Call Redialed: NEW Jennifer Barnhart Interview: "It's About Time!" at The Laurie Beechman Theatre
It’s so great that Jennifer Barnhart (Avenue Q, Sesame Street), answered my call again, especially as she gets ready to make her solo cabaret debut at The Laurie Beechman Theatre.
Jennifer will be premiering It’s About Time! on March 31 & April 7. I got the inside scoop on the creation of this show as well some fun behind-the-scene stories from Jennifer’s time in Avenue Q that you WON’T hear in It’s About Time!
“After years of playing well with others — whether singing backup for friends’ shows, or crooning alongside a cast of puppet characters — Jennifer Barnhart finally steps into the spotlight in her first solo cabaret, fittingly titled, It’s About Time! Alan Muraoka will direct two evenings of stories, silliness and song as Jennifer shares the journey that led her to two of the most famous streets in the world: Broadway and Sesame Street.
It’s About Time! debuts at The Laurie Beechman Theatre on Sunday, March 31 & April 7 at 7pm. Click here for tickets!
1. You are about to make your solo cabaret debut at The Laurie Beechman Theatre in your show It's About Time! What made now the right time to make your solo debut? A cabaret is something I’ve been thinking about doing for ages—and pretty much everyone I know has asked me at one point when I was going to do one. My answer has generally been, “Yeah, I’ll get around to it one of these years...”
Last summer, I was working on a project with Michael Lane (who works at at the Beechman) and he said to me, “You know, you just need to book a venue and some dates, and that will give you a deadline.” I agreed that it would be the push I needed to get my butt in gear...and that eventually, I should maybe-kinda-sorta consider doing that. And shortly after we had that conversation, Michael spoke to Kenny Bell at the Beechman, and Kenny invited me to perform there—all of a sudden, I had a venue and dates!
The timing of this also feels right in terms of the arc of Avenue Q coming to a close. Part of my show is a celebration of all the wonderful, life-changing things that show brought to me.
2. How long did it take you to create this show, from idea to inception? I started putting thoughts on paper in earnest at the beginning of January, and it’s been taking shape and changing since then. We added a new song and idea last week! It’ll probably go through last-minute tweaks right up until the day before the first performance.
3. What was the first song & story you just knew had to be in this show? I knew I wanted to sing “Just in Time.” There have been a few critical moments in my life when I was down to my last dime, and I was ready to chuck it all in and walk away from the entertainment industry, and at the last minute the hand of Fate intervened and opportunities arose that led me to the next big thing.
I’ve also been reflecting a lot on how things seem to unfold in their own time...y’know, we all give ourselves these self-imposed time limits, saying, “Well, if I haven’t achieved X in the next two years, I’m a failure,” or some equally self-defeating narrative. There’s no grand timeline we’re all supposed to follow, and there’s a lot to be said for being a late bloomer. If the opportunities that cumulatively led me to where I am now had happened at an earlier or different time in my life, I very likely would not have been ready for them.
4. What are you most excited about? I’m beyond excited to share the stage with these incredibly outstanding musicians, long-time friends and brilliant artists. I’ve got a dream team playing with me: my music director Gary Adler on piano, Michael Croiter on percussion, and Jim Donica on bass. I met them all through Avenue Q—but these are the same musicians who play for Chita Rivera, I mean, come on!! It’s a dream come true!
5. What is making you nervous? I’m a bit nervous about making sure I keep the ball in the air throughout the evening, that my pacing doesn’t run away with me in all the excitement. I just have to remember to take a few deep breaths before (and during) the show.
6. The director of your cabaret show is Alan Muraoka. What is it about his artistic vision that lined up with yours? The first cabaret I ever participated in at the height of Avenue Q’s success was Empty-Handed, an evening of Q puppeteers (me, Stephanie D’Abruzzo and John Tartaglia) singing without puppets. Alan directed that show, and from that moment I knew that if I ever did a solo show, I wanted to have him direct me.
