11 Elphabas Reflect on Playing Broadway's Not-So- Wicked Witch

Diva Talk   11 Elphabas Reflect on Playing Broadway's Not-So- Wicked Witch
 
Eleven vocal giants, who have played the demanding role of Elphaba in the hit Broadway production of Wicked, discuss their work in the mammoth role.
Wicked_KeyArt

On October 30, the international hit Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical Wicked — which concerns the friendship between two not-so-wicked witches, the green-skinned Elphaba and the curly-haired Glinda—celebrates its 12th anniversary at the Gershwin Theatre. To mark the occasion, Diva Talk decided to contact several of the multi-talented women who have played the vocally demanding, gravity-defying Elphaba, the part created by Idina Menzel (to Tony-winning effect) and currently played by on Broadway by West End actor Rachel Tucker, who also stepped into the role in London. The same set of questions was posed to each former Elphaba; their honest replies follow:

Shoshana Bean
Elphaba January 2005–January 2006

Shoshana Bean
Shoshana Bean Photo by Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
SB: My first hurdle was making sense of the role and learning how to make it my own instead of hiding in Idina's shadow. Being her replacement, I thought by making all the same choices and essentially attempting to emulate her performance (which clearly I couldn't), I was respecting and honoring her and the role she had created. Once I realized it wasn't working, the next hurdle was being brave enough to try new things and make some different choices. During such a process sometimes it feels great, and sometimes you end up with egg on your face. Sometimes people love what you're doing, and sometimes they don't. The biggest challenge was learning to be OK with that process.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
SB: I learned a lot during the experience, but most of my lessons either came or sunk in in the years that followed. I learned how to be a leader, how to be a better team player, I learned how to take care of my body and my instrument. I learned that I was capable of so much more than I thought I was, I learned about gratitude, I learned what it's like to have an amazing teammate in a co-star, I learned about balance, I learned about honesty and bravery, and I learned how to own my choices and my blessings.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
SB: I would tell them a few things. 1: Don't let it get into your head. Meaning, don't walk into the role letting the fear of singing this show eight times a week already freak you out. If you let it in, it will certainly do a number on you, and you will cripple yourself before you even begin, as so many have! It's a total mind game, and you have to control your thoughts and your fears. 2. Be present, grateful and enjoy it. My biggest regret was getting so caught up in and bogged down by everything that goes along with playing the role, which is mostly offstage and very hard not to do, that I regret not enjoying the deliciousness of playing the role more. 3. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. At the end of the day, your body is your instrument and your machine. It needs rest and a great amount of care, not because you are weak or precious, but because you are putting in hard work, and your body needs what it needs to replenish. Try not to resent it or be annoyed by it (which I often was) and give it what it needs gratefully.

Stephanie J. Block
Elphaba October 2007–June 2008

Stephanie J. Block
Stephanie J. Block Photo by Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
SJB: The biggest challenge to playing Elphaba is the demand of the role. The score is rangy and taxing. Elphaba is the driving force in most scenes in the play, and those scenes usually show her filled with disappointment, frustration, betrayal, etc... The actor has to take it one song at a time, one scene at a time. If the actor looks at the play in its entirety and then focuses on performing the play eight times a week and then multiplies that by six months, nine months, a year... she will lose her mind. Much like the character herself, trying to describe what it's like to play this role has equal parts fulfillment and equal parts total exhaustion.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
SJB: While in rehearsals for the first national tour, I learned that the treatment of a character can really affect the emotions of the actor. There were a few days in a row where we only rehearsed the scenes where everyone hated Elphie, ostracized her, called her names, laughed at her. I could feel my spirit becoming heavy. When we would break for lunch or at the end of the day, I was having difficulty "bouncing back" to my old self. It was a great reminder of the ache needed to portray this character honestly and effectively.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
SJB: There is a sorority, a support group of women who have played Elphaba. The stories, the lamenting, the connectedness we all share is very real. When asked to send advice to future Elphies, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is "respect the role." Also…respect your dresser, the one and ONLY Kathe Mull. She will be your protector, confidante and greatest pal during your time at the Gershwin.

Caroline Bowman
Elphaba December 2014–September 2015

Caroline Bowman in <i>Wicked</i>
Caroline Bowman in Wicked Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
CB: Not letting the role defeat me. Maintaining a life while living for the role.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
CB: I am capable of more than I think.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
CB: Take care of you. Body, mind, spirit.

Jackie Burns
Elphaba September 2011–February 2013

Jackie Burns in <i>Wicked</i>
Jackie Burns in Wicked Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
JB: Green zits!

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
JB: I learned that I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. It's a beast of a role and can very easily make you go a little crazy! But having a great support system really helped!

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
JB: Remember that you are playing one of the greatest roles written for a woman in musical theatre, and have fun with your time being green!

