Ever since her breakout role as Roberta in the 2002-03 off-Broadway cult hit Zanna, Don’t!, Anika Larsen has been a musical star to keep an eye on. Fortunately for theatergoers across the country, that’s been easier during the past year, as Larsen headlined the national tour of Avenue Q from July ’08 until the tour wrapped this May and is now starring in the Broadway production, which closes out its six-year run on September 13.
Blond, fresh-faced and perpetually endearing on stage, Larsen would seem a cinch for all those endearing, fresh-faced roles in the musical theater canon. Yet she’s made her mark in musicals that are more contemporary, smaller-scale or offbeat—like Avenue Q. And Zanna, Don’t!, which took place in a high school (and world) where heterosexuals are the discriminated-against minority. Larsen has also appeared off-Broadway in Kirsten Childs’ anthropomorphically infused musical Miracle Brothers, set in 17th-century Brazil, and in the Fringe Festival transplant How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes, which involved mind-reading, terrorists and Celine Dion. She made her Broadway debut in 1999 in the ensemble of Rent, following two years on that show’s tour, and was later in the original Broadway casts of Xanadu and All Shook Up.
This year, when Larsen came back to New York after the Avenue Q tour ended, she starred in her autobiographical musical Shafrika, The White Girl. Presented for two weeks in June at the Vineyard Theatre (where Miracle Brothers ran in 2005), Shafrika was the third production by Jaradoa, a theater company Larsen cofounded with director April Nickell. Jaradoa, which gets its name from the acronym for Just A Roomful of Artists Doing Outreach And Theater, produced its first show, Serenade, in December 2007, and Larsen performed in that as well. In Shafrika, she told the story of the Larsen family: ten siblings, born within fifteen years; four biological, six adopted; white, black, Asian, Latino, Native American; all with Norwegian first names (for “a sense of family unity”).
The rest of this summer, it’s been all Q. Larsen joined the Broadway company on July 6, reprising her roles of Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut from the tour. The Yale alumna, who was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award as best featured actress in Zanna, Don’t!, recently spoke with BroadwayWorld about Avenue Q and other highlights of her career.
How did you end up in Avenue Q with no prior puppet experience?
I first saw Avenue Q up at the Eugene O’Neill Center when they were workshopping it there—I was doing a different show, workshopping up there—and I remember being devastated because I loved the show so much and I thought, I’ll never get to be in this because I don’t do puppetry. It wasn’t until the show became a big hit on Broadway and they realized they were going to have to replace the original company that they started to consider finding actors they could teach puppetry to, ’cause there was just a small community of people that know puppetry. In order to even get to final callbacks for the show, you have to go to “puppet camp.” It’s two days of intensive classes—a crash course in puppetry. So I had a lot of fun at puppet camp and hoped that I would get to be in it someday. As happens in this business, that was years ago; over the years, they approached me for different companies and I wasn’t free, and finally it all came together last year when they asked me to join the tour.
How difficult was it to learn the puppetry?
[There are so] many layers of things you have to keep in your brain all at once. You have to know your lines and your blocking and your music. Usually, that’s enough. On top of that, to be aware of the position of the puppet, so that it’s upright, that its head is facing forward, that its head’s not cocked, that it’s looking where you’re looking. It’s very hard to keep remembering if you continue to shift your focus.
The lip-synching in and of itself is so complicated. First of all, the puppet has to breathe before it speaks. That’s the difference when you look at someone who doesn’t know puppetry—you’ll watch and you’ll go: Its mouth is moving at the right time, but I don’t understand why it doesn’t look alive. That’s because it’s not breathing before it’s speaking. On top of that, you have to be aware of what consonants you’re saying: To end a word on n or m is to end with the mouth closed; if you end on a plosive, like t or p or v, you would end with the mouth open. It would look strange to end the word “love” with her mouth closed. So that is a whole other level of things to keep in mind.
Because I have a rodded puppet, she has one arm free. [You have] to make sure that you’re doing something with the arm that looks good on a puppet. Not everything translates from a human body to a puppet body. Then also making sure that when you’re walking, she’s walking, which is to say that she’s moving up and down in a way that looks like an even pace and gives her weight and reality in space. Also, to layer on top of all of that, she has to emote—all of the ways that you make a puppet look sad or happy or shy.