Q&A: Jackie Burns

The actress on replacing Idina Menzel twice, how Ana Gasteyer's broken toe changed her life, and playing the lead in the tour of If/Then, opening at AT&T Performing Arts Center.

published Saturday, January 23, 2016

Photo: Joan Marcus
Anthony Rapp and Jackie Burns in the tour of If/Then


Dallas — The first time Jackie Burns stepped on stage for Idina Menzel in If/Then, was during intermission for a show in May after the musical opened on Broadway in March 2014. Here's how she described it to's Broadway Buzz:

"It was the very first time I ever went on. Idina’s a rock star, and she never calls out. It was right after we’d opened, but we hadn’t started rehearsals yet for understudys and standbys, so I hadn’t had a rehearsal of my own or a put-in. That Wednesday night she was so sick, and she pulled through the first act, but then the second act was even worse, and she just couldn’t do it. So I went on for the second act, never having sung those songs on a stage before, and the next thing you know, I'm doing it with the actors who do it every night in front of thousands of people with the orchestra and the lights and the sound, and I had never heard or seen any of them before! It was so nerve-wracking."

After that first nerve-wracking experience, Burns went on as Elizabeth about 50 times on Broadway. When the national tour of If/Then stops in Dallas, Jan. 27-31 at the Winspear Opera House as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s 2015-16 Broadway Series, Burns will make her national tour debut in the role, taking over for Menzel and becoming the second person to play Elizabeth—something of a pattern for Burns. She also took over for Menzel as Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and in the show's first national tour.

Burns made her Broadway debut in the 2009 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Hair as a tribe member. She also was in the original Off-Broadway cast of Rock of Ages.

If/Then is a contemporary musical about Elizabeth, a recently divorced woman returning to New York City to start over. It follows two distinct story lines for her, depicting two possible paths depending on Elizabeth's choices. The show's creators, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, are the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning creators of Next to Normal. The tour also stars Anthony Rapp of Rent fame, Matthew Hydzik and Tamyra Gray, who finished fourth in the first season of American Idol.

TheaterJones caught up with Burns by phone on her lunch break in New York, where it was a bracing 20 degrees, which was making her look forward to her Dallas arrival.

Photo: Joan Marcus
Jackie Burns in the tour of If/Then


TheaterJones: If/Then has been compared to the movie Sliding Doors. How would you describe it?

It's a completely original musical. I know people like to compare it to Sliding Doors, but it really has nothing to do with that movie. The nature of the show is very similar in that we're experiencing two worlds at the same time. The show starts with my character, Elizabeth, having her first day back in New York City and starting over after a divorce. She meets two friends in the park, and they each want her to go a different way.


Is it confusing as an actor?

Not any more! In the beginning it was, but it's so smartly written. At first, I had to be very conscious of who I am and what I'm doing, but once it clicked in, I was fine. It's a little like seeing Shakespeare. The language is different, but after a little while, it just clicks in, and you understand everything. It was like that. The show wants you to reflect on your life. It's interactive in that way. It also speaks to each person so differently because everyone's experience is so different. That's what is singularly unique to this show.  


How does the tour differ from the Broadway version?

There are now projections that help make things really, really clear as to where you are in the story. Plus the projections are of New York City, so we get to bring New York across the country.


What is your favorite song in the show?

This show has one of my favorite scores. It's hauntingly beautiful, but "You Learn to Live Without" is probably my favorite. There's not one person in the world who has gotten absolutely everything they want. We constantly adapt to live without things we thought we wanted, and in doing so, learn to live with something new and different. It's about how strongly we can persevere.


How long did you perform in Wicked on Broadway?

I was in Wicked for two-and-a-half years, including a year on the road. I rehearsed to join the tour in Dallas, then took over the role of Elphaba in Houston, so Dallas has a special place in my heart. Also my husband, John Selya [Tony nominee for Movin’ Out], just finished teaching as a guest dance instructor at Southern Methodist University, so I got to see a lot of performances at SMU over the last two years.


Any special memories from that show?

So many! The one that stands out is when I dropped the broom in "Defying Gravity" and did the whole song without the broom. The whole time, I had a three-act play going on in my head about how I was going to get fired, but then it turned out that nobody even noticed!


How long after Wicked were you still finding traces of green makeup?

A good month! You know they stick a wet paintbrush in your ear with that makeup. And I was told that all of the witches have this problem at first—Glinda has a white jacket, and in my first performances, I was so nervous and sweating, the costumers had to tell me to please stop touching Glinda's white jacket because I was leaving green handprints.


You've stepped into Idina Menzel's shoes for two very different roles. How did you make each of these roles your own?

With Wicked, it was a little bit easier. I saw her play the role when I was in college, and I turned to my mom at intermission and said I wanted to play that role someday. I had time to work on it and make it my own. With If/Then, it was different. As Idina's understudy, I would see and hear the show every day. Although I could never be Idina if I tried, I got to watch her all the time. Of all the women in the world to get to replace, I've been lucky enough to replace her in two roles now. I also learned that as a standby, you really have to do the work on your own. You've got to do your homework on your own, and you've got to put in the work. Nobody's going to hold your hand and make you learn your lines.


What is your "what if" moment?

When I was in Hair, my husband was doing Damn Yankees at City Center Encores in New York. Ana Gasteyer was supposed to play the reporter [Gloria Thorpe], and she broke her toe. They  brought in a woman from Hair, Megan Lawrence, to replace her. Megan gave John a ticket to see Hair, and that's when my husband first saw me. So ... what if Ana Gasteyer hadn't broken her toe? Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Jackie Burns
The actress on replacing Idina Menzel twice, how Ana Gasteyer's broken toe changed her life, and playing the lead in the tour of If/Then, opening at AT&T Performing Arts Center.
by Cathy O'Neal

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