Growing up in Ocean City, Md., with parents who owned and operated their own theater company, Jennifer Hope Wills had a dream: To one day appear in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit, The Phantom of the Opera.
While not all dreams come true, hers did. For several years Wills played Christine in the major musical success, and, fresh from that appearance, she is about to open at the Walnut Street Theatre in Aspects of Love, another Webber hit running Sept. 6 through Oct. 23.
“I never had any real big dreams to be a star, but I always wanted to be on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera and play Christine. I feel so lucky that I got to achieve that dream,” said Wills, 38.
Soon, she’ll be playing another romantic figure in Aspects of Love, a musical that spans 20 years, binding six people and three generations as they come to appreciate that “love changes everything.”
The story is set against the background of 1940s France and Italy, with Wills playing the beautiful Rose Vibert.
“This show is reminiscent of Webber’s Phantom in that it’s another romance in a sense with lush, beautiful music,” said Wills. “The story line is much more modern than Phantom, but the music is still incredibly lush. Webber’s romantic score is something that makes the two shows different but somehow similar. And, like his other work, the show is almost entirely sung.”
Add to that the fact that his music is extremely tricky,” she continued. “I think he writes for the voice almost as if he’s writing for an instrument, because he has a very orchestral ear. And while his music sounds simple, like a pretty little tune, it’s deceptively challenging to sing. But I think I’m getting used to it. Aside from appearing in Phantom, I’ve also done The Woman in White, so I feel more and more prepared to sing his gorgeous music. Many times, he writes where many people are singing at once, and you can’t always understand what they’re saying. But he manages to get the emotions across thanks to his music.”
Growing up, and appearing with her parents and siblings in various productions at the parents’ playhouse, Wills said she grew up wanting to “get away from it all. So I decided to become a history teacher and went to Salisbury University to major in history. But I kept taking music classes. I just couldn’t get away from it, I guess.”
She even went on to get a master’s degree in music from Indiana University, still thinking she might go on to become a teacher.
“And I did teach voice and diction for about two years,” she explained. “But that didn’t feel the same as my life in performance. So eventually I took off and went to New York to give that a shot. And it turned out all right — eventually.”
Before she hit the “big time,” Wills worked at night as a legal proofreader, a job she said she loved.
“It was quiet and kept my brain working,” she said. “It also gave me the opportunity to go out of town occasionally to do small regional jobs. But is wasn’t until I got a job at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey that I finally got an agent and was seen in bigger and bigger auditions. That took about two years.”
Since then, some of her credits include The Woman in White, Beauty & the Beast, and The Sound of Music among others. Her role in Aspects of Love marks her return to the Walnut after having been seen last on the Walnut stage in Finian’s Rainbow.
“I really do love being back at the Walnut,” she concluded. “I love the sense of history here. My home today is on Long Island, and playing this theater allows me to be close to home, and while enjoying being an actress, also allows me time to be a wife and mother s well. I am completely happy with the way things are now.” ••
For times and ticket information, call 215-574-3550.