Erika Henningsen is Rearranging the Pieces in JOY at George Street Playhouse
It all started with a mop. A self-wringing mop, a makeshift workstation in a garage, and a desire to make something better than before: that’s the story of Joy Mangano. Here in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the mop is ever present, 32 years after its invention.
My afternoon starts at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center where I’m watching part of a tech rehearsal for George Street Playhouse’s production of Joy. Erika Henningsen is onstage as famed QVC personality Joy Mangano, building a Miracle Mop in real time. At a workbench cluttered with supplies, she’s pulling doll hairs and reaching for a staple gun. The scene is held to fix a quick technical issue—something with the automation—and Henningsen stays put. She’s examining the mop. Rearranging her prop tools not unlike the tools Mangano made her career with. She’s piecing together ideas and solutions in real time, thinking through how to make the song finale easier for everyone onstage.
The technical problem is resolved and the production breaks for dinner. Henningsen meets me in the lobby. I’ve just seen her create a makeshift Miracle Mop a few times over, so I have to ask: “Are you a problem solver, too?”
She laughs and jokes that she is not—at least not in the way that Joy Mangano is.
“I would say I am a problem solver when it comes to my personal life. But when it comes to, ‘do you know how to fix a microwave?’ I have to Google it so many times. I’m so bad at those things.”
From her composure, you would never be able to tell. Henningsen has an impressive resume of credits and, even in our first meeting, is cool and collected. Many may recognize Henningsen from her time as Cady Heron in Mean Girls, both at the D.C. National Theatre try-out and then on Broadway in 2018. As we talk about recent roles, I comment that Joy, her character here at George Street Playhouse, and Cady Heron are kind of similar. The audience wants them to win.
“I’m very rarely interested in coasting in any part of life,” says Henningsen. “Joy’s whole thing is [that] you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I feel that.”
Similar to Mangano, Henningsen herself is pressing forward through the challenges of this role and the quick changes that come with any technical rehearsal. She’s approaching each movement with precision, each risk a calculated one that promises to never falter. What’s more, Henningsen is thinking about her position within the group and how she can be a team player. This is what you want from a leading lady, especially one playing the title role.
“I love leading a company. I don't love being the lead—I would be happy doing anything,” she laughs. “There’s just something so special about what we do because it requires such teamwork in a way that you don’t get in the athletics that I was never good at. There's no winning or losing. We just have to make this the best possible.”
But surely there’s pressure, especially when you’re starring as a recognizable figure? I ask Henningsen about how playing this real-life person compares to her time as Cady Heron, an iconic, zeitgeist-y, character immortalized in screencaps and yearly memes.
“At the end of the day, I can never be Lindsay Lohan. I can never do a perfect Joy Mangano impersonation when I’m also singing and walking onstage. The pressure of Mean Girls was more based on the brand. And I know Joy Mangano has a brand in terms of what she's created, but we’re starting at the very beginning of her story when nothing is there yet. And that feels fun because there’s a lot of gray to play with there and a lot of support from her to find our own version. And I am delighting in the idea of getting to surprise the audience with what they don't know.”
Mangano herself has been involved in the process, including a number of phone calls with the creative team (including director Casey Hushion) to detail her earliest inventions. And while the bio-musical seems to be all the rage these days, this one is different.
Like any historical or referential piece, there will absolutely be audience members with prior knowledge of the story; a unique challenge of expectations and preconceived judgment. In fact, there will be people who remember watching Mangano on television, advertising the Miracle Mop herself, seeing the product and the moment that would change her life. But unlike A Beautiful Noise, MJ, Tina, and more, we don’t see an iconic celebrity with Top 40 hits and music videos galore. We see someone even more familiar: an everyday woman who cares about her family.
“It’s so familiar for a woman…for any person, who is in charge of the household to be absolutely breaking at the seams,” says Henningsen, describing Joy’s situation as we first meet the character. “And the desire to make life just a little bit better, even if it’s ‘I just want to be able to take my kids out to dinner on a Friday night and not panic about it,’ that is something we don’t see on stage all the time. We see stories of the people who were geniuses, savants, people who were in the 1% and Joy was a middle class Long Island mom.”
