Through Dec. 8
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Early in her acting career, Broadway’s Jenn Colella was counseled that it would be unwise for her to be out professionally. When casting directors see you as lesbian, her advisors reasoned, they become less likely to cast you in straight romantic leads.
There was a time, Colella says, when she would have been reluctant to portray a lesbian on stage much less talk about her sexuality openly. But in recent years her outlook has definitely changed.
Today Colella is out and proud. She’s also playing one half of a lesbian couple in the hotly anticipated Broadway-bound musical “If/Then,” currently premiering at National Theatre. Created by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), and staged Michael Greif (the creative team behind the Tony Award-winning “Next to Normal”), “If/Then” tells the story of Elizabeth (“Wicked’s” green-faced wonder Idina Menzel), a woman on the precipice of middle age who returns to New York City to reboot her life. The heady cast also stars LaChanze, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Celie in “The Color Purple, and out actor Anthony Rapp (“Rent”).
“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to play a gay character in ‘If/Then,’ especially someone like Anne,” says Colella, 39. “She’s a sassy fun-loving girl not unlike myself who’s in a relationship with Kate [LaChanze’s character]. Anne is madly in love and very sincere about taking it to the next level and actually tying the knot. It’s a very real look at a contemporary lesbian relationship. You don’t see a lot of that in musical theater.”
She says changing attitudes overall helped her loosen up.
“As I became older and wiser, and began noticing straight comrades realizing it was no longer fair to discriminate against gay and lesbian actors, being out got easier,” Colella says. “Also, I began to feel a responsibility to be out. I used to think it was entirely a personal choice, but now I think being out is also taking responsibility for others who may not have the courage to do so.”
Last year Colella was involved romantically with a male actor, but she doesn’t identify as bisexual because the vast majority of her relationships have been with women. Currently she is in a committed relationship with a woman who is studying for her master’s degree in midwifery.
Growing up in Summerville, S.C., Colella began singing early. She and mother frequently sang Barbra Streisand around the house, and while there weren’t many theatrical training opportunities in town, Colella took advantage of what was available.
“There was a woman who taught out of her garage, but my mom was a teacher and couldn’t afford the fees, so I traded odd jobs for classes. I was scrawny at 15 but I painted that lady’s entire house. And it was worth it. The group did ‘Oklahoma,’ and I got to play to Gertie.”
Before leaving South Carolina for the West Coast, she graduated from college and did some professional acting at the respected Trustus Theater in Columbia. She earned a master of fine arts in acting from the University of California, Irvine, and remained in L.A. determined to go the sitcom route. During this time, she got into standup.
“It was challenging. If you fail in standup you can’t blame anyone but yourself. But it definitely increased my confidence and now there’s really nothing that scares frightens me in terms of performance. Scarier were the fellow comics. They can be a dark bunch.”
Next Colella smartly reconsidered musical theater. In a high profile Broadway debut, she was cast as Sissy opposite Matt Cavenaugh in the musical “Urban Cowboy” in 2003. She went on to star in “High Fidelity,” and as Hedda Hopper in “Chaplin.” Her Off-Broadway credits include, among others, “Closer Than Ever” and “Slut.” She played Daisy in “Sideshow” at the Kennedy Center.
Prior to taking on “If/Then’s” Anne, Colella was cast as a lesbian just once before. In 2008 she starred off-Broadway as the title character in “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” based on Ann Bannon’s pulp fiction novel about a young lesbian’s adventures in 1950s Greenwich Village.
“Beebo was a real butch,” Colella says. “I wore batteries in my front pockets to alter my center of gravity. My male and feminine energies are pretty equally balanced and in that way I’m more like Anne. But like Beebo, I have been accused of being a bit of a womanizer.”
Typically Colella does new work. Not by design, she says. It just happens that way.
“I’m honored that creators trust me to collaborate on their babies. It touches me deeply. Plus I get to start from a blank slate and play. Of all the characters I’ve ever played, Anne is the closest to who I am in the world. It makes me feel very vulnerable but I love it. I’m wide open to this experience.”