“If they’ll let me, I want to try.”
Jane Krakowski can, and will, do it all. She’ll do the splits. She’ll fly on a trapeze. She’ll tap dance, roller skate, do a backflip— you name it— all with stunning grace and athleticism, while singing the highest of notes with impeccable diction… and that’s without even factoring in her tremendous acting skills and sharp sense of humor.
Look, if it seems like I’m gushing, it’s because Jane Krakowski’s ability to do it all has become such a widely known fact that it even found its way into a joke within the world of Schmigadoon!, the musical comedy series which just ended its second season on Apple TV+, where Jane plays a sleek, high-powered lawyer in the seedy town of Schmicago who will use all the bells and whistles in her repertoire to sway a jury in her direction.
Krakowski was born in New Jersey, with the lights of Broadway in her sights, a dream she worked for with the support of her mother, a college theater instructor and producing artistic director for the Women’s Theater Company. Leaving New Jersey, she attended the Professional Children’s School in New York City and Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, which opened her up to the world of daytime soap opera. It was there she landed parts on Another World and Search for Tomorrow (for which she earned two Daytime Emmy Award nominations) but her big Broadway break came as Dinah the Dining Car in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s roller skating extravaganza Starlight Express. Her stage star solidified, Krakowski earned Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for 1990’s Grand Hotel then the triple crown of the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for 2003’s Nine and go on to earn another Tony nomination for 2016’s She Loves Me.
All the while, Krakowski was skating through the 1990s and 2000s television landscape with aplomb, landing plumb roles that secured her pop culture icon status in shows like Ally McBeal, 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which collectively earned her five Primetime Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe nomination, 11 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and two SAG Awards. And who can forget her starring role in music video for “Goodbye Earl” from The (Dixie) Chicks?
I sat down with Jane to discuss the series, her involvement in it, and the many joys and challenges of being a performer who is truly never afraid to try just about anything.
Tom Zohar: Thank you for sitting down and talking to me. First of all, happy Pride.
Jane Krakowski: I know! Happy first Day of Pride Month!
TZ: It feels somewhat appropriate that on the first day of Pride Month I get to talk to you.
TZ: How’ve you been? How’s it been since Schmicago dropped?
JK: Oh, it’s been wonderful. I’ve been so filled with joy by the reaction to all of season two, and obviously especially [the big musical number] “Bells and Whistles.” It means so much to me to be a part of this conversation with you right now.
TZ: This show feels like some kind of a gift that I can’t believe we got. Do you know what I mean? As a theater nerd especially, it feels like something that is so special and sometimes it’s like a fever dream that this show is even happening.
JK: (Laughing) Well, I feel that way as a cast member.
TZ: I can only imagine. When you did the first season, did you have any clue at all that there would be a second season? Was there an inkling?
JK: It was never set up with that structure, I don’t believe. My understanding is that they had contractual holds, if there was the chance, on Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, but not the rest of us. We were hired for one season and it came at a time when the pandemic was still on, but we were transitioning out. People were trying to go back to work and trying to go to filming. Obviously, we were making a musical when Broadway and any live theater or any live performing was closed. So the COVID restrictions and the PPE were at the highest level. We would only take our masks and layers of PPE off when we had to film, and of course we were singing and dancing and being in each other’s faces, so it was made under such strong regulations and yet we all had this… It was a beautiful thing that was being made because we couldn’t believe we were able to be making theater and musical theater for television when none of it was going on.
TZ: Is it true that you guys couldn’t even rehearse together? Because I think Kristin Chenoweth said something about how rehearsals had to be done separate.
JK: Yeah, I didn’t rehearse with anybody. Well, I rehearsed with [Schmigadoon choreographer] Chris Gattelli, I take that back. But it wasn’t like a proper rehearsal hall. I rehearsed in an office by ourselves preparing full PPE for season one on two fold-out chairs.
JK: And I was like, well, I have this idea that I could roll back to the backseat and do a quote-unquote “dance break” in the backseat. And he was like, “Really? I don’t know.”
TZ: You’re like, “I’m Jane Krakowski. I can do it.”
