With theatres currently closed across the country due to the pandemic, Jennifer Tierney has been part of the original West End cast of Come From Away as Standby since it opened at the Phoenix Theatre in 2019 where she covers five lead roles. After spending some time away from the industry, Jennifer’s first job back in the UK was touring with Shrek the Musical and her other theatre work has included Wicked, where she covered and played the role of Madame Morrible as well as being cover for Elphaba, and she has played Donna in MAMMA MIA! and Annette in Saturday Night Fever, both of which were for the Royal Caribbean cruises. Jennifer has been running Elevate Theatre Workshops for many years which are currently held online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We talk to Jennifer about being an original cast member of Come From Away in the West End, her time in Wicked covering the roles of Madame Morrible and Elphaba and running Elevate Theatre Workshops.
What’s it like being standby in Come From Away?
Come From Away is a very special and unique show! The story and what it represents is so important, especially in the climate we are currently living in! As a standby, it’s the biggest challenge of my career! I cover five of the ladies in our show and each of them have entirely different shows both in characters and logistics. Learning our show is a huge undertaking as is retaining it! It can be daunting at times and it’s quite high pressured but we work hard to keep ourselves to a high standard so that we are ready to go on whenever we are needed to. One weekend, I played three roles in three days, two of them for the first time. So swapping between them is a big challenge but I can honestly say I love my job!
How is it being an original cast member of a West End transfer and extending your time in the show?
It’s the first time I have been an original cast member and it is amazing to be a part of as there is so much excitement around a new production. There are all the fun events like the Oliviers and the Royal Variety Performance that the show gets to do and even though we as standbys aren’t performing often, it’s great to see the show do so brilliantly! It feels like you are a part of a little bit of history in some way which is a great privilege when it’s about real stories and real people.
What did you know about the show before being cast and how is it telling the story at each of your performances?
A friend of mine who had seen the show in New York told me that it was transferring to London and that I should try and be seen for the show! I listened to the soundtrack and was completely obsessed with the show! I nearly didn’t get to audition as the original dates clashed with the tour I was on, but luckily for me that changed. I don’t think I have ever worked on an audition so hard as there was so much material to learn. I had three of the roles off book and in different accents along with music from the show. I was on holiday in Spain with friends and spent the days learning it by the pool (could be worse) and changed my flight to come back early for the audition! I am SO glad I did!!!
Can you tell us about some of the roles you’ve covered and what was it like going on for your debut?
In my career I have covered quite a diverse amount of roles. Covering Madame Morrible at the age of twenty-eight was quite daunting but I just tried to put my own spin on her. I came to the conclusion that she didn’t have to be mature in age if she held authority and power. Covering Elphaba was a dream come true even though I never got on for a show sadly. But the people close to me came to an open dress run so that was something. Covering Dragon in Shrek was great fun! Tough going vocally as I did my own track too when I was on but I had so much fun! It was a strange set up though as you sing in a booth behind the stage which can be quite odd being in a box with TV screens. But I loved singing the song.
Covering in Come From Away has its own and unique challenges. The sheer amount of information we have to retain and covering five lead roles isn’t really common. And once the drum starts at the top of the show – you better know what you are doing as there isn’t really any time to stop and check notes! But I love the buzz of it now! Although, the first time I went on was the day of my first run-through which was good for me as the track was fresh and I felt ready. But it was also tough as I was on due to one our lovely ladies being injured and we were all really worried about her. So it’s tough when you go on and it’s not for good reasons like holiday, and that plays on my mind a bit if I am honest, especially when you are good friends with who you are covering. But everyone is very supportive and even though it’s not always pleasant circumstances, that’s what we are there to do.
How was your time in Shrek the Musical and what was the show like to be part of?
Shrek was fantastic! After quite some time away from the industry it was my first job back in the UK! It was tough going physically as the costumes are a challenge in themselves and singing with prosthetics. But I can honestly say I couldn’t have wished for a better group of people to tour with and I made friends for life on that job! I also got to work with a fantastic creative team and whilst touring can be hard, I absolutely loved it. As a group we went through a lot together for different reasons and many of us came out of it very close-knit.
You were first cover Dragon, what was this role like to do?
It was great fun! I was lucky in that my very dear friend Lucinda Shaw, who was playing the role, was just so brilliant and supportive with me. We had a great mutual respect for one another and it was a privilege to understudy such a wonderful performer but also just a wonderful human being who I am grateful to say became my close friend. We were very different in our interpretations vocally but that’s what is so fun about that track – you can play with it and sing it with so much individuality, within the realms of the style, of course! Our musical supervisor Alan Williams, in my opinion, is a genius and has an ear like you wouldn’t believe! He knew exactly what sound he wanted for the whole show and drilled us until it was right! I absolutely loved working with him and it paid off as the ensemble sounded so strong by the end of the rehearsal process.
