Heidi Blickenstaff doesn’t want to exert her voice.
It’s proving difficult, because although the Times Square eatery where she’s grabbing food after a matinee of “Jagged Little Pill” is mostly empty, a rendition of “Silent Night” is blaring through the speakers at a near-deafening decibel level.
Blickenstaff, a Broadway veteran of “[title of show],” “Something Rotten!” and “The Little Mermaid,” has to be extra cautious because she has another performance later today. She ordinarily doesn’t have two-show days, but on this particular Wednesday, she was notified that Elizabeth Stanley, whom she’s sharing the musical’s lead role of Mary Jane Healey, a Connecticut mother whose life is more complicated than she lets on, had been feeling under the weather. Rather than risk infecting the cast or canceling the performance, Blickenstaff was tapped to fill in for Stanley.
On Broadway, it is unusual, if not entirely unheard of, to have adult actors rotate in and out of a leading role. But the pandemic has given the theater community license to get creative. It’s especially helpful at a time when plays and musicals have been forced to call off performances due to positive COVID-19 cases.
But it wasn’t possible influenza outbreaks that inspired “Jagged Little Pill” backers to spilt the show’s lead role between two Broadway powerhouses. Stanley, who originated the role as the matriarchal MJ in the jukebox musical set to Alanis Morissette’s influential album, recently had a baby and wasn’t ready to return to the stage when the Tony-winning “Jagged Little Pill” mounted its pandemic-era return. So producers arranged for Blickenstaff, who happens to be Stanley’s longtime friend, to step into the part. Though Stanley returned from maternity leave in November, she continues to share the role with Blickenstaff.
“I am a stepmother in real life, and I’m very comfortable with that energy. It feels like that in the show; Elizabeth is the biological mother of this show and I am the involved, loving stepmother,” Blickenstaff says.
While picking at a burger and fries in the spare moments she has between shows, Blickenstaff talked to Variety about the catharsis of belting Morissette’s music nightly and the universality of “Jagged Little Pill,” an upbeat, angsty musical that centers on a suburban family and touches on themes of rape culture, interracial adaption and addiction, among other hot-button issues.
How did you get cast in “Jagged Little Pill”?
Elizabeth and I are friends, and I knew she was pregnant. I was thrilled because so many people in the Broadway community don’t have time to have families. It’s so difficult to step off the Broadway treadmill and do that. I only have my kids because because they came with my husband, and I feel so lucky they came that way. I’m very close with Tom Kitt, who is the orchestrator for “Jagged Little Pill.” He and I started talking and at the same time, Elizabeth started talking to people. I hadn’t worked in such a long time, so I was thrilled to even be having the conversation that it might happen. And I heard the producers were like, “Would she even consider it?” I was like, “Are you kidding? We’ve been in a pandemic, of course!” I didn’t have anything lined up because we’ve just all been sitting on our couch, you know, watching Netflix. We concocted this crazy idea where I would go back into rehearsal with the show, because we were in rehearsal for several weeks before we went back up and Elizabeth would not be ready. The idea was once she was ready to come back, we would split it so she could not only have this extraordinary role that she created, but also have her extraordinary baby that she created and do both. We have just been continuing to nip and tuck at this model, which is pretty unprecedented in the Broadway community.
Why do you think it’s never been a practice on Broadway? It feels like a double standard because new fathers can easily go back to work.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we all lived through this extraordinary time together during the pandemic, and there’s been so much loss we’ve collectively been dealing with. I feel like the Broadway community has always been an exceptionally creative, inclusive place. I think it was time to have a conversation about being more humane after we lived through what we’ve lived through.
Your character MJ is an emotionally taxing role. How do you recover each night?
I have a lot of parallels with MJ. I have a lot of stuff in my personal life that I’m drawing from, a lot of real life experience. Because of that, there’s some realness I’m tapping into every night. And in a way, it’s very liberating to leave it on stage. A lot of people are like, “How are you after that show? Is it so much? Is it so hard? Do you come home, and are you a mess?” And I’m not.