Christine Dwyer
Elphaba February 2014–December 2014 and March 2015

Christine Dwyer
Christine Dwyer Photo by Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
CD: I think sometimes the biggest challenge is just getting to the theatre. It's always one of those things—especially on matinee days—when you wake up and the very first thing your mind tells you to do is check your voice. Which is ridiculous. Because you haven't even spoken to anyone yet or taken a sip of water. But it's that stress of—"What if my voice is shot?" Because no one ever wants to call out. Everyone wants to do their job. And it's hard when you're so exhausted and in your head. So I kind of learned that for me, if I just got to the theatre, I would be fine. I was there. I was in the mindset of doing the show. And whatever my voice sounded like at 9 AM is not what it's going to sound like at 2 PM.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
CD: I learned that I am a lot stronger physically and vocally than I thought I was. I certainly had my off days. Shows I wish had never happened.... but when I really look back now that I'm not in it, I'm proud of how many times I showed up and did my best. My makeup artist Joyce McGilberry on tour once told me, "Give 100 percent of whatever you have today." That advice really carried me through. It's not always going to be perfect. It's live. But if you give your heart to something 100 percent, it can never be bad.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
CD: Sleep. More than I did. Haha. And relax. It's ultimately not that serious. You change lives by showing up. By saying the words. By connecting to people. And by having fun. It's a musical that has touched millions and millions of people. And will continue to do so because the story is so relatable, and even though you're in this fantasy world, the themes are universally felt. And how lucky are you to be a part of that? Where else would you rather be?

Ana Gasteyer
Elphaba October 2006–January 2007

Ana Gasteyer
Ana Gasteyer

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
AG: I think for any Elphaba, or any musical theatre performer for that matter, the biggest challenge is fatigue over the [eight-shows-per-week] grind. When I was preparing for the production in Chicago, I spoke to Idina, and she was the first to say, "Sleep!" Sleep as much as you possibly can, whenever you can! This was oddly a huge challenge because I had a three-year-old. Also, we were welcomed with such fanfare in Chicago, which was really lovely but also meant the press schedule was pretty relentless. There was rarely a day off. My husband took a leave of absence to help out with my daughter because there was just no way to pull off those solo early mornings. I will forever be grateful.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
AG: Again, I think this applies to all musical theatre performers, but there is no substitute for challenging your perceived limits in a daily way over a long period of time. Example, I was pretty sick during my recent run of A New Brain at Encores!. Because I'd sung Elphaba sick more than once, I knew I could manage it. There are cues only you can learn about your own body, from experience. I also know what's too far now. Like, oh yeah—if I do that benefit, feeling like this, with that big job coming next week... I'll likely lose my voice. So I'll say no on behalf of my own ecosystem better than I used to.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
AG: Never assess yourself day-to-day. The grind screws with your self-perception. The cumulative effect of the vocal range, the physical demands, the smoke and fog and the constant emotional output are draining. Eyes on the road and do what you were trained to do. You'll be proud in the long run.

Mandy Gonzalez
Elphaba March 2010–January 2011

Andy Karl and Mandy Gonzalez
Andy Karl and Mandy Gonzalez Photo by Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
MG: I think the biggest challenge playing Elphaba for me was really in the preparation. You have to ready yourself both physically and mentally. You have to be ready, not only to sing an incredible score, but to do it in a dress that weighs 15 lbs., on a raked stage, running up and down stairs, carrying a heavy broom, going through trap doors, and flying! I immediately started a training regimen of running on a treadmill with weights while singing the songs. It definitely worked! Finding the truth in a character that is so well known and so loved was another exciting challenge. Luckily for me I had a wonderful director and assistant director, Joe [Mantello] and Lisa [Leguillou], to guide me on my journey, as well as a fantastic company!

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
MG: For myself and Elphaba we both learn that we are capable of many things! It all starts with opportunity and a belief in yourself.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
MG: I would encourage future Elphabas to bring their own energy to Elphie. Find the truth and simplicity in the moments. Enjoy every minute!

Lindsay Mendez
Elphaba May 2013–February 2014

Lindsay Mendez in <i>Wicked</i>
Lindsay Mendez in Wicked Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
LM: Just the size of it and the power of it. Always wanting to make sure you were able to deliver a performance worthy of how amazing that role and that show are. I absolutely loved doing it… but making sure I was always performing at my best was a challenge in the winter months, especially when it’s so cold and people are getting sick left and right!

