June 14, 2022
Tony-Winner Rachel Bay Jones Heads to Ptown with Seth Rudetsky
John Amodeo READ TIME: 8 MIN.
"It was incredible," recalls musical theater actress Rachel Bay Jones, of the moment they called out her name at the 71st Tony Awards for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Heidi Hansen, the mother of the title character in "Dear Evan Hansen." "But," she continues, "that wasn't the moment that feels so significant." There was another that just preceded it.
When the nominations were announced, that year's nominees for Best Featured Actress in a Musical began bonding with one another: Stephanie J. Block ("Falsettos"), Jenn Colella ("Come From Away"), Kate Baldwin ("Hello, Dolly!"), Mary Beth Piel ("Anastasia"), and Jones. "Stephanie got us all together as a category, dinners together, and the like," noted Jones. "Sure, the night of the Tonys was wonderful, but also stressful. We had just done our ['Dear Evan Hansen'] performance and Stephanie had done hers, and we had changed back into our evening gowns, and were waiting in the back of the house, and our category was about to be called. Stephanie and I were holding hands and we squeezed our hands just before, and I thought that this was the moment that mattered."
What happened next was mostly just a blur. "When they announced my name, all I could think was I wished I wouldn't trip on my way up to the stage," quipped Jones. "I could never have imagined how life would turn out for me in my middle age, after leaving the business, I quit the business so many times, I didn't think this moment would be possible for me. Patina Miller, who starred with me in 'Pippin,' presented the award. I remember in slow motion watching her mouth, which I knew so well, say my name."
Jones has not only won the Tony Award for "Dear Evan Hansen," but is now only an "O" away from an EGOT, having also received a Grammy Award for the "Dear Evan Hansen" Original Cast Recording, and an Emmy Award for Best Musical Performance in a Daytime Program for her performance with the "Dear Evan Hansen" cast on "The Today Show." On Broadway, Jones understudied the lead in 1989's "Meet Me in St. Louis," at the age of 19, donned tie-dyed outfits in "Hair," seduced the title character in "Pippin," and was a nurturing single mom in "Dear Evan Hansen." She toured with "Grand Hotel," "Fiddler on the Roof," and in regional theater performed the leads in "Next to Normal" (Kennedy Center) and "Evita," the latter sung entirely in Spanish!
On June 25 and 26, Jones will return to The Art House in Provincetown to be Seth Rudetsky's guest in his highly popular "Seth Series," where he cajoles, coaxes, and teases backstage stories out of his Broadway guests, peppered with extraordinary performances, most drawn from his guests' careers. Jones spoke with EDGE about this upcoming appearance, playing a clown, and failing to talk her daughter out of show business.
EDGE: Have you performed with Seth before in this chit-chat/performance format?
Rachel Bay Jones: I have. He is my favorite. He can pull things out of a performer that you didn't know you could do or you had. He can pull out stories that you thought you'd forgotten, and songs that I wouldn't have ordinarily done. It's so spontaneous, which I love.
In January 2020, we did a show in Provincetown. It was the only time I'd been there before this, in the dead of winter at the Art House, and I'm really looking forward to being back there in its glory. His process is to give me some songs I'd like to sing, and he hands me music for songs he would like me to sing, and we are prepared for anything. And the conversation leads us to whatever song comes next. He's threatened for us to do an "Evita" duet together as Peron and Eva. Maybe some "Little Shop of Horrors." And he can sing!
EDGE: You worked with director Diane Paulus in the 2009 Broadway revival of "Hair," then worked with her again in the 2013 Broadway revival of "Pippin." Paulus took "Pippin" in a new direction, collaborating with Cirque du Soleil to highlight the magical aspects and the sense of wonder. Did that affect your interpretation of Catherine at all?
