Jo Lampert, photographed in a costume designed by Clint Ramos. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz
By Adam Green
When the songwriter David Byrne and the director Alex Timbers were casting the lead of their new rock musical about Joan of Arc, the follow-up to their deliriously funky 2013 bio-dance-musical smash Here Lies Love, at the Public Theater, they wanted to find someone who brought more to the role of the pious teen warrior who dies for her faith than singing and acting chops. “We were looking for a connection to the spiritual,” Timbers recalls, “and the belief from moment one that this was someone extraordinary that we would follow on any quest.”
After many auditions, Timbers remembered Jo Lampert, a young singer, actress, and DJ with a big, bluesy voice, a semi-shaved head, and impeccable indie cred but no agent, who had been in his 2008 show Dance Dance Revolution. When she came in, on a day’s notice, to perform two songs from the show, “it left us all in tears,” Timbers recalls, “because it was immediately clear that she had a profound connection with this character.” Byrne agrees: “She really got what each line is about—the little shifts of emotion from anger or sadness to joy or spiritual ecstasy.” Adds Timbers: “Not to make it sound sentimental or strange, but there was something almost divinely ordained about it.
Now a wider audience will get to know the 31-year-old as she takes the lead in Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, opening this month at the Public. “People are going to be, like, Who?” Lampert says. “But it might actually be fitting that to play this girl who comes out of nowhere they chose to go with—I’m going to call myself a rando.” She will be donning the iconic chain mail of the fifteenth-century French peasant who, heeding the voice of God, led the dauphin’s army to victory over the English, only to be burned at the stake as a heretic and achieve immortality in art.
With Madonna, Grimes, and Kate Bush having all posed as sword-wielding Joans, Byrne says that his idea of a pop singer who is obsessed with Joan and stages a concert to tell her story “didn’t seem like much of a stretch.” Byrne trades the club beats of Here Lies Love for a more atmospheric soundscape—think Radiohead, Björk, and Sigur Rós—with a few numbers that, “believe it or not,” the former Talking Heads front man says, “border on the anthemic.” He explains, “A contemporary audience is not going to buy that this girl is having visions or that God is telling her to do this. But music can make you at least believe that shebelieves it. If the music works, you maybe get swept away with her.”
In an office at the Public, Lampert, exuding an openness that is hard to resist, drapes herself over a chair and gesticulates expressively as words tumble out of her mouth. Growing up in Brooklyn and suburban New Jersey, she caught the showbiz bug early. “I came out of the womb singing, is what my parents told me,” Lampert says. “But when it came to dancing, they were like, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ ” She remembers herself as “very loud and emotional, with a lot of energy,” which she channeled into strutting her stuff at the Performers Theatre Workshop after school. At fifteen, she discovered jazz, blues, and R&B, and, she says, “it exploded my mind open.” For college, she went to the Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU, where she studied every aspect of stagecraft and, after an adolescence during which she had remained out of touch with her sexuality, figured out that she was queer. But the urge to perform remained a constant, and she remembers looking across the street at the Public Theater and thinking, How am I going to get into that building?
In 2007, not long after graduation, she got an internship at the Public’s nightclub, Joe’s Pub, which morphed into a full-time job. She helped shepherd about 800 shows a year into the space and began performing in some of them, such as the songwriter Shaina Taub’s The Daughters. It was through a school friend, the choreographer and director Sam Pinkleton, that she was cast in Dance Dance Revolution. In 2010, after she got a part in The Last Goodbye, a rock musical based on Romeo and Juliet using the songs of Jeff Buckley, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (where she met her current girlfriend, the choreographer Sonya Tayeh), her boss at the Public suggested it might be time to leave the nest. “It was absolutely terrifying,” she says. “I’m not one of those get-a-head-shot-and-go-out-on-auditions kind of people—but I was going to follow it.”
Lampert’s eclectic career has involved an interconnected web of collaborators, among them the married folk duo the Bengsons, in whose show Hundred Days she recently appeared and who themselves performed in Tayeh’s dance piece you’ll still call me by name. She’s toured with tUnE-yArDs and brought her smoky, stylish intensity to new Burt Bacharach songs in the Off-Broadway musicalNew York Animals. She prefers not to be narrowly defined: “It kind of allows you to be a jack-of-all-trades—I’m not saying I’m a master of all of them. I’m like a boulder who’s rolling down a hill.”
When Lampert started hearing about Joan, she didn’t think she had a shot. “I’d heard how vocally challenging it was, and I knew a lot of the women doing the workshops—just the fiercest vocalists you could imagine—and I thought, Maybe it’s too much for me.” She was surprised when she got the call to audition and even more so when she kept getting called back. After Timbers told her the part was hers, she recalls, “I was flabbergasted. I was like, ‘Can I just take a second and call you back?’ ”
Timbers has a full slate these days, including Broadway adaptations of Moulin Rouge! and Beetlejuice. Joan marks his return to the Public and to his downtown roots, established more than a decade ago with his cheeky, postmodern theater company Les Freres Corbusier. He describes it as a mix of rock concert, pageant, and Passion play, with influences from Lady Gaga to Alice Cooper. The story unfolds in a dark, Gothic world, with costumes by Clint Ramos and a monolithic set by Chris Barreca that, Timbers says, “highlights the patriarchal society that Joan has to confront.” Unlike the immersive Here Lies Love, Joan is staged on a traditional proscenium, and though it features Timbers’s signature use of pop culture to illuminate the past, it’s also, he says, “an incredibly earnest show that traffics as much in darkness as hope, with no hint of irony.”
There’s a scene early on in which Joan ceremoniously cuts her hair and dons men’s clothes. “Androgyny is a total part of how I present,” Lampert says. “Ever since college, when I started to wear more boyish silhouettes—boyish, whatever, I hate these binaries—I’ve had my fair share of people questioning that, or calling me ‘sir.’ It doesn’t bother me, but I’m like, ‘This isn’t a performance for you. This is my personal expression.’ That’s the part where Joan and I intersect. When she becomes this warrior, becomes Joan of Arc, she’s not a character playing a part. It’s what she needs to be to do that.”
Lampert is the only woman in the otherwise all-male cast, except for a brief appearance at the end by Mare Winningham as her mother. For Lampert, playing a woman daring to step into the role of a leader in a man’s world—who gets persecuted for her hubris—brings to mind a certain presidential candidate. “The fearlessness, and the belief in herself and her cause, feels very relevant right now,” Lampert says. She remembers sitting with Timbers the morning after the election. “I had been crying all night—I looked like a crazy person—and as we were talking, I was like, ‘How am I going to get on board playing a woman with such unshakable faith when I feel so suddenly betrayed by this country and by my own ignorance and blindness?’ Then Alex read this Margaret Mead quote to me: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’ And I was like, OK; I needed to hear that.”
Since then, Lampert says, she’s been doing a lot of soul-searching as she struggles to come to terms with the nature of faith and the task before her. “I’ve never played a role this large or technically demanding—this is an opera,” she says. “I want to rise to the challenge.” If she has any lingering apprehension, Lampert can turn to the words, attributed to Joan of Arc, inscribed on the necklace that Tayeh gave her for her birthday: “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”