JK: (Laughing) I was like, I don’t know. I can’t really analyze it. I’ve just got to either try it and it works or it doesn’t. So once we got the car, we tried it there. My body somehow fit that tiny car and we were lucky. But yeah, the first time I even worked with Cecily face-to-face was five seconds before we started filming my scenes with her last season. Now, this season was a whole new world. Obviously, the tone of the show had changed. We all have the great delight of playing entirely different characters based on different musicals in a different time period of musicals. We had a real rehearsal hall. We could collaborate together. It had all the same love and joy, maybe even more because, like you said, we knew this was a gift of a niche show that we never even expected to get a season two. But this time we got the full collaborative experience, which is to me the perfect mix of my career really, of loving doing theatre and that whole creative process and comedy television, and they merged together in Schmicago.
TZ: Yeah. I feel like throughout your career, it seems like you’ve been vacillating pretty 50/50 between both. At least it seems that way.
JK: I try to. I love that.
TZ: Going into the second season, did you know how much bigger your role was going to be compared to the first one? Did [Schmigadoon creator] Cinco Paul tell you or was it a surprise?
JK: No, I did not know. I did know, if we got the green light for season two, that we were going to be going into the musicals in the sixties and seventies, which I then later found out that it was always Cinco’s dream to do an act one and an act two. Act one would be Schmigadoon and act two would be Schmicago. So he obviously got the chance to make that dream come to fruition. And no, I love all of those musicals.
Those are sort of the core parts of musicals that I love and that I grew up on, and that deeply inspired me. So I just couldn’t wait to see who he was going to give me and who I would be. I kind of maybe guessed I was going to be Roxie, maybe. I thought I probably outgrew Sally Bowles a little bit, and I’m using “outgrow” purposefully.
TZ: You could still do it. I would still pay to see it. For sure.
JK: (Laughing) Thanks.
TZ: We’ll get your Joanne [in “Company”] one day. I know it. But we’re still probably a little far off.
JK: I know. There’s a few. There’s a few. We could put out all those names. But yeah, so all I had heard was that I’d probably be pretty excited when I got the script. And when I opened it… I never saw Bobbie/Billy Flynn coming. I loved the twist. I loved that he changed the genders, which was obviously a nod to Company that was on Broadway at the moment I got the script. I was so excited and a little bit scared, and those are the best scripts and always the best roles that you get offered. I think I knew in my soul that I knew this world and I just wanted to be able to fulfill it and live out what he gave me, because a great role with such wonderful dialogue, which he also gave Bobbie, and then this amazing musical number doesn’t come around that often. And so it was a celebration to me that came as a gift through Cinco.
TZ: Well, and it’s also a testament to your skills, because honestly, I think most people would die doing “Bells and Whistles.” I don’t think most people would be able to do it. There’s one moment in it where you’re singing while hanging upside down from a trapeze, and it made me think about that moment in the 2003 revival of “Nine” where you were singing while hanging upside down from a bed sheet. Is that a skill you have on your resumé? Hanging upside down and singing, is that a Jane Krakowski specialty?
TZ: Did Cinco know about that connection?
JK: It was not a reference in this number when I got it, because the trapeze was only meant to be entered on. In the script it said, “She enters on a trapeze,” and then there was no other reference to the trapeze. She just gets off of it and says, “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?” And then the number was, I think, just intended on the floor. The splits were written in. There were some other things, like maybe juggling. It was an indication. There were things I didn’t know how to do, but there was an indication of different kinds of bells and whistle tricks that would be thrown in, a la Billy Flynn. And so, when we finally got to getting close to putting the number together, I spoke with Cinco and Chris Gattelli, our genius choreographer, and I said, “You know, you’re opening the ceiling anyway. Why does she just get off? It’s a lovely entrance and I really want this.” (Laughs) But I was like, “Well, if I could go to trapeze school and learn some more tricks, do you think there’d be time to film it? Because I think it’s a further way for her to mesmerize and confound the jury.” And they said, “If you can learn anything, we will talk to the set designer and see if we can open the ceiling.” The ceiling only had a four by six opening.
TZ: So you went to trapeze school just for this?
JK: Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ve never done anything like that before.
Well, like I said, you’ve hung upside down from a bed sheet, so I’m just assuming you’ve done it all.