It is definitely one of the most exciting yet vocally tough shows that I have done and I think that surprises people as they maybe don’t think of Shrek in the same realms as other vocal shows but it was definitely a vocal challenge to sing all the different styles and sustain them eight shows a week! Especially on a four-show weekend!
Having been involved with both MAMMA MIA! as Donna and Saturday Night Fever as Annette for the Royal Caribbean, can you say more about these and how is it working on a cruise?
Cruising now is an entirely different experience for performers. I first worked for RCL in 1999. It was my first job and I got to travel the world! It was one of the best experiences of my life and taught me an awful lot as a performer and as a person. But it’s safe to say that since then, the productions are of a much higher calibre. Having full musical productions on ships now that sometimes outdo productions on land is fantastic!
Saturday Night Fever was great for me as it was a gorgeous role and gave me an opportunity to bridge the gap in my casting as I was, at that time, a bit too young for some things and a bit too old for others. Playing Donna was an absolute gift. I love MAMMA MIA! and did the show in 2006 on the International Tour. It was the exact same production with the American creative team rehearsing us in. That role was what made me want to continue performing after a long break from the industry. But doing it on the ship was the best of both worlds! Being able to perform in a hit Broadway/West End musical with standing ovations from a full crowd and have a few days off a week to enjoy travelling around the world… it was bliss! I have told so many friends to go for it if they have the opportunity as there really is nothing like it for so many reasons!
For a couple of years, you were ensemble and cover Madame Morrible in Wicked and for your third year you also became cover Elphaba, how was the experience in the production?
Wicked was my first West End show and it took ten years to get there after years of touring and finals for productions in London. When I got the show, I was ecstatic! I still remember the phone call to my parents now! Covering Morrible was a bit scary if I am honest as she is so far removed from me but, in the end, I really enjoyed it when I got to go on. But I have learned so much since then that I would love to have a go at it again now as I would like to think I would be much better if I had the chance!
But yes, then being the opportunity to cover Elphaba was so exciting and a dream come true! It’s a role that is sought after and so many amazing women and friends have played it. I think I will always be forever sad that I never got to play the role for an audience but I just try to lock in to the amazing memory I had of doing it that day for people close to me in an open run. That’s the tough bit of being a cover – you never know when you are going to be on if it’s your second or third etc… and when you have family that live far away that can’t jump on a train in a moment’s notice and want to come and see you do what you have worked for, it’s hard when that isn’t always possible. That’s why I think it is so important for covers that we have the opportunity to be open about when we are on and who for. Especially in this day of social media when everything is so accessible. I think it’s well-known now, or should be known, that when a cover goes on, it’s not a second-rate cast member. So, when productions support us, it really is like a bit of validation that we deserve that recognition for our hard work.
How did your musical theatre career come about?
I danced from a young age and had a very supportive family and teacher. I didn’t really sing until I went to college. I actually got a knee injury that needed an operation when I was at college and they gave me the opportunity to take more singing lessons as I couldn’t do dance class. So I am really thankful to them for their support at that time!
What do you enjoy most about being part of a musical?
I think it’s something special to take people away from reality for a few hours. Musical theatre offers escapism and I think, after what has been a tough time for us all, we will need it more than ever. Our careers mean everything to us and after not having it for over a year, it makes you realise how lucky you are to do what you love. I love having the ability to tell a story and offer some escapism. Especially in Come From Away, this story is so important and human kindness is something that needs to be shared more in this world. I’m proud to be a part of a show that delivers that message in a way that seems to deeply affect people in a good and emotional way.
How do you like to spend time away from your career?
I love travelling! I love spending time with friends! Don’t judge me, but I love a bit of reality TV to shut my mind off! And visiting my parents. Home time is important to me!
We understand you were part of the TV series Fame School, can you say about this?
Fame School! Yikes!! Twenty-two years ago now that series was broadcast. It was the first of its kind and great at the time. But we were so unaware of the format and what it was. We were so young too! I haven’t ever watched it back the whole way through but maybe I will someday! It’s a great way of marking and logging everything that happened at that time of my life for sure and that’s quite unique!
Can you tell us about the workshops you host?
Yes, I run Elevate Theatre Workshops and have been running musical theatre workshops for eighteen years around the country in various establishments to all ages and abilities and, most recently, online. Teaching is my other love! The sessions are based on productions I have performed in over the years and cover all aspects of singing, acting and dance, whilst also providing other tutors who cover a variety of workshops and disciplines.
I also offer one-to-one and small group sessions in acting through song and, during the lockdown, trained in Estill Voice technique which has translated online brilliantly! I really love teaching and working with the next generations of performers! From graduates to full-time students to young performers who want to develop their skill set. It’s not only kept me busy during the past year, but allowed me to be dedicated to it as it can be tricky to teach and perform in a full-time contract alongside eight shows a week and I do miss teaching when I’m not able to commit to it fully so I am incredibly thankful that it has seen me through this past year in many ways.
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