DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked's Nicole Parker Plus News of Ripley and Cook

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Nicole Parker
Nicole Parker

NICOLE PARKER
Nicole Parker, who made her Broadway debut in 2006 as one of the Comedy All Stars in the Scott Wittman-directed Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me but who is best known for her work on the recently canceled FOX television series "MADtv," returned to Broadway last month in the hit Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre. The singing actress is the latest to don green make-up for the role of the not-so-wicked Elphaba, the part originally created by Tony Award winner Idina Menzel. Parker, who will be seen this summer opposite Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in the film "Funny People," spoke with me last week about the challenges of her new Broadway role as well as her time spent opposite Martin Short in the aforementioned Fame Becomes Me; my interview with the Joseph Jefferson Award nominee (for her performance in Second City's Romeo and Juliet Musical) follows.

Question: How did this role come about?
Nicole Parker: Well, I think it started with me doing Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me show a couple years ago. In that there was a tip of the hat to Wicked. There was a parody where Marty envisioned his funeral and that the Broadway community would come together, and the Wicked girls would sing a song for him. So Marc Shaiman wrote this funny little song that had us belting our brains out. That was one of the lyrics actually. Bernie Telsey, who casts Wicked, also cast the show that Marty was in. Then, it became a joke. He was like, "Hey, you should play Elphaba!" Then I started to look at the music and go, "Could I really do this?" I was still doing "MADtv," so it seemed like a long way away, but every time I would come to New York and I'd do a benefit, I would run into people and again it would come up. "You should do Wicked." "Alright! Call me!" . . . . Then I started actually working with someone and working on the music, and it started to look like it could maybe be a possibility. I was like, "Am I crazy enough to think I could do this?" [Laughs.] Then they called me this summer to audition in Los Angeles, and that's how it came about.

Nicole Parker in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How was the rehearsal process? I know when you step into a show, you don't get all that much time.
Parker: It was fast. Luckily, I had a month or so in Los Angeles. I live about ten minutes away from the Pantages Theatre [where Wicked recently ended a lengthy run], so it was all too easy to go down there, and they were really gracious about letting me watch several times. I worked with the musical director out there. I just started getting into it. I watched it about four or five times, so I had the idea of the shape of it, [even though] every production has slight differences because the stage is different or what have you . . . but I sort of arrived here already kind of having a general shape of it. But then it was very fast. It was about two weeks. I worked with the dance captain, and it was almost like being in front of a green screen! You have to imagine everything happening: Here's where all the people are, and here's where I see the big Wizard of Oz head. It was very much like make believe because I was in a rehearsal room, trying to envision it all. But it was a really wonderful process. I like fast. I work all right with fast. In sketch [comedy] you rarely get a rehearsal and you have to go right then, so there's not a lot of time. I was okay with it. But once I got on the stage I was like, "Oh, geez, I wish I could do this on the stage a couple more times [before performing in front of an audience]." Question: What was your first performance like in front of an audience?
Parker: It was so out-of-body. There were so many moments that were like, "Oh, my God, I'm Elphaba! I can't believe it! This is crazy! I practice this music in my car, and now I'm doing it onstage! That's so weird." And then you're like, "Oh wait, I'm acting. I'd better stop thinking in my head about things." [Laughs.] But it was a joy. There were nerves. I had adrenaline shooting through my body. It was a lot easier the second time, because I could feel my body relax. It was a lot easier to breathe. And you just expect that. The first night you run out there — and you literally do run out there — you just have to expect there's going to be some extra energy shooting though you. It can help you, and it can also hinder you, so you just have to keep it in check. But it was great. The cast has been so amazing, so gracious, so supportive, and that's made all the difference. I could see all these faces around the back supporting me, and I'm like, "Okay, I got it!" So then at that point it's just about convincing your brain you can do it. Your body and your voice have done it, but your brain is still going, "Oh, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know!"

Question: It really is one of the more vocally-demanding roles.
Parker: Really? I wouldn't say so! [Laughs.] I don't know what you're talking about! Question: How are you finding doing the show eight times a week?
Parker: I really take it one day at a time. I have such a strict routine. I meditate and I stretch, and I drink tea, and I drink water. I wake up everyday sort of going, "Okay, I'm gonna try to keep positive." I literally take it one hour at a time, like, "Okay, meditation went well. Okay, good. Had a good lunch…" It is so funny — my life has become so regimented. And I knew it, I totally was ready for it, but it still makes me laugh how it really is totally scheduled. But it makes it easy because all I have to do is check off the list throughout the day. Check, check, check. Have I done that? Have I done that? By the time I'm warming up, I'm just sort of there. And once you get to the theatre, even if I feel a little bit of a pull or a little bit of fatigue, for some reason, once I get there I'm in a zone, and it helps to be around the energy. But it is a day-to-day thing. I can't think about Sunday right now. I'm thinking about tonight. Sunday will happen if Sunday happens, but I'm only going to think about tonight. So far it's worked for me, but I'm just knockin' on wood and taking it as it comes.

