So, let’s get to the most important thing first – you have a brand spanking new baby – tell us about her.
Jennifer Piech: Hello out there!! Glad to be here, talking to you. By the way – I am wearing Hanes Her Way as I write this. Seriously – I love that underwear. Yes, it’s true – I have a beautiful baby girl named Allison, my best production yet. She is four months old and I am taking time off to be full-time Mom these days and loving every minute of it.
BK: So, Jennifer Piech, I first saw you in the musical entitled Titanic. I saw it early on in previews, and then I saw it again right after it had opened. I know the seas were rocky during previews. Tell us about the process. Obviously there were huge problems when previews began. How were they addressed, how often did changes go into the show. Were people behaving rationally or was panic in the air. And could you tell that the changes were working – was it instantly apparent?
JP: Ah, the preview period. Rocky seas indeed. First of all, Titanic was so difficult technically that we didn’t get around to putting everything in before previews began, so there were parts of the show that were very rough and very spare – set pieces were eliminated until we could get to them in rehearsal. For example, Michael Cerveris’s song in the smoke room had nothing crashing around him as the ship went to high tilt – even though it was called “Crash, Bang Wallop.” And noone was walking on the deck above him yet. But he can SING, so no one minded! Also, as changes went in, which they did every night, if it was something that required re-teching, we just skipped it that night entirely. There were set pieces that the director realized wouldn’t work but we had to try them in front of an audience because they were built – like “ships on a stick, as we called them.” They were little miniature Titanics – oy.
The ending of the show changed pretty often throughout previews. For a while poor Michael Cerveris had to go out in overalls and a John Deer hat and pretend he was Robert Ballard of the Oceanographic Institute in present day and talk about the wreckage. Then a little model submarine worked it’s way down(hanging on lovely puppet strings, mind you) and shone a light on two lovely halves of corroded ship. Needless to say – it came a long way by the time we opened. We would all stand in the wings shaking our heads and embarrassed to go out and bow after that. And the audiences just couldn’t believe that was it. It was funny in retrospect.
But it really did change every night and we rehearsed every day. The cast was always talking about what worked and what didn’t and we knew that we needed an emotional resolution for an ending, which didn’t actually go in to the show until right before we opened. But the night it went in it was magical – we were crying, the crew was crying, the audience was moved, etc. We knew we had it. And we hoped we’d have jobs for a while too!!
Let’s see – some other preview goodies…The whole lifeboats sequence was at one time a series of confusing scenes of people getting onto the lifeboats and poor John Cunningham standing in the middle with his head through a porthole shouting commands as the Captain. One side of him was port side and the other starboard. It was very confusing. Everyone was in two scenes, one as their secondary character and then as their main character, so the costume changes were almost impossible, not to mention wigs, etc. Finally it became “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” as a chorus number.
The millionaires had this beautiful number after the lifeboats were boarded and they were left behind. But for the sake of time it had to be cut. It was either cut that or cut the Strouses and they thought the Strouses were the better emotional payoff. But it was a brilliant number. Richard Jones, the director, said it was the number that made him want to direct the show in the first place.
During the First Class Dining scene we used to have this mad dash between “days” as the music was tingling and the bellboy was announcing the next day’s meal. We would furiously run to the next table – a crazy Chinese fire-drill type thing that looked frenetic. But once we tried that in the costumes it was impossible. I barely had 8 inches of stride in my get-up!
At one time we had a fight/stunt coordinator come in and we were going to have some people jump overboard and fight as the ship went to high tilt. It was all choreographed in the rehearsal room but as it got closer the director decided it was too literal and that we should just try to be theatrical.
Anyway, that’s all I can think of for now – or I’d have you here all day!!
BK: How many songs did they actually write for the Judy Blazer/Don Stephenson characters? I believe they didn’t end up with one at all, if I recall, but I heard one, and I think there were several others.
JP: Maury Yeston wrote “I Give You My Hand,” which was to be sung by the beautiful Judy Blazer. And Don sang “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” as a solo, and amazingly I might add. But they both just weren’t landing correctly in their places in the show. Maury then wrote an alternate song as a duet in place of “I Give You My Hand” which was kind of an up-tempo silly British sounding ditty. They tried that in the show – with only piano accompaniment, not orchestrated, which was a little bizarre and didn’t quite work either. They also decided that “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” had to be a group number to have the payoff they wanted. It was a strange experience in that it was absolutely no fault of those actors. They were trying everything and were so wonderful, it’s just that those moments weren’t serving the show and so had to change. It was very hard on them as you can imagine.
BK: Did your material change much? I do believe that you were the heart and soul of the show – and it seemed even early in previews that your material worked very well.
JP: Thank you, dahling – you flatterer!! Actually my story line had the clearest beginning, middle and end of anyone’s probably and so it didn’t change all that much. Peter Stone tweaked lines here and there for me but the overall arc didn’t change.
One funny thing was that happened in the preview period to my character was that we used to have a little scene after “Lady’s Maid” that dealt with me being pregnant and revealing it to Jim. Well they cut it there and wanted to include it in a later scene at the end of the Act. But we didn’t have time to tech it in for almost a week, so the audience just thought I never told this poor guy I was pregnant! Pretty funny.
BK: Is it weird for the mood to be so grim in previews and then do a complete turnaround at the opening? I mean, a complete turnaround.
JP: Well it was my first Broadway show, so what did I know? The whole experience was pretty magical for me. But we did all talk about what we heard people saying about the show, what the papers were reporting, what we felt should change, etc. And many industry people were coming back and saying wonderful things even if the papers did not, so we were hopeful by the time we opened that we had fixed most of the big problems. Thank God for Rosie O’Donnell – she really promoted our show on her show and I believe helped us win the Tony.