Alan is so smart when it comes to clear storytelling within songs, finding moments of humor, economy of narrative. I trust him utterly—which is good, because there have been several moments during this process when Alan had to talk me out of a tree! He asked me hard questions about my song choices, he encouraged me to dig deeper, he has been my rock.
7. Since the show is called It's About Time, what is something else "It's About Time" for you to do that you have been putting off? Boy, that’s a great question. As I get older, I’m becoming more of a fan of the idea, “Do the things that scare you.” Last year, that thing for me was teaching my first full-semester college class in puppetry (at Wagner College in Staten Island). This year, it’s doing this show. I’ve flirted with the idea of writing for a very long time, there are a few children’s stories running around my head. Who knows? Maybe that’ll be next year’s thing that scares me!
8. You have spent much of your career acting with puppets. Were there any thoughts, when creating this show, that went along the lines of, "I want to get more acting gigs as myself and not with a puppet, so let's do this show to help change the narrative?" Y’know, that wasn’t really a major impetus for this show. Now that I’ve finally grown into my playable age range, I have been fortunate enough to get more work as a ‘human,’ from Shakespeare to modern, in regional theatres and on TV. And I have always been grateful for the puppets—without them, I would not have had the career I have had. I’m lucky the puppets found me, and that I answered their call. I’m grateful that I get to be both a puppeteer and a human!
9. As an original company member of Broadway's Avenue Q + it's pre-Broadway run, what is one story about your time with the show that you can share that is NOT featured in your upcoming cabaret show? A story that I was trying to find a way to talk about in the show (but ended up cutting for time and flow) was something that happened during the pre-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre. The way we staged it, in the blackout after “The Internet is for Porn,” I would pull my hand out of “Trekkie” so Rick Lyon and I could exit single file in the dark.
On the fifth preview, Rick fell off the stage and sprained his ankle, badly. We had to stop the show, Rick went to the hospital, and we came in the next day to learn that Rick had to stay off his ankle for five weeks.
We didn’t have understudies at the Vineyard. Christine Daly, our stage manager, suggested, “Well, Jen lip-syncs for other performers for some of the show...why not have her do it for all of the show, for Rick’s characters?” So Rick sat alongside the audience (below their line of sight in the stadium seating set-up) with a handheld mic and his leg propped up on a chair. And he watched me and did the vocal performance for all of his characters while I manipulated them onstage.
We all pulled together to make it happen—there were scenes where both John and Stephanie were puppeteering two characters to make it happen, and even our puppet wrangler (Phoebe Kreutz) stepped in at the end to fill out the puppet parade that happens during “For Now.” We opened that way, we were reviewed that way...and I think the reason we got away with it is because there was already such a heightened sense of theatricality with the exposed puppeteers, that it was just one more element.
10. Let's play with the theme song of Sesame Street for a moment. When life is getting to you and dark clouds are around, how do you get to "Sunny Day, Sweepin' the clouds away, On my way to where the air is sweet"? Let’s face it, things are pretty dark these days. There’s so little any of us can control in the grand scheme of things...I just try to remember to be compassionate to the people I encounter day-to-day, practice random acts of kindness, that sort of thing. Smile at strangers, hold the door for someone with a lot of packages, offer up a seat on the subway. Things like that usually lift me up.
More on Jennifer:
Jennifer Barnhart was an Original Broadway Company member (Outer Critics Circle Award) of the smash Tony Award-winning hit Avenue Q , and she remained with the show in the role she created for its entire six-year run on Broadway. As a puppeteer, Jennifer has performed on numerous children's television shows, most notably Between the Lions, Bear in the Big Blue House, Johnny & the Sprites, Julie’s Greenroom (with Julie Andrews, for Netflix), and Sesame Street, where she plays “Zoe.” Some favorite “human” roles include: LadyMacbeth, Goneril and “Veronica” in God of Carnage (Alabama Shakespeare Festival), and ”Officer Randy” in Superior Donuts (The Arden Theatre). She has also appeared on Law & Order: SVU (once as a puppeteer) and was the “Speaker of the House” on Season 5 of House of Cards. Jennifer’s voice can be heard on various educational apps, and as a narrator for the YA novel The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Penguin/Random House).