Nicole Parker in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How long does it take you to get into the green makeup at this point?
Parker: It only takes about 30 minutes. We blast music, and I get my little play list together, and we dance it out. It can be very fast-paced. I do my nails and I do my hands, and Jim [Cortes] comes in and we do my face. Sometimes people have notes for me. There's always business to be done. That's sort of all happening, and usually I'll look up and go, "Oh, I'm green already! How did that happen? Alright!" Question: And, what's the process like at the end of the show to de-greenify you? How long does that take?
Parker: I come in, and I take a breath and go, "Oh, my God, I did it again. Okay, good, I'm alive!" So there's that moment. [Laughs.] The moment I realize I'm alive and I'm fine. And then I wash my hands first with this fancy wonderful peppermint soap that takes it right off your hands very quickly. So I do my hands first, then I do my lips and my eyes, and then I jump in the shower. Depending on how many other people are showering at the time, [it goes] from hot to cold, so there's times I'm like, "Waaaaah…" It's really kind of nice to get to shower after that show. It's actually exactly what I would want to do, to get into an enclosed, warm, safe-feeling place that has steam. It actually takes about 15 or 20 minutes. I just scrub heavily with a couple of different products, and then I'm out.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show at this point?
Parker: I have a couple. And, you know, they're going to change. My favorite moment is going to change, too. There are times when I say, "I love singing that song." And then the next day I'm like, "I do not like singing that song! That song was not my friend today. Why was that song not my friend today?" [Laughs.] So it changes. But some of my favorite parts I can't even explain why. For some reason, I really love — and not like it's so hard to understand, but it's maybe not what you would first think of — but I really love doing "Loathing" because it means that I got through "Wizard and I," so that makes me happy, and now I'm joined onstage by everyone. And I really, really like the moment where I get to be onstage with people. I love the energy, the rush of energy from "Loathing" as I'm running down the stage and the groups are coming at me and I'm chasing after them. It kind of gets me really, really warmed up into the show. This cast is so incredible, the energy they give out. I really love "Popular" because I love watching Alli [Mauzey] because she's hilarious! I love sitting . . . and knowing that now we're going to have a moment, we're going to have a scene, we're going to become friends, she's gonna be funny. . . . And I really like doing the dance — I like the "Elphaba Dance." I remember being, definitely, the awkward girl, and I like that moment because it's so triumphant, even though it's sort of sad, but at the same time it's not because you really get to see that she is an individual. There are a lot of things going on at that moment, and I enjoy all of them. That's all first-act stuff — the second act goes by so quickly. I'm sure I'll settle into it more and have more favorite moments!

Alli Mauzey and Nicole Parker in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How would you describe Elphaba?
Parker: The hardships that she has [endured] she doesn't regret because they've made her who she is. She's one of those people who doesn't spend much time wishing she wasn't who she is. She sort of accepts it. I think there's a part of her that while she's got this crazy thing that, in the beginning, she can't explain it, she's always known — and I think it's evident when she sings "Wizard and I" — that she's going to do something great with it. She just needed someone to say it to her. I think that because of what's happened to her, it's made her wiser beyond her years, and she's definitely over-mature for her age group. That's why she identifies with older people like Doctor Dillamond. I think she responds to adults much better. She's just one of those people. I remember — because when I did theatre as a kid, I was around adults a lot — sometimes I had that feeling. . . . . I think that's also the way she is. She's a really good girl, and I know misunderstood is the word to use, but I actually don't think she even thinks about whether she's misunderstood or not. I don't think she cares. I think that she just thinks other people just don't get it. She doesn't understand other people. It's not that she's misunderstood, she's like, "I just don't get other people." I think she's a true individual. Even though she has her insecurities, she really accepts who she is. Question: Why do you think the musical has been so successful everywhere?
Parker: I think because it's a combination of the incredible production value — which is something that always remains with people. There are some amazing visual images that happen, but then it's not just that. On top of it, there are relationships. I think with any show, if you don't care about what happens to the people, you don't have a show. Whether it's a sitcom or a silly movie, it doesn't even matter. You have to care about the people. To me, that's what it is: People care about Elphaba, people care about Glinda, people care about Boq. You can hear it. I will listen to them and the way they react, and they're with us. They're totally with the story, so I think it is good storytelling. That is what keeps a show going on and on forever. It's not production value, it's not lighting, it's not costumes, it's not sound. And while the show has all of those elements, what it has at its core is the storytelling. I think if you look at anything that lasted a long time, you told a good story and you cared about what happened. That's what it is. It's a good story. It doesn't matter what age you are, who you are, where you're from. You're in.

