Jennifer Laura Thompson has the soprano voice and classic beauty of an ingenue, but it’s a knack for comedy and penchant for silliness that’s made her a bona fide Broadway star. After originating the role of Ariel in Footloose, the actress showed a talent for satire in the cult musical hit Urinetown, earning a Tony nomination as Hope Cladwell. In Wicked, Thompson became the first actress to follow in Kristin Chenoweth’s glittery footsteps as “good” witch Glinda. Now, she’s starring as narcissistic modern dancer Eileen Evergreen, the fiancee of playboy Jimmy Winter (played by Matthew Broderick) in the hit Gershwin tuner Nice Work If You Can Get It. Broadway.com recently talked to Thompson about her favorite gifts from Wicked fans, keeping her cool during onstage accidents, and the career highlight she considers to be her “Ferris Bueller.”
What made you want to be a part of Nice Work If You Can Get It?
I thought Nice Work was really smart, the music was well integrated and it was funny. It seemed very intact as a musical. And the role was hysterical. As I was auditioning, [director Kathleen Marshall] told me very specifically what was happening during the numbers that Eileen would sing, and she set it up so well. I couldn’t have been more excited when I was cast.
You’ve got a great gag with a never-ending wedding veil that just keeps going and going…how heavy is that thing?
It’s made of tulle, so it’s almost weightless, but it is cumbersome. There are two very brave women, my dresser and another dresser, who are feeding it out of this giant bag backstage—it’s about the size of a Christmas tree bag. I wish I had a camera to show you what actually happens while the veil is seamlessly unfolding onstage. They work very hard!
In one of your songs, “Delishious,” there’s a great moment where you’re in the bathtub and suddenly the whole ensemble pops out. Are they sitting in the tub with you?
There’s a lift in the center of the stage and some are in the tub below me, but they’re also on stairs that go all the way to the basement. So no, they’re not stuffed inside a two-and-a-half foot tub!
You’re in a big cast full of comic actors, including Matthew Broderick, Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye. What was it like developing this show together?
I know, one kook after another! The process evolved when we were in rehearsal and then it evolved again once we got in front of an audience. We’ve gotten to know each other so well, it gets more fun as we go along. I wouldn’t say we play games onstage because that’s just…entirely unprofessional, but we do play off of each other very well. It’s a lot of fun.
You get to work closely with Matthew Broderick. What has that been like?
He’s so incredible. He’s hilarious in life and onstage. He’s insanely smart and really goofy, too. I enjoy his company, and he makes me laugh constantly. I have to control myself because he’s always doing something. If something crazy happens during the show, Matthew effortlessly improvs. That’s a lesson I’ve learned from watching him onstage—it’s a place to be comfortable and not to be fearful.
Has anything unexpected happened to you onstage?
I sliced my finger once in the bathtub and it was gushing blood. My big, pink towel was getting all messy and I was like, this is the worst! It wasn’t a deep cut, but it was messy. I looked down and I was like, I’m gonna pass out. So much blood… [Sings] “It’s so deli-shi-ous…” Oh my God, just keep going. I’m bleeding! I’m gushing blood! [Laughs.]
What was it like to see Matthew overlooked for awards this season?
I wished he would’ve been nominated. He deserved to be nominated. I saw the whole process and I had admired his work so much. I just don’t know why they didn’t get it. Everyone feels pressure at awards season, nominated or not, and we were proud of all of our nominations. I just feel like he should’ve been in there. And hey, why not me? [Yells] Why doesn’t anybody appreciate me? [Laughs.]
You’ve got a lot of ingenue qualities—you’re a beautiful, graceful soprano—how do you get to play all of these goofy roles?
I don’t go out of my way to play them, so I don’t know how it ended up that way. When I first started working, I was doing all of the standard leading ladies and ingenues, and then somewhere along the way, I think it might have been with Urinetown, I got to show that goofball side of me, and it just clicked. I love getting to play these characters, because I’ve always considered myself a little bit off! [Laughs.]
Did you know when you got involved with Urinetown how successful it would become?
When I read it, I immediately thought it was hilarious and smart and groundbreaking, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it, but I had no idea we’d go to Broadway. We did a couple of readings, and then we did it at the American Theatre of Actors at the police station on 54th Street. It was a bunch of accomplished actors shoved in a one-room dressing room with a curtain separating the men from the women, and it was insanely hot and disgusting and so appropriate for the show [laughs]. The seating was uncomfortable for the audience, but it was so much fun. I’m really proud to have been part of that.
What was it like reuniting with your Urinetown co-star Hunter Foster in Little Miss Sunshine at La Jolla?
We went to school together, so it’s crazy. We’ve been friends for 20-some years! The producers didn’t envision us as a couple, but it just worked out and everybody agreed there was chemistry between us. It was uncanny. And then, 10 years later we’re playing parents of a young child.
Could we be seeing Little Miss Sunshine on the east coast?
I don’t know at this point. We had hoped that it would come in to New York sooner than later, but I think it’s on the back burner. But I had a lot of fun doing it, and the audiences really enjoyed it. I liked the movie and I’ve never sung Bill Finn’s music before, so it was great.
The last time we talked to you about your son [Tommy, now eight], you told us you needed a lot of under-eye concealer because of him. Now that he’s older, have you been able to cut back on the cover-up?
No, because now I’m older! [Laughs.] He’s the love of my life, but he wakes me up every day at seven. All I can do to make up for it is nap, and those don’t take away dark circles. But he’s doing great. He’s going to bowling camp this summer!
Do you still hear from Wicked fans?
I do, outside the stage door at Nice Work. I love it when people say, “You were my favorite Glinda,” or “You were my first Glinda.” Who knew that it was going to be such a phenomenon? I’m lucky to be connected with it, and in a small sense, Wicked is my Ferris Bueller [laughs].
What’s the most memorable gift a Wicked fan has ever given you?
One person painted a portrait of me and sent pictures of the whole process. Somebody made a hand-sewn Wicked doll, and another person molded a Glinda out of clay and glazed it...they’re just lovely. They’re kind of like folk art, and they’re so beautiful that I had to keep them. I kept a very detailed scrapbook of that experience, because it was truly overwhelming. People would write to thank me for saving their life. I mean, it’s really intense.
Were you popular like Glinda in high school?
I wasn’t the kind of popular that Glinda is—bratty-popular. I was likeable, I had a lot of different groups of friends, the whole drama group and part of the popular crowd, and I was in student council, so I was involved with a lot of different social worlds. So popular, maybe, but not a snotty brat.
Are there any musicals you’d like to do onstage that you haven’t gotten a chance to do yet?
When I was in college, I always wanted to do Les Miz. And then when I started working professionally, I realized, eight shows a week…that show is like, three hours long. I don’t wanna do that. I would have killed to have done Young Frankenstein. But I think I’m more excited about new works. Not to say I’m not happy to do a revival, don’t get me wrong!
You’ve done some TV. Would you like to do more?
Absolutely, but if I were to really try to do TV, I’d probably have to relocate to the west coast, and that isn’t something that interests me. I’m a New Yorker, so I’ll take what I can get here. But the weird thing is I keep playing murderers and battered wives. We need a good New York comedy!
See Jennifer Laura Thompson in Nice Work If You Can Get It at the Imperial Theatre.