Rachel Bay Jones: Absolutely. [The role of] Catherine is written to only show up in the second act. It's an actress playing the part of Catherine. We were trying to figure out who is this person and how she fits in with the whole. So, I asked if I could play a clown, a silent clown, in the first act. We developed a way this sad clown could have a connection with Pippin in the first act, watching him going through his trials in the first act, and that really informed how Catherine evolved through the show. I was older than the character Catherine was written to be. I was 42. So I played her as this actress who has been playing the character Catherine for a really long time, and the audience became my friend and I was appealing to them to help me with my relationship with Pippin. Diane wanted you to bring your ideas to the table.
EDGE: You were part of "Dear Evan Hansen" from the beginning: DC's Arena Stage, to Off-Broadway's Second Stage to Broadway. What did you first think of the script and the role of Heidi when you first read the script? Did you have to audition, or were you given the role?
Rachel Bay Jones: I was invited to participate in the first table read, which was the first time the script was being read out loud for the benefit of the creative team. It was yet untitled. Ben [Platt] was there, and I was there, and two actors playing the other parents. We weren't given a script in advance. We couldn't even peek until they said "Go." We read the whole thing cold so we could get our first impressions of it. We were all so glued to the story, and we couldn't wait to turn the page to see what happened to the characters. So, when it went to the stage, we were all so excited to see this through. It was a completely original story. That's rare, especially on Broadway. The aim was always for truth and story.
EDGE: You were 19 when you were cast in your first Broadway show, "Meet Me in St. Louis," and understudied the lead, Esther Smith, no less. How did you land that first role? Did you ever go on? And what did it feel like to take on the role that Judy Garland performed so vividly in the film?
Rachel Bay Jones: I moved to New York when I was 19, and I had a referral to an agent, met with the agent, she said great, I'd love to work with you, and she pulled out of a big stack of papers on her desk, this audition for "Meet Me in St. Louis" for the Judy Garland part. I did the audition, and attended a dozen more auditions for that role, including an ice-skating audition. They saw me for several roles, and I got cast for a smaller role and as the understudy for the lead. I didn't go on for the lead, but performed in the other role. It never occurred to me to do a Judy Garland impression, and perhaps it cost me the role. But it was something I naturally felt I couldn't do, impersonate another actor. That may have sometimes gotten in my way, but sometimes it didn't.
EDGE: When you aren't performing within a musical theater production, what types of music do you like to sing? What do you like to listen to?
Rachel Bay Jones: I love listening to hard rock! I love singing Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. I've been really into Paul Simon. My musical tastes haven't really evolved. The one thing that brought me back into performing again was recording a CD called "Show Folk," which I recorded in 2008 or 2009. It was all show tunes with folk arrangements. It got me enough attention that I did a show at Joe's Pub, which then got the attention of the Public Theater. That got me involved with Diane Paulus and got me in "Hair."
EDGE: Your parents were both dramatic Shakespearean actors. Did they support your choice to go into acting, even quitting high school to do so?
Rachel Bay Jones: They were very supportive. Perhaps overly supportive. So much so, that it took me two decades of being in and out of show business to be sure it was something I wanted and not something I was doing because of my parents. Maybe my mother is a bit of a stage mother. It's only because they love it so much, they couldn't imagine me doing anything else.
EDGE: What about your daughter, Miranda?
Rachel Bay Jones: I was the exact opposite with her. She just graduated high school and will be a freshman in college. I told her to be anything else other than an actor, and she decided at six years old that she would be an entertainment lawyer. But she's finally decided to be an actor. She was Mrs. Lovett in her high school senior production of "Sweeney Todd." She was a really shy kid, like me, and she would hide behind everyone else in the chorus. But we went to see her, and she was fantastic. It's funny, because I have had so much disappointment and so much heartache, but when you get to do it, there is nothing so wonderful as connecting with the audience. And who wouldn't want that joy for their kid.
Broadway at The Art House and Mark Cortale present Rachel Bay Jones with Seth Rudetsky, June 25 and 26, 7 PM at The Art House, 214 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657. Tickets: $50, $75, and $100. For reservations, visit: https://provincetownarthouse.com/rachel-bay-jones/
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.