Question: You mentioned before Fame Becomes Me, which was your Broadway debut. What was that experience like, and what was it like working with Martin Short?
Parker: It was awesome. It was like playtime. It was like recess everyday. I get sad thinking about it because it's over. That group is still really tightly connected. Marty was a workhorse. He was a consummate professional, but at the same time, he was trying to make you laugh at any given moment onstage. [Laughs.] The cast was so together. We were just such one mind. Everyone got along so well. [During the] hang time backstage, all of a sudden we're like, "Oh, we have to go onstage now and do a scene and then we're gonna come back and giggle some more!" It was amazing being with Marc Shaiman. It was amazing watching his mind work. He would look off into space, and he'd immediately have a lyric. You're surrounded by geniuses, and they're at the top of their game, so it felt like such a privilege. And the best thing about it was they all said to us, "We want you to bring everything you've got." They didn't have to do that. They gave each of us featured moments. I felt that was so generous . . . . They wanted to give us a showcase. The show was just such a blast, I can't even explain to you. Watching Marty do Jiminy Glick every night — ridiculous! I will treasure that memory always.

Question: When did "MADtv" come about?
Parker: "MADtv" was going on about three years before [ Fame Becomes Me]. I had worked at a theatre called Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. It was an improv theatre, all Americans. We did shows in English, and we'd travel all around Europe and did corporate shows as well. It was amazing. When I moved back to New York, my intent was to do theatre, but now I had a bunch of friends who were doing sketch. They were on "MADtv" and suggested me for an audition. I went in. Ironically, I do think that singing gave me an extra boost because I did a lot of musical impressions. I've always been able to use music. It sort of just happened by coincidence that I ended up joining the show and leaving New York. I always wanted to get back here and do theatre. It's where I'm most happy, it's where I'm most comfortable. But I wouldn't trade my years there for anything because I think it was great — I learned how to be a writer. I think that improv and sketch really keep all of your emotions at hand. . . . I think it's really great acting training.

Question: Is the show continuing?
Parker: The show was canceled, unfortunately, two days after I got the job at Wicked. So it was good timing for me but not for other people, and it was very sad to know it was ending. The family there was really great, and I think our show was really special. I'm really proud of a lot of the work that we did. But, you know, all things must come to an end, and a lot of people I know were sad to leave but ready to move on. I'm happy for my time there, but sadly "MADtv" is no longer.

Question: Are there any new episodes that haven't aired?
Parker: There's gonna be a few more, I think, half-hour episodes. I don't know what they're doing with it, but there are still some sketches that I shot that have definitely not aired yet. I don't know what's going to happen to them.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, I want to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Parker: I was born and raised in Irvine, California.

Question: When did you start performing?
Parker: Unofficially, in my dining room for my parents, after dinner, probably about three. But there's no footage of that, thank goodness. There's no YouTube of them, so that's probably a good thing. [Laughs.] I took my first acting class at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa at, I think, probably six. Then I did the recitals and I did kid's plays there, and I did some of the mainstage plays. That's really all I've ever been doing! Question: When do you think you knew it would be your career rather than just a hobby?
Parker: We had a recital when I was about seven. We were doing some musical [based on] the comic strip "Little Lulu." For some reason our recital at the end of this particular acting cycle was a musical, and they musicalized this version of ["Lulu"], but it was one of those things where kids in a class do Wizard of Oz, and there are seven Dorothys. So there were like seven Little Lulus, and I got to sing one song. But I remember it very clearly. I remember singing the song, I remember loving singing the song, I remember the audience, I remember their response, and I was like, "Well, that's what I want to do!" It was very simple, it was very immediate, and it's all I've ever wanted to do.

Question: How long are you scheduled to stay with Wicked?
Parker: Until July.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works, or are you just focusing on this for now?
Parker: I'm really just focusing on this for now. When you do Elphaba, there's not much room for other projects. If I want to have side projects, it's like, "Oh, I'm drinking tea, I'm meditating at the apartment, I'm going to the acupuncturist" — that's a side project. Trying to stay alive is a side project. [Laughs.] But I was writing a pilot before this happened, and I'm still hoping I can get it out by the spring. I always wanted to try to write my own show, and Tina Fey has definitely paved the road for funny ladies to try and create their own material, which is fantastic, and it inspires me. But that's about it. I hope to do more film and, again, more TV [if that] came up, but we'll just have to see. This is definitely all I'm worrying about for right now.

