She's just 19 years old, but Jennifer Damiano has already racked up quite a Broadway resume. She made her debut in the original cast of Spring Awakening, then scored a 2009 Tony nomination as Natalie, a sensitive teen burdened by her mother’s mental illness in Next to Normal. Now she’s ditched her dark hair for the auburn locks of the ultimate girl next door, Mary Jane Watson, in Broadway’s most talked about musical event, Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark. Damiano recently took a break from the show’s busy preview period (“I’m in the eye of the storm right now, but I’m loving it,” she says) to discuss the revolutionary project, the heated media attention surrounding the show and the fun of falling for a famed superhero.
Mary Jane is an iconic character. What’s your take on her?
She’s pretty sexy in the comic books and pretty sweet in the movies, so I tried to find something in between—a more contemporary teenage girl, the kind of girl that didn’t really exist when the comics [first began]. In doing so, she became more like me. Girls these days respond to things a little more sarcastically and flirt a little more openly, but towards the end of the show everything really just becomes about the love between her and Peter.
Are you enjoying your new red hair?
I love it. I wear wigs in the show because as the story moves on she gets a little older so they want her hair to change a little. I keep dyeing my hair because I like it to be the same color as the wigs. It’s a lot of fun. I wonder if I’ll ever go back [laughs].
Your previous Broadway shows were fairly small-scale, and now you’re in the most technically complex musical ever.
What I love about this show is that it’s sort of the biggest rock musical ever. Other really big shows are usually more traditional, but this one is huge and rock and roll. It’s been a real challenge, considering where I came from, but I’m so lucky to be challenged in this way. This house is a lot bigger—the first time I went out, I was like, ‘Where is the back row? I can’t really see it!’ Both kinds of shows have their own type of exhaustion: Next to Normal just tore us up inside, and the energy in Spring Awakening was a lot darker and more angsty. This requires a different type of energy. Mary Jane is a little more girlier than me, so I have to be a little peppier. It’s hard because I am trying to land those more quiet, intimate moments alongside the spectacle.
It’s definitely a spectacle. What’s the coolest part about coming to work every day?
There’s nothing cooler than seeing the audience’s faces the first time they see Spider-Man fly throughout the house. After all the stuff that’s happened with this show, and the things people say, there’s still a magic: People can let themselves go.
Mary Jane becomes airborne several times in the show, as well. Were you ever nervous?
The first day of tech I was like, ‘Oh my god, are you serious? This is going to happen every day? That’s so awesome!’ Then the first time I actually did it I got way nervous. But after that, you think, ‘OK, I can do this’ and then it just became fun. I keep telling everyone that I’m an experienced aerialist [laughs]. I have to put that on my resume now!
Did that change at all after Christopher Tierney’s accident? You were onstage when he fell.
There’s no denying that it was a traumatizing experience. It’s hard, the irony of seeing Spider-Man on his back with people trying to help him, but [following the accident] we were doing [the show] for Chris. He loves this show and would never want us to stop. His spirit right now is incredible and really propelling us. These things happen, and sometimes you don’t always hear about it. We make jokes backstage when someone will trip: "Alert the media!" You can’t crack a knuckle now without everyone hearing about it.
Your former Next to Normal co-star Alice Ripley infamously tweeted about the incident.
Alice was concerned for my safety, which is understandable, and I [appreciate] that she’s concerned. It’s easy for people to see videos of what happened and say certain things, but to be in this building and be in the room is another thing. There is something really special back here, and there’s so much care taken; people in this show have families and need this job. We all need this job because we’ve all attached our heart and souls to it completely. There’s no way this show should not exist. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the production?
I think people are coming in with cynical attitudes and are so ready to tear it apart; they can’t see any heart in the show if they’re coming in without one. People just need to calm down. We’re doing things that have never been done in a Broadway theater before, and that in itself should be applauded. It’s completely revolutionary. When you’re working with this many computers and technology, it takes time, and people shouldn’t be making the time into something negative. We’re just trying to get everything right.
Does the scrutiny ever get to you?
It’s always hard at some point. In Next to Normal, I had millions of breakdowns and panic attacks, but nobody ever heard about those. What’s harder about this is that people like that it’s hard for us. It’s weird that people want to see others in some sort of pain. Luckily, I’m young enough that this is not just about paying the bills for me. It’s about leaving every audience member with something special every night.
So, if people are coming in with preconceived notions, what has the reaction been like at the end of the show?
They’re walking out pretty excited. I had a friend who saw it yesterday and said seeing Spider-Man fly made him cry. That’s what it’s about.
Why is Julie Taymor the right director for this show?
She is a genius. I have no idea how so many things fit inside one person’s brain. She wants to get people’s senses tingling, and what’s cool about her process is that it never really ends. I get where some people—like the press who are saying "Come on, come on, come on"—are coming from, but I’m in the building with her and I see how these new ideas come to light and I get why they need to be implemented the way they do. The fact that she will not stray from her own style is so admirable. She’s the biggest badass I’ve ever met.
How much of the show would you say is changing during previews?
Every week there’s been one big chunk of change. Changes always happen during previews. Yes, for Next to Normal it was a word here and there, and in Spider-Man it’s a little more drastic. We need to take bigger strides to see if we’re going in the completely wrong direction with certain things and, of course, it’s stressful. [Co-book author Glen Berger] said to us at the first preview, "It’s going to be like having a baby and it’s going to be so exciting, but then we’re going to have to take care of the baby and breastfeed it and it needs to stay healthy and it’s going to be hard," and that’s totally true.
How is it romancing Broadway newcomer Reeve Carney onstage?
He’s great. What’s cool is that I’m not a trained actor and neither is he, so we can go with our gut onstage and have this cool, organic chemistry. He kills it. His voice is really beautiful. I don’t know where it came from… maybe another planet or something [laughs].
As the Green Goblin, Patrick Page puts you in some terrifying situations. Are you ever actually afraid of him?
He’s the coolest dude in real life, but when he’s in that costume I seriously can’t look at him because he’s so scary! All these costumes are so extravagant that when you’re up close to people you just can’t believe it’s them.
You’re only 19 and this is already your third Broadway show. That’s so impressive—but where do you go from there?
I’m proud of myself because I know how hard I’ve worked and the things I gave up to be here. I feel really blessed that the people who cast these three shows believed in and took a chance on me. The stories I’ve been able to tell have been so beautiful. There’s no better feeling than being on a Broadway stage for me. I think about the film world and the music world, but honestly I don’t see myself being as happy anywhere else. I do want to dip my feet into those waters and see how it might be making friends with the camera or microphone, but I feel at home here.
Your characters have all been going through their formative years. Do you feel that you’ve missed out on anything by keeping an adult schedule of eight shows a week?
I’m so thankful for my one year at regular high school in White Plains. I wouldn’t take that back for anything, because I think you do have to live a normal existence to play these characters with truth. But I'm a completely different person with how much I've grown through [playing] these characters. I’m really excited about the revolution that is young people actually playing young people on Broadway. Back in the day [actors] used to be so much older, but now kids are able to tell stories about kids, and it works. There’s something really cool and special about being part of this community at such a young age.
See Jennifer Damiano in Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark at the Foxwoods Theatre.