Alice Ripley earned a 1998 Tony nomination for her performance as a conjoined twin in Side Show, and since then she's taken on such classic roles as Janet in The Rocky Horror Show and Fantine in Les Miz. Having recently relocated to New York from L.A., she's now playing Diana Goodman, a suburban mother of two in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's new musical Next to Normal, which tells the story of one average family’s struggle to come to terms with a secret from the past, and premieres tonight at Second Stage Theatre. Ripley spoke with Vulture about channeling her mother, being sung to by Brian d'Arcy James, and writing a song about one of the most divisive figures in politics.
It becomes clear early on that your character is facing some really dark issues. How do you get into that mind-set?
Well, it's not been an easy process figuring out this part. Really, what it comes down to is I'm kind of channeling my mother in many parts of the first act — her vulnerability, her dog and pony show. By that I mean the way she has this kind of daily seduction of people and places and things. She's always the life of the party, but she's always kind of the most — how can I put this delicately? — emotionally vulnerable person in any given room. By the end, Diana becomes a little more sane, and hopefully there's a little more of me in that.
Had you worked with Brian d'Arcy James, who plays your husband, before?
We did a workshop together of a piece, and we've done concerts, and of course we know each other through the community, but we've never done an actual production together. I just think Brian d'Arcy James is a dream come true. I've known of him ever since I saw him in Titanic, and I fell crazy in love with him at that moment. I thought, I love my husband, but I can't wait for the moment that I get to work with Brian. And here we are, where I'm onstage with him and he's singing that song called "The Promise," and he doesn't take his eyes off me the whole time. My back's to the audience, and it feels like I'm the only person in the world.
I liked your clothes in the show too.
I love my clothes! I'm kind of a dork at being able to dress myself. I kind of wear the same thing every day — jeans and a sweater or a tank top — so I want Jeff [Mahshie], who did the costumes, to take me out after the show and do one of those What Not to Wear things and throw my stuff in the trash. The stuff he puts me in is very everyday, but it feels feminine, it feels sexy.
Your first solo album, Everything's Fine, also dealt with suburbia. Are you drawn to that theme in some way?
It's my homeland. I come from the Midwest, from the suburbs — growing up hanging out at the mall and looking at the corn fields across the street. I kind of was embarrassed by it for a long time. Then I decided, "Hey, if everyone else can embrace their homeland and where they're from, I can do the same!"
How did your song "President Hillary" come about?
I think I wrote that last summer. I don't really get political with my music, but that song had to be written. The chorus goes "All the world is upside down 'cause the man in charge let me down." And basically it's my personal view about how much this country needs a change of view in the White House. And although I would be really happy if Barack Obama won, I'm going to vote for Hillary because frankly I think there needs to be a woman in the White House. It's about gender for me. My husband and I no longer talk about the subject, actually.
So what's next?
You always kind of feel like you're rolling the dice as an actor. I moved here from L.A. You never really know what's coming next unless you're — let's see, who would it be? — Raúl Esparza.