JK: (Laughs) No, no. And that was different. For that, once the director had said that I would fly from the ceiling because he wanted me to have the vision of being an otherworldly woman in his life. And so when he said – this is for Nine now – if I was going to come down from the sky, from the ceiling… then we didn’t know what to do. And then in that one, we went to Foy, we went to the Peter Pan people, and we’re like, “I don’t know. What’s going to be right for the tone of the show and the sensuality of the show?” And in that case, I had recalled seeing people do work on sheets at Broadway Bares, something you may be aware of or have gone to. And I was like, this is beautiful. Maybe we could investigate this. And we did, and I went again to another school. I went to lessons at eight o’clock after rehearsals for many weeks, and that’s how that was born. And obviously, that was one of the great entrances and exits.
TZ: It’s probably one of the most iconic things any of us have ever seen. It still gets shared – I see it on Twitter all the time. People go, “remember when Jane Krakowski exited hanging upside down while singing a high note?”
JK: That’s so sweet.
TZ: Have you always been fearless like that?
JK: I think so. I think so. I love when I can incorporate physicality into my characters. I’m sure that is from starting from a base of dance as a kid, even though I was never to the level to be a professional dancer quote-unquote, but I took dance my whole life and I always felt that, for me, it was a way to express myself without words initially. And then when I started having roles with lines and developing full characters, I noticed I always brought a physical sensibility to the roles, and it becomes part of their physical language, their being, who they are and how they express themselves. Whether I stand up straight or slouch over, it could be as simple as that, to beveling at all times. (Laughs)
It’s amazing that you have the skillset and that you get the opportunity to use it so often, I think.
JK: I’m sure it’s from my dance background. I also made my Broadway debut on roller skates, which is one of the meta references in Bells and Whistles. And that was more of like a sporting event, basically, where we had to physically do very dangerous things because it was just part of the makeup of the show. And I wonder if that also was an influence as well, that my first Broadway show had so much demanding physicality in it. Also, I love learning a new skill. To me, that is a gift. And, you know… with some hot baths and some Advil, my body is still able— (laughs)
TZ: Look, you’re still kicking. Literally. Kicking and doing the splits. I remember when you did the splits in the 2016 revival of She Loves Me and Gavin Creel is just dragging you across the stage, which feels like a dream I’ve had, by the way. I feel like that’s something we would all love to have Gavin Creel do to us while we’re doing the splits.
JK: (Laughs) Yes, exactly. It’s a delight.
TZ: Is there anything at all that you still think you either can’t or won’t do in a musical number?
JK: No. If they’ll let me, I want to try. If they’ll let me, I want to try. I don’t know if I have a wishlist per se, because I think what I love about developing the characters that I play is certainly finding a truth within them. And then there is an innate sensibility of my own, whether it’s that thirst for pushing the envelope or adding that physicality in, that that combo drives the choices, I think. And I think, in this particular case, I got incredible joy of creating the character because I had such a treasure trove of information from musical theatre that I wanted to add in and make reference to, and so did Chris Gattelli. And so when Chris and I first got in the room, I was like, “What’s her musical dance language?” And we definitely wanted to put a nod to the original ladies of Chicago with Hot Honey Rag. Cinco had already written in the entrance on the trapeze and the splits, and this is how the collaboration works in such a beautiful way.
The splits were going to be on the floor, obviously, because that’s where you usually do a split. Chris Gattelli said, “I just think I don’t want to lose you at the end of the number by having you on the floor.” And I said, “Well, what if I did it on the jury box?” And he was like, “The jury box isn’t going to be wide enough.” And then they adapted the jury box. They measured the width of my split, and they built the jury box to be wide enough for me. And that’s the magic and the beautiful collaboration that happens in a show, and especially in Schmicago where everybody wants to make this show be the best it can.
And so much has to do with Cinco’s love and who Cinco is, Cinco Paul, our creator. He has such love for musical theatre that even though there’s so much humor in it, and also his deep knowledge of musical theatre, but we all come to this show with a sense of love and admiration for the musicals we are portraying. And I think that’s just the extra magic that happens on the day, where I felt everybody in the cast, crew, set design, costumes, everybody pulled together to just put it all there and then see what could happen.
TZ: I love that.
JK: I’m very lucky about that.
TZ: It comes off that way. When you watch the show, it feels, in a great way, like all the kids are coming together to put on a show. In the best way.