This story starts in the early 1990’s—complete with neon windbreakers and shoulder padded blazers—though its themes are very readily present today. I think of small businesses gone viral on TikTok and online personalities peddling a personal brand. There’s a lot of ways to change your life in a matter of seconds these days, not just a miracle of a TV appearance. I ask Henningsen how Joy is meeting the moment and the relevancy of this time, gesturing vaguely, as though all of the pressures of society are in the room with us. We both laugh, but share that wide-eyed look and deep sigh that says “yeah, I know what you mean.”
“There’s been a lot of talk in the press on a global level about women being silenced. I think something that this show does really beautifully is it shows how sometimes the silencer of our inner voice is ourselves,” Henningsen says. “I think for women, there’s been so much discussion about how the people in positions of power can oppress and bring women back. And I think what this show does beautifully is it holds both. It says, ‘yes, that happens.’ Joy goes into a corporate room…a courtroom…and is laughed at. But also Joy herself needs to work through the fact that she has allowed this part of herself to be buried.”
That’s where Joy stands out. And that’s where the personal realizations come in. The Long Island mom was familiar because she’s trying to do the best for her family. The woman with self-doubt goes even further. And at the end of the day, we really just want her to win.
“On a personal level…I greatly am enjoying, as I enter my thirties, the idea of, ‘Oh, share that thing that’s inside you because it’s worthy,” Henningsen adds. “This show has been reminding me that the more that you vocalize your thoughts, your ideas, your feelings, the more that you can start to trust them again. And I think that’s what Joy goes through.”
As we start to dive into the process of how the show has come to be, there are crew members rolling bins of extra cables and tools through the lobby. I came on a busy day, after all, as the entire company puts the finishing touches on this world premiere. Henningsen looks around as excess materials are carried out of the theatre, tidying the space after a week or so of technical rehearsals.
“There's so much parallel between Joy’s life and bringing an original show to the world in a way that’s kind of eerie,” Henningsen says. “There’s these lyrics I was singing today, ‘We’re just pieces that rearrange,’ and [Joy is] talking about her family, and how she built the mop, and we’re in that point of the creative process of trying to rearrange pieces to make sure the story fits.”
Joy has a book penned by Ken Davenport with music and lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo. There won’t be any sing-a-long finales here, though. The music is original, which Henningsen says speaks to the potential of the show.
“The music begs the audience to listen. I think there is an emphasis sometimes to really give people something they know. And there’s beauty in that because we need that, we need comfort, we need familiarity. But I think audiences are also smarter than that. If we ask them to sit forward and listen to complicated lyrics and complicated music, they will feel that much more engrossed in the story.”
Henningsen adds that the original music aspect is two-fold. Not only will audiences feel more engrossed and immersed in the story, they will also be more connected.
“When people do sit up and engage with it, they will see themselves reflected in a story that is familiar.”
This is how Joy does it all. Take a familiar story, add in the previously unknown, and pair it with the new and exciting. Is this exactly what audiences need right now?
“Good theatre can be entertaining and also polarizing and also make you think about your own life choices. I think this show is riding that beautiful line of something that is appropriate for your family to see, something that is inspiring,” Henningsen says. “We are able to celebrate this person without villainizing other people. It’s just always leading with positivity and strength and integrity, even as other people choose to not do that around you.”
As our conversation begins to wrap, I have one last question for Henningsen. Probably an easy one. “Is Joy full of joy?” Weird coincidence of a name for Mangano, an entrepreneur whose story is full of joy to begin with. Henningsen immediately nods, so sure of this, it’s as though she’s been waiting to answer this one. She starts with the big picture, considering the meaning of the word.
“Joyous encompasses something so much more and it feels like it’s something that’s earned. Happiness can be so fleeting, but joy to me is something that is ebullient, something you share with other people.” Henningsen looks around the lobby, at cast members, crew, and creatives all making their way back into the theatre area. In a few moments she’ll go back as well, preparing for an inevitably long evening, but work that everyone is excited to do to bring this story to life.
“Joy feels like this all-encompassing thing that if you have that, you bring everybody into it with you.”
Joy is now playing through December 30 at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. For tickets and more information, click here.