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Artfully curated by Culturadar

< Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great at Theatre for a New Audience | Main | Complexions Contemporary Ballet Returns to The Joyce >

November 19, 2014

The Woman Who Inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald: Jessica Grové Plays Ginevra King in The Underclassman

Many know The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, but few are familiar with the woman who inspired Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan: Ginevra King. The new musical The Underclassman follows a young Fitzgerald as he attempts to climb the social ladder as a Princeton sophomore in 1915. Along the way, he falls in love with Ginevra, a spirited young debutante out of his league. Originally titled The Pursuit of Persephone, the show premiered with Prospect Theater Company in 2005, and Prospect is presenting a new, reworked version with Jessica Grové (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music) returning as Ginevra. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Grové about how Ginevra has changed in this new version of the show, what it’s like stepping back into a role she played almost 10 years ago, and falling in love at age 16.

CULTURADAR: How did you first get involved with this show 10 years ago?

Jessica Grové: Prospect Theater Company Artistic Director, director, and co-bookwriter Cara Reichel saw my website and saw that I had been in the Broadway company of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is close to the same time period. She also saw pictures from a show I had done recently with someone she and composer/lyricist/co-bookwriter Peter Mills knew. Cara called my friend to ask about me. I went in and I sang a song for them and they asked me to join the project. The first production was at this tiny off-off-Broadway theater down on East 4th Street between Avenue A and B, the Connelly. I remember taking three trains to get there. They were still writing the show as we were rehearsing it, which was pretty exciting. Even this time around rewrites and replacement songs were coming in up until the last week of rehearsals, which to me is one of the most fascinating things about working on a new musical.

CR: Do the rewrites for this production change how you portray Ginevra now?

JG: Yes, in the previous version, we never got to see any of Ginevra's vulnerable moments, so Pete wrote a new song for me in the second act that gives the audience a chance to see Ginevra in her hour of despair. The song is called “Half and Half” and in it she's trying to figure out if Scott, who is below her class, could fit in her world or if she could learn to live in his. I think it shows that Scott wasn't just a plaything for her, that she really did consider him and care about him. In the previous production, I had a hard time finding that balance. How do you portray someone who's young and carefree and not really thinking about consequences without her coming off as completely frivolous and unlikeable? Ginevra has much more of a journey now, and it is helpful as an actor to have that kind of arc.

CR: The song is her deciding whether to pursue her relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald?

JG: Yes. She also has a suitable prospect, Tyler, who comes from a "good" family. She doesn't really love Tyler, but he is the proper choice in her society at that time. But she truly loves Scott, and there lies the rub. Historically, Scott and Ginevra wrote many letters to each other. When they broke up they agreed to destroy all of their letters, but before Scott destroyed her letters he had them typed up into a manuscript. He would refer to that manuscript over the years when he was in need of inspiration for his writing. So Ginevra's letters to him and her diary entries still exist, and this was so helpful for my research of their romance and understanding who this young woman was. Her diary is full of swooning over him, including simple exclamations like “Scott!!!” underlined with three exclamation points. She was in awe of him, he could keep up with her and challenged her in a way that other boys didn't.

CR: What else did you draw from to create this character?

JG: I think you always have to draw upon a bit of yourself to make it believable. Ginevra is very theatrical even though she's not an actress. One of her lines in the show is, "If I were poor I'd go on the stage." [Performing] was not an option for a woman in society, but she wanted excitement in life, and I relate to that and to her theatricality. I read non-fiction books about F. Scott Fitzgerald and their relationship. There's also a great novel I read called Gatsby's Girl that is partially fact and partially fabricated, but it gave me a deeper understanding of the time period and who this girl could have been. Ginevra was only 16 years old when she and Scott fell in love. I can think back to when I fell in love at about that age—how strongly I felt it and how I truly believed I was experiencing the one and only love of my life, even if deep down I knew the relationship wasn't good for me.

CR: Are there any ways you see the character differently now that it's almost 10 years since you last played her?

JG: I have more experience—more heartbreak and also more experience in the theater as an actor. Now that I'm older, married, and have a child, I'm so far away from where Ginevra is in the show. Being able to look back and remember when I was a little more frivolous, probably more like I actually was when I first played the role, there's a perspective that I didn't have before. I’m more grounded now.

CR: Are there challenges in playing a character from 100 years ago?

JG: At one point, I read something and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is a long time ago, I can't even fathom what life was like before my grandmother was even born.” I try not to give that too much thought, though, because they're just people. Their culture was different. They didn't have internet and reality television. Their entertainment was learning social dances and how to play instruments. They read a lot and wrote letters. But I think that the core of what was important to a young woman is pretty much the same as it is today: boys and fun clothes and going to dances. Certain physical mannerisms were different, and I try to be aware of that, but otherwise I am just trying to focus on her being a human being.

CR: You’ve worked on a couple shows by composer/lyricist Peter Mills. What do you enjoy about performing his music?

JG: What I think is so special about Pete is that he has an uncanny ability to capture the sound of any time period he is writing for, and he writes in a way that I really enjoy singing. His lyrics are clever and active, which makes my job easier. He also just really gets it. For instance, when we were first staging "Half and Half" I just couldn’t drop into it. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working and I was starting to doubt my ability to interpret a song. That night, Pete sent me an email saying that he had realized that the problem was that I was singing about something unimportant. The lyric used to talk more about a dance called the Half and Half as a metaphor for the choice Ginevra is wrestling with, so he rewrote a good chunk of the lyric that night and made it more active and specific. He just turned it out like it was no big deal. That’s the genius of Pete Mills.

CR: Compared to other roles you've played, are there new aspects in this character you've been able to explore?

JG: I don't think there is another role out there like this. Maybe the most similar would be Luisa in The Fantasticks because she's young and dramatic and grows up a lot, but vocally Ginevra is not a typical ingénue in that [the role] is not all sung in one voice. She goes from being young and carefree to really having to make a choice, so she gets a little older, not much older but a year or two older. Pete has done a great job supporting the character's journey musically. The challenge has just been to figure out the growth of her in that short time span.

CR: Do you think you've figured it out?

JG: We have been in performances for a week now, and I have discovered a lot. When you're in the rehearsal studio, so much is left to your imagination. The environment and the costumes help tie up the loose ends, especially in a period piece because the clothes inform how you move. I find myself discovering new things every performance, which is helped by the incredible star of our show, Matt Dengler, who brings so much life to the stage and gives me new and fun moments to work off of nightly. It is truly like discovering Scott and Ginevra's romance for the first time each night.

The Underclassman
runs through November 30th at The Duke on 42nd Street.

Photos by Richard Termine.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.

Posted at 12:35 PM

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