[ Wicked plays the Gershwin Theatre, located in Manhattan at 222 West 51st Street. For tickets call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com or wickedthemusical.com.]

Alice Ripley

DIVA TIDBITS
The Arena Stage cast of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal will head into a Manhattan recording studio Feb. 11 and 12 to preserve the score of that powerful new musical, which was also seen Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. Ghostlight Records will release the recording this spring at a date to be announced. Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records president Kurt Deutsch and Grammy Award winner Joel Moss are producing the CD. The cast includes Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, Aaron Tveit, Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler-Berat and Louis Hobson. Connie Fisher, the West End actress who starred in the revivals of The Sound of Music and They're Playing Our Song, will soon release her second solo recording. Entitled "Secret Love," the new CD includes Fisher's renditions of "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Secret Love," "Next Time You Fall in Love" (featuring Joseph's Lee Mead), "True Love Ways," "When She Loved Me," "I Guess I'll Miss the Man," "You Must Love Me," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Make Up My Heart," "If I Ever Fall in Love Again," "Memory," "If Love Were All" and "First Impression Counts." To celebrate her new recording, a follow-up to "Favourite Things," Fisher will make an appearance at the London show-biz shop Dress Circle Feb. 28. Beginning at 1 PM the singing actress will be on hand to autograph copies of "Secret Love." For more information visit www.dresscircle.co.uk.

A starry cast has been assembled for the White Plains Performing Arts Center's upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music. Directed by Sidney J. Burgoyne, the Tony-winning musical will play the New York venue March 5-22. The cast will be led by Penny Fuller as Desiree, Mark Jacoby as Fredrick, Sheila Smith as Madame Armfeldt, Laura Osnes as Anne and Rachel de Benedet as Charlotte with Laura D'Andre as Petra, Eleni Delopoulos as Mrs. Segstrom, Eddie Egan as Henrik, Katie Henney as Fredrika, Leah Jennings as Mrs. Nordstrom, Michael Markham as Frid, Jonathan Gabriel Michie as Mr. Lindquist, Christy Morton as Mrs. Anderssen and Branch Woodman as Mr. Erlanson. The role of Count Carl-Magnus will be announced shortly. The White Plains Performing Arts Center is located at 11 City Place in White Plains, NY. For tickets call (914) 328-1600 or visit www.wppac.com.

Principal casting has been announced for the North Carolina Theatre and Progress Energy production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Miss Saigon, which runs March 21-29 in the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. The cast will be led by Kevin Gray as the Engineer, Jennifer Paz as Kim, Eric Kunze as Chris, Jennifer Shrader as Ellen and Josh Tower as John. Richard Stafford will direct the limited run with choreography by Marc Oka. Tickets, priced $26-$76, can be purchased by calling (800) 745-3000 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. For more information visit www.nctheatre.com.

Singer-actress Ilene Graff, who is best known for her work as the mom on the long-running ABC comedy "Mr. Belvedere," will return to the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan March 1. Graff's show, entitled First You Dream, is scheduled to begin at 4 PM; she will be accompanied by her husband, musical director Ben Lanzarone. Among the songs Graff will interpret are "Where or When," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "Out of This World," "Little Things," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "First You Dream," "A Quiet Thing," "The Impossible Dream" and a Grease medley, among others. Graff has been seen on Broadway in Promises, Promises; Grease; Truckload; and I Love My Wife. The Metropolitan Room is located in Manhattan at 34 West 22nd Street. There is a $20 music charge and a two-drink minimum. For reservations visit www.metropolitanroom.com or call (212) 206-0440.

Barbara Cook
photo by Mike Martin

Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran Barbara Cook will play a three-week engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency this spring. The acclaimed vocalist will play the posh venue April 14-May 2, and musical director Lee Musiker will lead a five-piece band. Show times will be Tuesday-Thursday at 8:30 PM and Friday and Saturday at 8 and 10:30 PM. There will be a $60 cover charge ($75 for premium seats) and a $45 food-drink minimum. As previously announced, Tony Award winner Betty Buckley will return to Feinstein's Feb. 10 with her acclaimed Broadway By Request program, which features direction by Richard-Jay Alexander and the comedic and musical talents of Seth Rudetsky. Feinstein's at Loews Regency is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and TicketWeb.com. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.