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
LM: I think I learned how to maintain truth in a huge space. That was something I was worried about when I walked into the Gershwin and saw how big that theatre was. I had just come from doing Dogfight, which was in a super-intimate theatre, and I remember in my first rehearsals for Wicked, Joe and Lisa would tell me, "Play up, girl! There’s people for miles…" And so maintaining an honest, intimate performance as that character, who does have so much going on, was something I was always striving for… and I learned a lot about finding that balance in keeping that, but also making sure everyone felt her… to the very last row.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
LM: Keep your dressing room door open! As Elphie, you are in your room getting painted from half-hour on, while the other cast members and crew are milling about the theatre and checking in with each other… If your door is open, you will get to connect with everyone else in the building, which I think is hugely important before you step out on that stage every night. Elphaba is so isolated in the show… I think offstage, it’s better to be a part of the family and remember you’re all in it together.

Julia Murney
Elphaba January 2007–October 2007

Julia Murney
Julia Murney Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
JM: Discovering the limits of my stamina—very humbling, indeed. However, when the planets align and you feel great and rested, it's super fun to get to be a rock star for an evening.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
JM: The biggest mantra I had to repeat whenever the aforementioned stamina issues came into play was that it's not about me not feeling well — it's about having this fabulous story to tell to a crowd of people you have to assume have never heard the story before. Even though there were times when I wanted to curl up centerstage and say I'm too tired to take one more step or sing one more note, it was my job to tell the story. And then sometimes it was my job to shut my mouth and stay home — and that's even harder, in certain ways.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
JM: Don't forget to eat and hydrate and to sometimes give yourself a break — many women have come before you, and every one of them had to take shows off (even though I hated doing so). And be kind to those around you — that fabulous cast and crew will help you through sometimes if you give room for them to do so and if you have already shown them how you have their back as well.

Nicole Parker
Elphaba January 2009–July 2009

Nicole Parker in <i>Wicked</i>
Nicole Parker in Wicked Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
NP: There are so many challenges... it's hard to pick one! I guess overall, when you are first doing it, the challenge is very mental. It's the closest this theatre nerd has ever felt to being an athlete. I've been known to hurt myself opening a box of cereal, so it was great to feel and look like an X-Man for awhile. But it's the unknowns: Will I have stamina for eight times a week? What happens if I get sick? You don't know what to expect. When I did it on tour three years later, it was so great to not have those fears. Another challenge is that it is very intimidating to step into a long line of so many epic divas who have truly dominated that role. I was the first girl on Broadway that hadn't had previous experience with the show in a different venue, and having to find my way in the role for the first time on that particular stage is still a thought that makes me stressed. Lastly, interacting with fans of the show who really wanted to communicate how they felt about my performance was challenging because sometimes that can affect you negatively and you can get very in-your-head. People care a lot about this role, and you're not going to please everybody. It can make you feel very vulnerable to feel like you must live up to so many expectations. The challenge in that case is to remember your job is to do your job and tell the story and know that it will reach people.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
NP: I truly learned I was capable of more than I thought. I could push further than I had. There's not one girl who has donned the hat and done the show that is not a total badass. (I'd like to think I am, too.) I've definitely done shows since then that were challenging in their own ways, but my experience with Elphie made them easier. I definitely think Funny Girl was much more manageable for me thanks to Elphie. What if Elphie met Fanny? Hmmm...

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
NP: Be nice to yourself. Be nice to everyone else. Remember that this job is awesome—it helps when you're tired. And "Dancing Through Life" is pretty much your last chance to pee, so just make sure you take advantage.

Teal Wicks
Elphaba February 2011–September 2011

Teal Wicks
Teal Wicks Photo by Joan Marcus

What was the biggest challenge of playing the role?
TW: Getting though an eight-show week! I loved the role so much and she felt like such a natural fit in my voice and body, so in the beginning I just wanted to let her rip every night! I did, and it was a blast, but after months of that I was getting burnt out. So I really had to learn how to pace myself throughout the show and not blow it all right out of the gate, which is easy to do when your first solo is written like an 11 o'clock number.

What did you learn about yourself as a person and/or actor playing Elphaba?
TW: I really learned what my strengths and weaknesses are as a performer. I quickly realized I needed to be far more disciplined. In everything! Talk a little less outside of the show, skip that next glass of wine, remember to warm up my body as well as my voice, figure out what my A, B and C shows will be. I also learned so much from my co-stars. I had some incredible actors to work with! I had the best time watching them and playing with them onstage every night.

What advice would you give to future Elphabas?
TW: Everyone will have an opinion about how you play her: directors, cast member, friends, fans, etc. And I guarantee you, they will compare you to the ladies who have come before you. You can't worry about any of that. Trust that your point of view is like no one else's and that there is no vocal riff that hasn't been done. And drink lots of water, get lots of sleep, take advantage of massage and physical therapy whenever you can... Oh, and have fun. 

In December 2003 Idina Menzel spoke with Diva Talk about starring in the hit musical. Current Elphaba, Rachel Tucker, spoke about the role in December 2014, and another former green gal, Willemijn Verkaik, chatted with Diva Talk in April 2013.

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