In “Next to Normal,” Jennifer Damiano earned a Tony nomination as Natalie, a disillusioned teen who can’t step out of the shadow that her brother’s long-ago death cast on their mother’s mind.
At one point, Natalie sings: “Superboy and the Invisible Girl. Son of Steel and Daughter of Air. He’s a hero, a lover, a prince. She’s not there.”
In Damiano’s next role, the White Plains native will be paired with a genuine superhero — one who flies and flings webs — but she’ll be far from invisible.
Damiano plays Mary Jane Watson in Julie Taymor’s “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark,” which begins previews at the newly renamed Foxwoods Theater (the former Hilton), on Nov. 14. Opening night is set for Dec. 21.
“Spider-Man” is by all accounts the most expensive show in Broadway history, with a price tag estimated at $50 million. The long-delayed spectacle has music by Bono and The Edge of the rock band U2.
Damiano says she has seen the movies and the comic-book versions of her character, but won’t let that dictate how she’ll play the role. For one thing, M.J.’s look varies greatly depending on which Marvel artist is drawing her.
Damiano is still finding the right brushstrokes on her version of the girl next door.
“I think I’m trying to create something a little closer to myself,” she says. “Still, I don’t want her to become too much like me. I want to become like her.”
“Spider-Man” was to be part of last year’s Broadway season, until funding dried up. The delay prompted two stars to drop out: Alan Cumming, who was to play the villain Green Goblin/Norman Osborn, and Evan Rachel Wood, set to play Mary Jane.
Reeve Carney remains as Peter Parker and his web-slinging alter ego.
Damiano doesn’t concern herself with who came before.
“I can’t really think of it as anything but it beginning now,” says the 19-year-old, now in her third Broadway production. (She was the youngest member of the original company of “Spring Awakening.”)
At this point, early in rehearsals, Damiano is just getting used to being a brand-new redhead; as she talks, she plays absentmindedly with her long, freshly dyed hair.
The actress, who left “Next to Normal” to join “Spider-Man,” says it was time to go after three years with the Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey musical.
“Metaphorically, my costumes were bursting at the seams,” she says in the upper lobby of the Foxwoods, steps from Times Square. “It was hard, but it came at the perfect time. There were no hard feelings, no surprise, really. This opportunity just presented itself.”
(Patrick Page, who played The Grinch on Broadway in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” plays the equally green Green Goblin.)
“Spider-Man” is an opportunity to work with visionary director Taymor, whose heralded big-picture adaptation of “The Lion King” is still going strong. (The production will mark its 13th anniversary the day before “Spider-Man” previews begin.)
“She’s a genius. I trust every one of her instincts,”?Damiano says. “She gives a lot of freedom as a director. She’s like ‘You show me what you want and I’ll tell you if it’s bad or good or if it’s something we need to change.
“She’s very visual and it’s a lot about the aesthetics,” the actress adds. “In ‘Next to Normal’ it was all internal and this is a lot more physical, a lot bigger and a lot more about being a pawn in this big picture.”
This particular big picture is in a much bigger theater: The Foxwoods seats 1,821, more than a thousand more than the Booth, home to “Next to Normal.”
“Playing to the last row in the Booth and playing to the last row here are two totally different things, so I’m trying to be a little bigger, a little more physical, for (Taymor), because obviously I trust her vision.”
The musical — with a book by Taymor and Glen Berger — draws on more than 40 years of Marvel comics to create a story that Taymor has said will go beyond one hero versus one villain, the model for recent film adaptations.
The title, Taymor has said, comes from something Bono had said, about a boy being afraid of the dark. Rather than asking for a light to be put on, he asked his parent to “turn off the dark.”
Damiano says the script holds more for M.J. than she had anticipated.
“The music stands alone in terms of its style, she says. “It’s going to work with everything else that’s happening on stage, with the set and the story, it’s all sort of fluid and it works.”
She says she couldn’t compare it to any musical she knows: “It’s got its own style and its own mystery and its own beautiful starry-night kind of thing happening.”
She met its composers once.
“I met them at my final callback for the show,” she says, joking: “Just your typical Wednesday, meeting Bono and The Edge. They were so cool and really supportive and encouraging. They found something cool in my sound and I was so thrilled about that.”
The scale and budget of the spectacle Taymor is readying hasn’t fully sunk in, Damiano says.
“I’m sure once we get out of the rehearsal room and into the theater, I’ll be like, ‘This is as huge as I was making it in my head to be,’” she says. “Rehearsing, the money is the last thing I can think about.”
She also can’t think about how different the audience for her new show will be than the audience for her last show.
“The history of this, and all of the little boys looking up to Spider-Man and all of the older comic book fans are a totally different audience from the ‘Next to Normal’ audience. I don’t know what they’re going to be like, but I’m excited about that.”
It’s about to become her new normal.
“Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” begins previews Nov. 14, with opening night set for Dec. 21 at the Foxwoods Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St. $67.50-$140. 800-745-3000. www.SpiderManOnBroadway.com.
Photo by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News: Jennifer Damiano will play Mary Jane in “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” this fall.