It’s exhausting. But it’s also thrilling because in my own life, I don’t rage like that. I am very controlled. I’m totally Type A. I’m wound real tight. I’m spinning a million plates all the time, which I have in common with MJ. But I do not snap. I’m a therapy junkie. I’m a communication junkie. I require a lot of transparency. And MJ is doing nothing but hiding and covering and running and faking it and smiling, when she’s dying inside. For me to be able to express everything that “Jagged Little Pill” feels, this is going to sound nuts, but it’s something I look forward to because I get all of it out. There’s nothing left to take home.
Why do you think the show resonates with audiences?
“Jagged Little Pill” explores a lot of issues. It is not surprising to me that people see themselves in our show, whether they know someone who has struggled with addiction or have an interracial adoption story in their family. So many people are sexual assault survivors, and that takes so many different shapes and sizes. Sometimes I worry about people because we are covering a lot of bases. I’m good. Thank god, I’ve had all the therapy on that. But I’m not sure everybody who comes to the show is aware of the “Jagged Little Pill” rollercoaster they’re about to get on. They know Alanis’s music, and they love the album. But I think some people are like, “What’s this going to be? Is this Alanis’s life story?” Which it is not, it is totally fiction.
But so many people have some thread of this in their lives. One of the craziest things has been doing this in front of my family. Because most of my family is in California, not many of them have come yet. This is a huge undertaking, so I’ve asked my family to give me a minute. We have someone in our family who struggled with addiction and is now in recovery and is doing really well. But it was very chaotic in our family for years. My parents are coming, but they haven’t yet, and I’m like, “Ooh, that’s going to be quite a ride for Dale and Barb.”
A poignant moment in the show is when [Kathryn Gallagher’s character] Bella asks MJ when she’ll start to feel better after surviving sexual assault, and your character MJ doesn’t have an answer. What is it like to portray that exchange every night?
I’m very grateful to be going through it with Kathryn Gallagher who has also been very open about the fact that she’s a sexual assault survivor, too. So that conversation is happening for real. What I do know, in my own skin, is that once you survive something like that, you’ve changed forever. You are now this version of yourself, and you can’t be scrubbed clean of it. You won’t forget it. There’s nothing you can do to make it not have happened. It has happened. Now, you have to be this new version of yourself. Bella thinks because MJ survived it and it happened to her such a long time ago that MJ has to have the the words of wisdom to help Bella through, and MJ is just starting. It seems to have that impact to say those words to have them reverberate the way they do. And people talk to Kathryn and I on social media constantly. It is something that cracks people open. And there’s a lot of “me too.” Katherine and I are not therapists, but we have tools to point people in helpful directions.
You’ve been on Broadway before. Have you felt a difference since the pandemic?
I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, I’m so grateful. Doing this show is very different. It would be easy to be like, “Ugh, the grind. Eight shows a week. That’s a lot.” I don’t feel that way at all. I’m always like, “Thank you tired vocal cords. Thank you body fatigue. Thank you sore muscles.” Not long ago, I mean in March, I didn’t know if I would ever work again. I was trying to figure out how I was going to reinvent myself. I was going to get my master’s and try to teach. My husband is an entertainment lawyer, and we produced a PSA for Gen Z and trying to encourage each other to stay home during the pandemic. And I thought maybe I would try that producer hat because I’ve always been bossy and organized. I’m not a kid. Who’s writing shows for 50-year-old white ladies anymore? Not only did the pandemic happen, but there was so much social upheaval in our country. There has been some needed lights shined on issues in the Broadway community. When I was sitting there on my couch, I was like, “It’s time for other stories to be told.” I’m not sure if anybody needs to hear from me. So, to have [“Jagged Little Pill”] happen was extraordinary. I am sincerely grateful for every second because — who knows? You never end in showbiz, especially in theater. You never know what’s next, the hustle never stops.
Did you watch “Tick, Tick… Boom” on Netflix? It reminds me of Jonathan Larson’s internal struggle to keep going or pivot careers.
I did. I liked it very much. A lot of us have to be pretty zen about the business. Unless you’re Hugh Jackman — and I bet if he were sitting here, he’d be like “nope, me too” — there is not stability. There’s no tenure. There’s a reason your parents always told you “don’t do it.” I think you have to fill your life with other things that bring you joy. You also have to figure out creative ways to pay the bills when you’re not doing this. I do a lot of concert work that is incredibly satisfying. I’ve been working on and off for Disney for more than a decade, and I’m so grateful they keep calling me. And I teach a lot.
How do you have the stamina to perform two shows in one day?
I’ll tell you after the show tonight. It’s not easy. Once you get going, it’s OK. It’s a little bit like… the train has left the station and you hop on the energy of all your colleagues. I’m also such a perfectionist and a people pleaser, there’s no such thing as a B+ performance. Everybody’s getting the A+ as far as I can manage. I will sleep very well tonight.
How do you preserve your voice?
I don’t really have a life outside of doing the show. I have to watch everything that I eat and drink. No alcohol at all, lots and lots of water. Not a whole lot of talking outside of doing the show. Singing a role like this is no joke. It’s, like, times at least two, if not 10, the hardest role I’ve ever sung — and then some. You can’t half-ass it. I’m singing “Uninvited” and “Forgiven.” I blast out of the very first thing I sing is “All I Really Want.” You know, that super high amazing, crazy stuff at the end of that song. Morgan Dudley plays my daughter, her dressing room is right next to mine and [before the show] we warm up through a wall, yodeling back and forth trying to like get our voices up there.
Before you joined the company, “Jagged Little Pill” faced controversy about the character Jo [who is non-binary] and its treatment of non-binary performers. What did you think about that conversation, and have you noticed anything the show has done differently?
Yeah, all of that happened before I came into the production. Our producers made incredible efforts to have a lot of transparency between the decisions they were making. We had a whole PR team come and educate us about gender bias. We had so many hours and hours and hours of people not just teaching us things about inclusivity in the workplace and making things safe and equitable for everyone, but also, we had lots of healing circles where people were really getting a lot of stuff off their chests. I think our company got incredibly close from that. We’re definitely having a reckoning, and I am very proud that our producers have taken a lot of steps to make our workplace far more — I can’t speak to far more, because I wasn’t there before, but I know our workplace now is utterly inclusive and supportive. The communication is very transparent and consistent. I know a lot of Broadway shows are having some issues like we have had, and I think it’s time for inclusivity. It’s time for change. It’s time that all kinds of people are represented in all kinds of jobs, on stage, off stage, in the pit, backstage, directing, music, directing, scenic design, all of it.
What did you do to get through the pandemic?
I drank a lot of bourbon. I cooked a lot. I baked a lot. I taught a lot. We’re big “British Bake Off” fans. My husband loves to make bread. I do more cakes and cookies and pies. Mostly all sweet stuff. We both got really fat, and then we got on our Peloton and lost a bunch of weight too, which was great. Both of us got a little healthier. I think a lot of people had that moment where they were like, “Hey, the sky is falling. I’m gonna eat all of the cookies.” Then we took a long hard look at ourselves and said, “Oh, no.”
Who is your favorite Peloton instructor?
Christine [D’Ercole], by far, is my favorite. She came to see the show the other night and I got to meet her and my head exploded. My gosh, it was amazing. Do you ride? Who do you like?
I like Jess Sims, but her classes are so hard.
I did one of her boot camps, and I think I tore my rotator cuff. She didn’t do it, but I was going for it so hard and I did something to my arm. I wasn’t going to tell her that because I didn’t want her to feel bad. This happened many, many months ago, but I couldn’t lift my arm. It was kind of bad. We are doing all this hard stuff, and we’re completely unsupervised. I feel like I should have a nurse practitioner there going, “Heidi don’t do that. You’re not as young as you once were.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.