Jennifer Simard on the vulnerable experience of playing Sarah in 'Company' on Broadway
Jennifer Simard has shared her talents on New York City’s most revered Broadway stages for years, and this season, Simard spends her evenings (and some afternoons) playing Sarah, the brownie-craving, diet-obsessed, workout-focused funny girl in the new gender-swapped revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
But before making audiences chuckle in her current gig, Simard starred in hit Broadway shows like Hello, Dolly!, Mean Girls, and Disaster!, the last of which earned her a Tony Award nomination for her show-stopping performance.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I didn’t know that people knew who I was,” she said. “People do see hard work and that still has value, and isn’t that lovely?”
Company has been a unique experience for Simard, though. She identifies with Sarah on a deeply personal level in a show about a woman trying to determine her worth with or without a partner in a world that constantly berates women for their appearance and relationship status.
Furthermore, the show started performances just before Broadway shuttered in March 2020, and throughout this unprecedented time, Simard has stayed close to her company as a kind of lifeline.
“This is unlike any other show we’ve ever done because it will forever be our pandemic show,” she said. “This has been bonding in a way that I don’t think we’ve even had an opportunity to fully process yet… I’m so proud of Company for truly surviving obstacle after obstacle up to and including the death of Stephen Sondheim. A lot of Broadway shows have had to struggle in one way or another. But as a cast, we’re really enamored of one another.”
Simard dished about preparing for her role in Company, stepping in for Patti LuPone as Joanne, and how important it is to just eat the brownies.
How did you land the role of Sarah in this new revival of Company?
I was happily ensconced in Mean Girls on Broadway, which was just one of the best jobs of my life. And I didn’t realize my agents had submitted me for [Company]. I didn’t know there was even a part for me in the show until I’d heard from my agent. The reason I went [to the audition] was because of the creative team. I had seen War Horse and was such a fan [of director Marianne Elliott]. And, of course, I’ve always been a fan of Stephen Sondheim and had never had the privilege of doing one of his shows here in New York.
I wore workout clothes and a bright orange trench coat and sang the song with my trench coat, and then for the scene work, I took it off. While it didn’t end up in the Broadway production because of the size of the set, I remember in my audition, I did a backward shoulder role at one point as part of the “exercise.”
How did you prepare to play Sarah?
It takes a lot of work to make things look easy, and it’s not just work on the lines; it’s work on oneself. I truly believe that the best comedy is rooted in pain and something real. As far as Sarah goes, the role has a lot of physical comedy, but it’s so important that that comedy is grounded in what’s underneath her. If it’s based on the inside out, it does look more real and authentic.
She is very preoccupied with exercise and diet. For me, I just try to channel what that was in my life. My own battles with an eating disorder helped me make this role more grounded, so it didn’t look like I was trying so hard, in my opinion. I use comedy in my own life to deal with difficult subjects.
Can you talk about the brownie scene? The moment when Sarah finally gives in and eats the brownie she’s been craving is so impactful.
[The brownies are] rarely out of my possession, other than when we physically can’t have them in my possession. That’s one of the reasons why when I’m leaning against the door they’re on my lap. When we’re on the couch with Katrina (as Bobbie), I keep pushing brownies on her. As a person who is a recovering anorexic, we call that pushing spoons. Here I am pushing spoons, trying to get Katrina to eat this brownie. And of course, the minute she goes for it, I grab the plate away from her.
Sometimes having that brownie or having that treat or having whatever that thing is for you is healthy because it’s good for your soul. Sometimes your soul needs that, and your soul is part of your body. So at the end, when I do decide to go and eat the brownie, it’s for a couple of things. For one thing, it’s about her relationship: how Sarah and Christopher [Sieber, who plays Harry] love one another for all of who they are, not for part of who they are.
My husband always says to me, a photograph cannot exist without its negative. So you can’t just love the front of a picture; you have to love all of it. In that moment, I’m denying myself. I have great experience with denying myself. I can’t even tell you, it’s so freeing to just be like, I’m enough. When she eats that brownie, to me, it’s a moment of, “I’m enough, and this is just fine. And this is okay.”
What was it like to step into the role of Joanne for a couple days? Sarah and Joanne are two very different characters.
My favorite phrase is, “Hope is not a plan.” I had done my homework and I felt ready. And my whole outlook is just to keep my head down, stay in my lane, and do my job. It was important for me to just make sure Patti felt respected and safe, and she has been nothing but lovely to me. And I just kind of treat my coverage of Joanne like Casper the friendly ghost. I’m here. I’m happy to do it. And then I’m equally happy to get back to the role of Sarah.
And they are very different. I said to someone, they’re like Betty and Veronica from the Archie comic strips. And because I’ve been doing this for so long and because my background is actually doing shows where I had to play multiple characters, I think accessing those opposite sides of my personality is not terribly difficult for me. It’s actually something I really do enjoy. I love playing different characters and finding the Joanne within me. I know what it’s like to feel like she feels a lot of the time.
While I’m not an alcoholic, I do know what it’s like to have one too many sometimes. After my mom passed, I was very familiar with a bottle of red wine and I blessed it. I thanked God for it at that time. That’s why my own personal struggle with anorexia, in addition to [eating] the brownie and showing my belly on stage as Sarah, means a lot to me. It’s important because that’s the most vulnerable thing you can do. I’m just like, “Here it is. Here I am. There you go.” And at the end it’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to stuff this whole brownie in my face; watch me.”
As far as Joanne, yeah, I’m going to have one too many, and here I go. And I know what that’s like. It’s really important for me to access those parts of myself before doing the role. I didn’t think of it as difficult as much as a great challenge, and a joy to sink my teeth into.