JK: It did feel like that.
TZ: And I’m actually amazed and surprised to hear how much of it was not on the page and how much of it you came up with in the moment. Was it like that for both seasons, or did you feel it more in the second one because you had more freedom to play with the restrictions being a little less severe than they were last time?
JK: Yes. We definitely have more time in the rehearsal hall to play, and so much comes through the collaboration of what Cinco has written on the page and what he sees and the vision he sees in his head, then working with Chris Gattelli. And then Chris being so awesome and open to using the actor you have, what special skills they can add or not. We knew we always wanted to add some meta jokes in there. The splits are a slight nod to something I had done before, the roller skating as Lady Justice – which is obviously a nod to Starlight Express, which was my Broadway debut, which was on roller skates – then Chris had the hilarious idea to make her Lady Justice and have her blindfolded, which I just thought was hilarious.
And then all those little moments, I think we worked together to try to find what looked good on my body, what we felt matched up to the story and what would lead obviously to the penultimate of the Sondheim breakdown of her final summation, which I thought was so obviously a musical theatre gift, but also so character-driven in such a clever way, that she is mesmerizing you by flying around and zipping and doing all of this physicality, using her feminine wiles. And yet, when it comes down to it, she does have the comprehension of the law that she is describing throughout the song. I do think we had more time to collaborate and create in a rehearsal hall environment this season, because we were a little bit further out of the pandemic.
TZ: What do you think was the most challenging thing you had to do in that courtroom, if you had to pick one?
JK: (pauses to think) Interesting. The most challenging thing… and I know this may sound very strange, but is the very start.
JK: Yes, because it’s the simplest. (laughs) And it’s not that the steps are… Not that they’re harder, that they’re easy. Not the… [mimes the trapeze lowering from the ceiling] I mean I guess you could probably say the trapeze and exiting off of it in a backward flip. I mean, physically.
TZ: (Laughing) For most people, that would be challenging, Jane.
JK: (Laughs) Yeah. Yeah. But I got really nervous doing the opening bit where I’m doing those steps, which is so strange, but I think it’s because that was the first shot we did. We did the trapeze last ultimately in the day of filming so we could shoot as much as we could get, how many tricks. So once I was up there, we would just keep filming all the tricks, so we did that in reverse. So that was the first thing I had to film, and I think that was the moment I was like, “Oh wow, I’m going to film this right now. This is it.” And it’s the stillest moment and it’s also the most alone that I am, really. So I think that’s the moment that made me just need a deep breath of confidence to start what became a very magical day of filming a musical number that I’m so thankful to have gotten.
TZ: We haven’t heard anything yet about a third season, but if there is a third season, and let’s be theoretical at this point… let’s say it takes place in the world of eighties musicals. Let’s say this happens in dream world. Is there a dream role or archetype or even play that you would love to represent in a third season? And pretend that Cinco isn’t going to read this. (laughs) Just throw it out. Blue-Sky it.
JK: (Laughing) Well, I hope that we… First, I’m so thankful to our audience who have led us to a second season. And with the response to season two, I really hope and feel encouraged that we will get a season three, which is like a dream come true. And I also love the device that we all change characters each season, outside of obviously Josh and Melissa. I mean, there’s a treasure trove to pick from, really. If I’m just going to throw things out there, because I never suggest to Cinco—
TZ: Of course, of course.
JK: I let Cinco make his own mind up because he has given me gifts. I don’t know. I’m thinking maybe a little Dot from Sunday in the Park with George? (laughs)
TZ: Oh wow.
JK: And maybe if not, maybe Grey Gardens. (laughs)
TZ: Oh my God. Well, I never thought of Dot, and now I’m obsessed with it, and now I actually want to see you do that role.
JK: ( laughs)
TZ: Well, Jane, you’re a treasure and a gift and an icon and a gay icon. You know that already. I don’t need to tell you.
JK: You’re so kind. You’re so sweet.
TZ: You’re amazing, and I cannot thank you enough for sitting down with me for a little bit and chatting about this. I hope you have a great day, and I hope we do get a season three and that you’re in it.
JK: Thank you so much.
Jane Krakowski is Emmy eligible in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Schmigadoon!