Try as you might, you simply can’t typecast Jenni Barber. The star made her Broadway debut as shy middle schooler Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and nabbed a regular gig on the kids’ TV series The Electric Company before moving on to more uh, adult fare, like a porn star in the short-lived comedy The Performers and a burlesque performer in The Nance on Broadway. Now she’s throwing us another curveball: She arrived on the Great White Way via bubble in Wicked last winter, playing oh-so-popular witch Glinda. Broadway.com chatted with Barber about her first few months in the role, what it's like to perform on the Tony Awards and why she's constantly asking herself “What would Nathan Lane do?”
You now have a few months of Wicked under your belt. How do you like being "Popular?"
It’s going really well, it’s super fun, we’re having a great time. I’m really lucky I have just the coolest cast to be a part of. We’re really having fun over there!
Who in particular have you bonded with?
Christine Dwyer, who plays Elphaba. I love her so much. We’ve become really close and she’s such an ally on stage. I’m also obsessed with Mary Testa! She’s amazing, she’s a comedic genius, honestly. I’ve gotta take as many notes as possible working with her: she’s a real legend, and she’s also a blast. I love everybody, we’re all really tight.
Aside from Mary Testa, do you have any comedy influences you look up to that inspire your performance?
I had the pleasure of working with Nathan Lane last year in The Nance, and watching him work an audience is the greatest lesson in comedy anybody could ever have. His rhythm and the way that he can time things, the way that he’ll change it up. Every performance is different and really crafted to whatever he’s getting from the audience. There’s moments where I’m doing “Popular” and I’m like, “What would Nathan Lane do?”
You actually ask yourself, “How would Nathan Lane play Glinda?”
Absolutely, or say, “No, Nathan Lane would not approve of this, nuh-uh.” It’s bizarre, but it works!
Did you see The Nance screening in movie theaters this summer?
I did, we had a great premiere. It was wonderful to see everybody again. We hadn’t seen each other in about a year, so that was really special. There’s so much that we don’t get to see when we're onstage. We don’t get to see the lighting design or the way all the costumes work together.
What's it like to see yourself so big on a movie screen?
My head was super big and it was hilarious. There’s...a lot happening! [Laughs.] It’s also gonna be on TV in October, and I’m so thrilled that so many people are gonna be able to see this story.
Wicked fans are so loyal—what’s the best fan gift you’ve gotten?
I’ve gotten some incredible art. This show inspires people to just put their heart out there. They make duct tape art, they do watercolors, they do sculpture art, it’s incredible. I got this thing from Iceland, this incredible paper art of Glinda, it was really special. But nothing crazy. No one’s sent me their tooth or anything, thank god. [Laughs.]
What has been your most memorable stage door interaction?
My dentist from when I was a child in Mansfield, Ohio was at the stage door a couple weeks ago. I haven’t seen her in years, but when I was first moving to New York, I had my last checkup and she literally handed me a wad of cash and was like, “Just take care of yourself, OK?” She was so worried about me moving to the big city! I haven’t seen her since that day, and then she shows up at the stage door crying.
When did you see Wicked for the first time?
When I first moved to the city I auditioned, and they told me I was going to leave in a week to be in the Chicago production. I had never seen the show before, so I sat in the sound booth and saw Megan Hilty and Shoshanna Bean and they were fantastic. A few days later they were like, “Oh, you’re not going to Chicago, but they may want you to stay here.” So it was this epic month of callbacks and during that time I was also auditioning for Spelling Bee and ended up getting that before they made a decision for Wicked. I needed it so bad, I was so broke. I had spent three months in New York and I had no money.
What about your money from the dentist?
Yeah, I was like, "I’m out of my dentist cash, I’ve got to take this job!" [Laughs.]
You got to perform on the Tony Awards this year—did your phone immediately start blowing up?
Yes, both Christine’s and my phones went bananas. We told our families, but we didn’t tell a lot of people, and I’m not on Facebook, so literally my phone was freaking out. Christine’s actually broke. [Laughs.] It was really thrilling. And so many people from years ago were like, “Wait a second, what are you doing? You live in New York, you’re on Broadway, what?”
I’m still mourning the loss of the hilarious porn play The Performers, which closed after only 30 performances on Broadway.
Yay, you saw it!
Why don't you think it got the run it deserved?
At the theater, we talked about this relentlessly, because we were so surprised we got the closing notice so quickly. I can’t even tell you how much fun it was. Henry Winkler, Alicia [Silverstone], Cheyenne [Jackson], Daniel Breaker, Ari [Graynor], they’re most wonderful castmates a person could have. I learned a lot about commercial theater in New York City, that’s for sure.
You’ve played such an eclectic mix of roles, from Olive in Spelling Bee to an adult film star, to a burlesque performer.
If a project is exciting for me, then I’ll just go out for it, but these roles really did choose me. [Spelling Bee and Annie director] James Lapine was a little concerned. He said, “You were Olive and now I’m seeing you without your clothes on. Why don’t you play a nice, respectful lady like Grace Farrell in [Annie]?” He was trying to clean up my act!
See Barber in Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre.