Jessica Phillips, who created the role of Heidi Hansen in the national tour of Dear Evan Hansen, is back on Broadway in that same role in the Tony-winning musical at the Music Box Theatre. The powerful-voiced actor, whose Broadway credits include Leap of Faith, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Next to Normal, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, also has a recurring role as assistant district attorney Pippa Cox on Law & Order: SVU.
We recently asked Phillips to pen a list of her most memorable nights in the theatre; her responses follow.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Probably the most frightening experience I’ve had on stage was the moment the curtain went up on my first performance as Marguerite in The Scarlet Pimpernel (Version 2.0). It was my Broadway debut: I was 24 and an understudy in this role, and she opens the show standing alone on stage in a pool of light and spots. So there I was, first time in front of an audience, and the curtain flew, the music started, the lights came up, and all of a sudden I was singing—but sort of hovering outside of my body listening to myself. I remember this completely calm and reasonable voice in my head saying, “I think I’m gonna go now... just gonna walk off stage left and head out the back door. Bye, guys.” But before I could do that, I remember another voice in my head screaming, “Get it together, Phillips,” and these two voices had a super dramatic conversation weighing out the pros and cons of leaving and, well, I didn't leave. In reality this cinematic cutaway all happened in a split second, but yikes, that fight or flight instinct was huge! Once I succeeded in wrestling the demon to the ground, the rest of the performance went fairly smoothly. Even though I don’t think I was particularly awesome in the part that day, I was, at least, on the stage and not in the Times Square McDonald’s.
The Ladies Who Sing Sondheim
One of my favorite movies growing up was Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In fact, and this will surprise none of you who know me well, I used to turn a box fan to face the foot of my bed and pretend to fly it into the wind, Beyoncé style, using a toy ball that I kept on my nightstand as a magical bedknob (this is normal, right?). So, you can imagine what happened to me the night I found myself as a fully-grown adult holding hands with Angela Lansbury. I was doing a one-night-only Broadway concert called The Ladies Who Sing Sondheim, and Ms. Lansbury was a guest star. It just so happened that the way we lined up for curtain call had me standing next to her, which was already too surreal for me to process, but on the night of the concert as we stepped forward to bow, she reached over and grabbed my hand, then leaned over to me, and said something into my ear. I have no idea what she said, but does it really matter? Miss Eglantine Price was holding my hand, and I was on a Broadway stage flying higher than my childhood bed had ever taken me.
Jungle Man at Stage One in Wichita
One of the sweetest memories I have is from when I was newly pregnant with my oldest son. I was developing a show out of town at the time based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan story. I was not far enough along to be showing, but pregnant enough to be in the throes of morning sickness. We had a tree house on stage, and there was one place in the show where I had to climb up there and wait inside while another scene and song were happening on stage. No secret escape to the wings from there, no bathroom access—just had to hang out inside until my next entrance, alone in my misery with the audience sitting just 10 feet away. So the wonderful folks at the theatre outfitted the tree house with everything you can imagine a pregnant lady would need—a bucket, boxes of tissues, water, saltines, a cold compress, and a little pillow so I could curl up in the fetal position. The crew was on clean-up duty—oy! These people still get Christmas cards from me.
The Who's Tommy
I did knock myself unconscious once. Right out of college, I was cast in a touring production of The Who's Tommy, which, FYI, is still one of my favorite shows. I was playing Mrs. Walker, and if you've seen it, you know there's a gigantic mirror upstage center that she ultimately "smashes" with a chair, which is obviously just an effect done with lights and sound, which all drop the moment she hoists the chair over her head. One night I was doing my normal thing in the show, working up to this moment, and got myself positioned just a little too close to the steel truss that framed the mirror. I lifted the chair and started to swing, the lights went to black, and I accidentally slammed the chair into the iron scaffold, which bounced right back toward my face and walloped me in the forehead, knocking me to the ground, and out of my wig and shoes.
Now, because it was pitch black onstage, nobody saw this happen, including the backstage crew. I was out for just a few seconds and came to with the lights swirling and the band playing their crazy cacophony, so it took me a moment to figure out what had happened, but once I did I was able to roll over and somehow had the sense to grab my wig, then army-crawled on my belly off the stage and into the wing. I just sort of lay there for a minute thinking someone might notice and help me up (because it's all about me, don't you know?), but the only thing that happened was the head of the hair department happened to walk by and saw me clutching my wig in my fist, for which I was chastised. The good news is I did not have a serious head injury, but I did learn my lesson that day about being on my correct marks.
Dear Evan Hansen
After traveling with the first national tour of Dear Evan Hansen for 12 months and 23 cities, I'm now playing my favorite city in the world, NYC! I love being back on Broadway, love wearing Heidi Hansen's scrubs here in my home town, and feel so thrilled to reunite with some of my tour colleagues in addition to joining the incredible Broadway cast. Mostly I love telling this story, so come see us at the Music Box!