BK: How long did you stay with the show? Is it hard keeping it fresh every performance?
JP: I stayed with Titanic for two years – the whole run, actually. I was going to leave to do “After The Fair” at the York, but we posted before that was to happen so I got to stay ’til the end. As far as keeping it fresh goes – I like to think we tried to keep inventing and shaking it up a bit so it was never stale – but there were times… I remember once before Lady’s Maid I have all of these intro lines where I’m running around the tables in the third class dining area, basically setting up the song and I totally forgot what I was saying so I just kept running until I got to my starting position and then just started singing. Thanks goodness Kevin Stites, our Musical Director, is on top of it. He came on in and joined me!! I was almost in the right key – heh, heh.
BK: The set was very unwieldy – were there any amusing or terrifying things that happened because of the set? Don’t hold back, tell us everything.
JP: Actually someone broke their collar bone exiting from the deck in high tilt and still went on to take his curtain call – I’ll let you wonder who that was!! hee, hee And we had a funny mishap at the end of Act 1. It is the “No Moon” sequence where you jump from boat deck to deck and catch parts of different scenes in progress. I have a series of scenes with my scene partner where I reveal I’m pregnant and ask him to marry me. Well, my poor scene partner had eaten something bad and was leaning on the rail in a funny way and I asked him after our first scene if he was OK. He started to answer then fainted and got sick and the crew had to drag him off of the back of the platform. It was really scary because we didn’t know what was wrong with him, but in retrospect it was crazy looking to anyone who could see it. Luckily the light had gone out on us and by the time it came back on I was hiding behind the flats with the other Kates and wondering if I should go out there and improvise something – improvise what – a proposal to noone??!!
BK: I loved you so much in that show that I, in fact, sent word to you that I’d love to have you be on one of my albums. And you, very graciously, said yes, although as I recall you were nervous about it. That first album was Prime Time Musicals as I remember. It’s very different being in a studio with a microphone than it is being on stage. Tell us about the experience of recording that album – what was the process for you from the time we met through the time we actually recorded your song?
JP: Again with the flattery – do you wear Hanes, by the way? Anyway, it scares the heck out of me to sing into a microphone in a studio. It even scares me to hear my own voice on the answering machine – Jersey twang and all that. Uh. But if you have to do it, and when Bruce Kimmel asks you – you do, it don’t get better than getting direction from you. You graciously let me hear playback so I could hear what I was doing wrong and then fix it. And you directed me very gently because you know how hot-headed redheads can be.
BK: We subsequently worked together again – first with Cinderella. Did it get easier?
JP: Does a chicken have lips? No, it didn’t get easier. Well maybe a little. At least I knew you and the crazy Vinnie so that was a comfort. And again I got to hear some playback.
BK: Then you did a chamber musical called After the Fair, at the York Theater. How was that to work on?
JP: That was wonderful to work on. I fell in love with the piece when I read it and I had such high hopes for it. The cast was terrific, the musicians fantastic and it just didn’t get where it needed to go ultimately.
BK: Do you feel you will always play “ladies’ maids”?
JP: Yes, I am destined to be the pregnant low-class girl in every show. Know of any others coming up? I was actually doing a reading around that time where I played yet another one. It was a musical version of “An American Tragedy.”
BK: After the Fair also starred the extraordinary Michele Pawk, who is, I believe, your very own neighbor. How is Michele to work with?
JP: I can’t say enough about how wonderful Michele is – so generous, so compelling, so fun to watch and to work with. We had a blast on and off stage. I liked her so much I moved up town to her neighborhood!
BK: A little birdie told me that you, Jennifer Piech, have been doing some writing. Is this true? Yes or no. Can you tell us what you’ve written?
JP: Yes, it is true – I have written a musical with a collaborator named Robert Vieira, who lives in San Fran – lots of email as you can imagine. I could tell you what it’s about but I would have to kill you. Is that really what you want? We are actually having our first read-through of Act 1 this Sept. I’m very nervous about it. It is basically a love triangle set during the Civil War.
BK: Do you find writing is as stimulating to you as performing?
JP: If what I have written is good then yes, I find it just as stimulating. If it stinks, then no.
BK: Speaking of performing, what have you been doing recently?
JP: I have been singing rousing choruses of “The Wheels on the Bus…” and “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Rubber Duckie.” My daughter thinks it’s fabulous! Prior to that I was doing “James Joyce’s The Dead” in a co-production with the Huntington Theatre and A.C.T. in San Fran. That was last fall and it was a very healing time to be doing that show in light of Sept. 11th. Before that I had a recurring role on “All My Children” and a small cameo part in Ed Harris’s film “Pollock.”
BK: If you could choose a revival of any musical in which you, Jennifer Piech, could be the star, which would it be and why?
JP: I think I would like to be Guenivere in Camelot. I did that show once and I loved every minute of it. And I was doing it in summer stock in the hills of Kentucky – outdoors!!! You know it’s good when you love it in those conditions.
BK: Well, Jennifer Piech, you are adorable and all Hainsies/Kimlets send you their love and warmth. You simply must join us in one of our many parties – we wear pointy party hats and eat cheese slices and ham chunks and cake and we dance the Hora until the cows come home. Doesn’t that sound like fun? You do dance the Hora, don’t you? Or do you only do Irish jigs?
JP: If there are ham chunks I will dance anything anywhere. I’m always saying “ham on it.” And I think you know what I mean by that.
BK: Jennifer Piech, I hate to be corny, but you have been a peach. Thanks for doing our Unseemly Interview and give the baby a big kiss from all of us.
JP: My pleasure indeed!