by Ryan Leeds
No one will ever accuse Jackie Hoffman of subtlety. As a musical theater actress who made her Broadway debut in 2002’s Hairspray, she’s continued to chew the scenery and turn small bits into pure hilarity. In September, she wrapped a successful run as the alcoholic voice teacher, Maude P. Dilly in the Broadway revival of On the Town. She’s now sharing the stage with Lypsinka in Transport Group’s revamped version of Mary Rodger’s Once upon a Mattress. For the first time, she’s a leading lady and, in spite of her less glamorous dressing room at downtown’s Abrons Arts Center, she’s thrilled to be wearing the crown of comedy in a role originated by the legendary Carol Burnett. The Broadway Blog spoke with her by phone recently, prior to one of her first preview performances.
You’re a native New Yorker, having grown up in Bayside, Queens. Is that right?
Yes. But now my mom lives in Great Neck—not the wealthy part, but the down and out part—as I sit talking to you from an electrical closet, like a room in the movie Room.
Tell me about your history with John Epperson (a.k.a. Lypsinksa):
We met when I came back from doing Second City in Chicago. Amy Sedaris and I did a production of The Children’s Hour where we played two little girls and the two lesbian schoolteachers were played by Charles Busch and Lypsinka. It was at a theater company called Tweed. Then we did another show with that company that was legendary. It was Imitation of Imitation of Life. John played Lana Turner and I played the mixed race daughter of the maid. So we go waaaay back.
Are you concerned that you’re assuming a role that Carol Burnett created?
At first I didn’t think it was a good fit when we did the reading, but when we did the concert version I started to really get it and I made it my own. It’s hard not to have her in my head, but I mean that in a good way. I have her blessing and she told me that I’d have so much fun with the role—and she’s right. I’ve been fortunate to be able to create every role I’ve played on Broadway, except On the Town, which was my first revival. I think I brought my own unique spin to that show and I’m bringing my own unique spin to this as well.
Talk about your role in Once upon a Mattress and give us a thumbnail version of the plot:
Well, there’s an evil queen, (which I’m sure all your readers will identify with) who has an abnormal attachment to her son and doesn’t want him to get married. She has deemed that no one else in the kingdom can get married until the prince gets married. It’s basically a sophisticated story about a bunch of medieval horny people who can’t wed until Prince Dauntless finds an appropriate princess. It’s like auditioning for the Roundabout. Not that I know what THAT’s like. Quote me! So then my character, Princess Winifred arrives. She is unlike anyone anybody in the kingdom has ever met; she’s fun, down to earth, and takes over the castle by storm.
You went to NYU and did improv work at Chicago’s famous Second City, and yet you have such a natural ability to make people laugh. I wonder if you do any character studies or if you just go onstage, do your thing and “crack people up”?
I’d say the latter. Especially in this show, where I get reach into the trunk of shtick, because there is so much opportunity. Carol Burnett said that I would have so much fun doing this and I am because it’s really built for a comedienne.
How are you preparing for performances?
It’s a very vocally demanding role and it takes a lot of me, so I definitely have to warm up vocally. We’re just in the first few performances so I hope I can last through the run. We’ll see.
Well, you had quite a long run in On the Town, so that should have been a good primer.
Yes. I did a lot of vocal gymnastics in that, too, but the songs that I sang fit my voice. Oddly enough, I’m a natural soprano. Winnifred’s songs are much more vocally demanding and “belty.”=
Marc Shaiman, composer of Hairspray, said in a recent New York Times feature about you that you can do just about anything but dance. Is that because you can’t or you won’t?
Wow! That’s a deep question. I would say 73 percent can’t. I can eventually, but I’m incredibly clumsy and it takes me a lot longer than everybody else. But I will say that Marc saw me dance an intricate finale in Hairspray. It’s just that I had to study it in the wings for two and a half years!
What would you do if you weren’t acting?
Crying. Which is actually what I do after every gig ends and the next one begins.
You are quite self-deprecating, but you’ve also been described as being fearless. Do you have any self-doubt about yourself as a performer or do you always maintain a confidence?
It’s a weird mix. You must think you’re good enough to put yourself in front of people, but if you think about too much, you’re in trouble: What am I doing? Why am I doing this in front of people? Am I good enough?
As a resident of Manhattan and constant kvetcher, what are your top three pet peeves about living in NYC?
Ugh! Sirens, Urine, and Vomit. In that order.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.