Rebecca Naomi Jones is no stranger to rock musicals.
The actress made her Broadway debut in the critically acclaimed musical Passing Strange in 2008, then returned two years later as Whatsername in Green Day’s American Idiot. Now Jones is back. This time, she’s playing Yitzhak, the husband and backup singer to the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. NY1’s theater reporter Frank DiLella recently sat down with Jones to talk about her new role — and what it’s like wearing the pants in the relationship with the fictional glam-rock star.
Rebecca Naomi Jones, you’re no stranger to rocking it out on Broadway. How does it feel to be back?
It’s really exciting. It’s been several years of doing some very exciting and stimulating projects Off-Broadway, and that being said, I’m thrilled to come back uptown. And also, of course, to feel that energy that is up there when you’re doing a Broadway show . . . there’s nothing like it. Plus, it’s extra-exciting for me to be back in the Belasco Theatre where I did Passing Strange, which was my first Broadway show. And, yeah, another rock musical — I guess the universe is telling me something.
Who is Yitzhak to you?
Yitzhak to me is someone who just wants to be loved. He’s made choices purely to survive, and because of those choices he is somewhat imprisoned in his own body — and somewhat in his relationship with Hedwig.
You’re playing a man. We saw Lena Hall’s transformation and what she did in the rehearsal room to get the “guy rhythm” down. How’s it going for you?
The first couple of days of rehearsal I couldn’t think about being a guy — I could only think about the blocking. And then I thought, Wait a minute, I can’t be sticking my butt out the way Rebecca sticks her butt out! Paul McGill [the muscial’s associate choreographer] has been helpful telling me to do the opposite: Tuck my hips and widen my stance, and remember that there’s more going on down there than what I’m used to.
Not to get too graphic, but when you’re in full guy mode as Yitzhak, your costume is complete — even in the lower region. . . .
Yes. It’s so important and paramount for this character. The costume folks get the “accessories” from a transgender website, which is so smart, so everything feels the way that it should, When I become a guy, it helps so much.
Were you a “Hedhead” before taking on this role?
I was; I always loved this show! I wore the movie out — oh, my God. I unfortunately didn’t see it Off-Broadway, but I watched the movie so many times. It just moved me in a way very few things can. The combination of the humor and darkness and sadness . . . It’s a beautiful story about a very complicated person. When celebs came to see Passing Strange, I was excited. But I have to say, I flipped when John Cameron Mitchell came! I remember him saying to me I had a good German accent, and I remember being like, I’m done!
Speaking of John: What has it been like working with him on the show?
We had a great dramaturgy session this past week where he offered his thoughts on Yitzhak and Hedwig. We talked and chatted, and he told me about the history between the two, what Yitzhak’s main goals are. This whole process has been a gift: To come from him, it’s the word and truth.
You’re reuniting with Michael Mayer on this project. Michael directed you on Broadway in American Idiot.
I’m really pumped to reunite with him because, I have to say, I was a little reluctant when they asked me to replace Lena Hall, just because it’s a different kind of work. I really like to create — I like to be a part of the process of creating as opposed to the “plug and play.” But after chatting with Michael and his team, they’ve all shown me that it’s not a “plug and play”–type situation. Everything has felt very creative, still, which is exciting. And with Darren Criss [as Hedwig] and I starting around the same time, we get to create our own version of Hedwig.
So much of Hedwig is about identity — finding one’s place in life. The show asks, “What makes an artist?” So I ask: Who is Rebecca Naomi Jones, the artist?
I would say I’m someone who has been really fortunate to work on weird projects about outsiders and about people trying to find their own identity, make their own identity. I feel like as an artist I’ve been able to work on pieces of theater and music that are really creatively weird and difficult and challenging, and I’ve been lucky to do it with people I love and respect.
Another theme throughout the show is acceptance. Do you feel as an artist you’re constantly trying to prove yourself, who and what you are?
Sure. I think it’s gotten a lot easier in the last couple of years. When the work becomes more consistent, you don’t feel that need to prove yourself. That’s also a part of getting older — which is so great — because it’s so hard as a young performer to make a career for yourself, and this career is built on a lot of insecurities and needing someone else to validate you. Just the way it’s set up, with auditions and poverty. [Laughs.] But it’s really gotten a lot easier.
Passing Strange, American Idiot and now Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Three rock ’n’ roll shows on Broadway. Do you ever see yourself doing something a bit more classic? Say, a Rodgers and Hammerstein tuner?
I don’t see myself doing the real classic stuff, but I can definitely see myself doing more of the jazzy Broadway stuff. Cole Porter, Gershwin — I’ll do it!
How about a dream role on Broadway?
Dorothy in The Wiz — but even that’s more contemporary!
Well, NBC is doing it. . . . How about doing it live on television?
Ha. They won’t pick me — they’ll pick, like, Brandy! [Laughs.] Oh, and I’ve always loved weird, quirky musicals. I would love to play Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress.
Sticking with what you’re familiar with — rock ’n’ roll — give me a few artists you rock out to on a daily basis.
Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, Fiona Apple, Björk, and Led Zeppelin.
There’s no denying that Darren Criss has a huge teen fan base. When he takes over as Hedwig in the show, you and he are going to introduce this musical to a whole new audience. The themes presented in this show are timely — not to mention that transgender people and characters are finally getting their time in the national spotlight. Think: the celebrated TV series Transparent, and Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine last year. How does it make you feel to know that you will be opening up a new world for some young folks?
I’m from New York, so I wasn’t at all shocked with Rent when it came out. But I remember going across the country performing in Rent and these young, sweet teens being like, “Oh, my gosh, this show has changed my life, I’m so glad I’m seeing this on stage.” And I feel with this show, it’s the next level, it’s the next era, the big version of that. It’s so freaking exciting!