NEW YORK — The shift from Jennifer Damiano’s last workplace to her new one is striking.
The old one was the biggest theater in Times Square, with 2,000 or so seats. The new one is downtown and has room for just 275. The old stage, the setting for the most expensive musical on Broadway, had pyrotechnics and aerial stunts. Her new stage has just a bare scaffolding and a chair.
“It’s such a shift but I’m happy for that,” Damiano said during a recent interview at The Public Theater. “It feels very different, very intimate, which is what I needed.”
Damiano is following up her role as Mary Jane Watson in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” with a darker, less cartoonish young woman in “Venice,” a thrilling musical that debuts at the Public this month. It marks her return to the stage after taking time off after a five-year nonstop grind.
“This project just came up right at the perfect time. I had taken a little bit of time (off) and it just kind of happened,” she said. “I honestly wasn’t sure what the next thing would be at all, even if it would be theater. But I can’t stay away from the new musicals.”
“Venice,” which has been incubating for five years, is a collaboration between Eric Rosen and Matt Sax and can best be described as an “Othello”-inspired futuristic hip-hop musical. The story centers on an attempt by a dynamic new leader to reunite his war-fractured city of Venice, still reeling from a terrorist attack.
Damiano, who grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., plays the leader’s bride-to-be, Willow, who may or may not be lying about whom she really loves. The body count mounts as jealousy and ambition run rampant.
“It’s so new and so its own thing,” says Damiano, who celebrated her 22nd birthday last month during rehearsals. “It just felt like the perfect role for me at this age and this moment in my life.”
Rosen wrote the book, Sax composed the songs and stars as the rapping narrator, and the two combined forces on the lyrics. They pursued Damiano and got her to say yes on the third attempt.
“We knew the purity of her voice, and the simplicity of her acting style was such a huge dream for us,” said Rosen, who also directs. “It’s a totally different vibe for her and I think she’s really thriving in it. She grows more and more every day.”
Sax said two songs in the show have even been written with Damiano in mind and with her input. “She has such a soulful spirit when she sings. I think we’re really lucky that she’s part of the team and also lucky that she’s invested her heart in the show,” he said.
Damiano may be young but she’s a stage veteran. She made her Broadway debut as an understudy in 2006 in “Spring Awakening” at 15, so young that she almost got into legal trouble.
She had been rehearsing for parts that included simulating onstage sex but the creative team found out that New York City law prohibits actors under 17 from such acts. So she took over another part. “Thank God they didn’t know this when they cast me,” she said.
Damiano’s next job was as an overachieving daughter in “Next to Normal,” for which she earned a Tony Award nomination. She went from that to Spider-Man’s love interest, riding that roller coaster until late 2011.
Despite all the bad press, the accidents and the internal fights, Damiano doesn’t regret being part of the show. She was never herself injured, and she made lifelong friends.
“There was a big, big heart in the building. There was a lot of love and cast camaraderie. It was always a challenge, the way every kind of new work is,” she said.
“When you’re 19 or 20 and going through general growing pains of your own, that on top of that is overwhelming, but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.”
In total, she had just done five years of solid work for a young woman who had left high school after just one year and missed her prom. She finished her high school course work with a tutor in Washington, D.C., where “Next to Normal” was being worked on before it landed on Broadway.
That summer, her mother insisted she skip the musical on graduation day and walk with her class. “I didn’t want to go and my mom made me call out of a show,” she said. “My life is just different. It’s some other beast.”
‘I’m old now’
After “Spider-Man,” Damiano did some TV pilots and dabbled in film. She currently stars in the indie movie “B-Side” as a pop star who falls for a DJ played by Ryan Eggold. Damiano also took time to reconnect with her family and focus on her personal life after years of eight-show weeks.
She turned 22 on May 12 but made no fuss. “Twenty-two is just such a random age. It’s a little blah. I didn’t do much. It was so low-key. I even told my family, ‘Don’t get me anything, it’s fine,”’ she said with a laugh. “I’m old now.”
These days, she is energized by working with young people on a musical she feels her generation will connect with. Plus, she gets to do it at the Public: “I get a summer-camp kind of theater vibe,” she said with a laugh.
Rosen said that while Damiano can light up a room with her smile, she also radiates depth. “She brings a kind of darkness that I really wanted for Willow, not just ingenue, not just pretty-girl-saves-the-day but someone with a lot of gravitas.”
There’s another benefit of starring downtown in a cool new show: her friends can see her. That wasn’t an option when she was on Broadway and tickets were more than $150.
Now to see her it only costs $15.
“Fifteen bucks!” she said. “My friends say, ‘What? I’ll be there every day.”’
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