Ghost‘s Jennifer Sanchez displays ‘model behavior’ on Broadway and as a single mom
“What was the name of that cheese that I like?” It’s the seventh voicemail Candela leaves for her MIA friend Pepa in the song “Model Behavior” in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. While Laura Benanti was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in the role, this line (and her rendition of the whole song) highlighted understudy Jennifer Sanchez as an unsung comedic gem at a 2011 At This Performance concert. Sanchez went on twice for the part and still beams at the memory of it, calling it “the best time” she’s ever had on stage. Having made her Broadway debut in West Side Story in 2009, she’s now appearing in Ghost the Musical as an ensemble member and Rosa Santiago, the first client of the faux psychic Oda Mae Brown. Sanchez sat down with Stage Rush to discuss playing a 64 year old, the challenges faced by an understudy, and being a single mom on Broadway.
This is your third Broadway show. What’s it like to work on Broadway? Was this always the dream?
I didn’t see a Broadway show until I was in college. I had never been to New York. The first time I acted in a show was when I was 7 years old. It was a community theater production of Annie in New Mexico. I thought that was everything. I had so much fun. I got to wear lip gloss and hairspray. I thought my life was complete. That was the start of it all.
You are playing an old widow in Ghost. How did that happen?
Well, she’s 64. Her age isn’t specified in the script, but she’s 64. When I auditioned for Rosa Santiago, I honestly thought she was 27. I thought she was young, fun, and beautiful. When I auditioned, I wore my usual outfit—these huge earrings, bangles over my tight dance top, and heels. There was nothing in the script that said she’s older and has a cane. When the producers flew the cast to London to see the show, I saw her come out and I thought, ‘Well that must just be the London version.’ [laughs] I had seen the movie, but I didn’t think it’d be the same. I thought, ‘That’s just for London.’ We came back to New York and on the first day of rehearsals, they gave me my cane. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’
It seems that you prefer playing a character role rather than the pretty young woman that you are.
That’s the most fun for me, when I’m lucky enough to make people laugh.
As Mrs. Santiago, you get to be a part of Oda Mae’s first big number, “Are You A Believer?” It’s a great moment in the show.
The show has these questions about life and death that are really hard. When Oda Mae bursts through the door, that’s when the audience can first breathe. It’s well timed in the show and well written.
The material of this musical is so heavy. How does it weigh on you being in it eight times a week?
It’s similar to how I felt when I was doing West Side Story, with that sad ending. You live in the moment and you experience it, but that’s really for Richard Fleeshman, Caissie Levy, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. I don’t really have to do that or go through that every night. But with these heavy themes, you have to breathe, turn a new page, and start a new show every day. You have to start the show from that place of innocence. It’s a fresh start. You have to go back and rewind all that hurt and the pain. Erase it.
What’s it like being an ensemble member in this show?
It’s great. I love my track. I get to be in the subway scene and levitate. Before every show, the crew sprinkles the magic pixie dust on me and that enables me to fly. So now you know the trick—it’s pixie dust. I have so much fun every night.
There’s so much going on visually in this show. Do you feel you have to compete with the effects?
I think the first time a person sees the show, there’s a lot to see. But I’m always surprised at how much people do see when I talk to them after the show. I’m not worried. I think it’s a more-is-more situation. It’s a feast. I love being on stage in this show. I also love those moments that are quieter, like when Caissie is singing “With You.” That’s just her belting her heart out and leaving it there on the stage. The audience gets all of that and that’s why I think people are moved and cry every night, because the story is still there and it’s powerful.
VIDEO: Watch Jennifer Sanchez talk about feeling un-American in front of the Obamas and technical difficulties in Women on the Verge.
You were brilliant as Candela in Women on the Verge. What was it like going on in that role?
It was the best time I’ve ever had on stage. I think being an understudy is really hard. It’s challenging and there’s a lot of pressure. For me, it was specifically Candela. I loved her so much. Laura Benanti did such an amazing job fleshing out that character during the rehearsal process. Being there from day one with it, you can really understand the character. I related to her a lot! It was the best time.
Where do your comedic inspirations come from?
In that community theater production of Annie, I played Lily. That was my first comedic role and I knew then that I wanted to do comedy. I’m inspired by Madeline Kahn, Carol Burnett, and Ellen Greene. You’re never funny if you think you’re going to be funny. You have to let the pressure go; that’s what’s important to nail it. Even if something isn’t funny, I’d rather watch something that is truthful. There’s so much comedy in what’s real.
You have a young son, Jared. Is it hard to be a mom on Broadway?
The most challenging thing is the schedule. Your kids go to school during the day and you work at night. But you just have to make more with the time that you do have. You put more weight on that time; it’s more valuable. You make those your meaningful hours. What’s great about the Ghost schedule is that I have Sundays off. Saturdays he goes to his friend’s house and Sundays I have off with him. It’s a dream schedule for me. In every show I do, I wish I could have Sundays off to spend with him. It’s been really great.
Do you mind if I ask if you’re a single mom? How does being a stage actress affect that?
I am a single parent. It’s probably afforded me more New York opportunities. I’ve never been able to leave because my kid is in school and I’m not going to uproot him for these things. It forces you to be less transient, which I think so many of us gypsies are. Actors are gypsies. We hop around and go all over the country for work. It’s forced me to be more New York based. But I love New York and that’s where I want to live.
What goals do you have in your career? What side projects do you haves?
A few weeks ago, I took my vacation and I participated in the Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project. It was the best week of my life, to date. The whole week, my only responsibility was to write and create music. I think you have to follow your heart and your bliss. If you feel like you need to create something, you have to make it happen. There are a lot of pluses to being an ensemble member. If I was Elphaba in Wicked, I feel like those girls have to devote their all to that. They have to save their voice and spend so much time getting in and out of costume. I get to the theater at half-hour call. It gives me more time to write and be with my son. The stuff I’m writing is very special. I don’t have any plans to leave theater or go to LA. I love it here. I love performing. I’m going to continue to audition. We all dream about another role like Candela coming along and having the chance to go in for it. Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it.
Have you seen Jennifer Sanchez in Ghost, Rushers? Were you one of the lucky few to catch her performance as Candela in Women in the Verge? What do you think about her story as a single mother on Broadway? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!