By Andrew Gans
14 Dec 2007
Stephanie J. Block
Stephanie J. Block is the latest actress to step into the green skin of the misunderstood Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre. Actually, Block was the very first actress to play the demanding role in the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical that has captivated theatregoers around the world. Block's journey with the international hit began with the show's first workshop, and since that time she has played the part in the show's out-of-town San Francisco tryout (she stoodby for Idina Menzel), in the musical's national tour (Block kicked off the tour) and now on Broadway. It's an especially busy time for the gifted singing actress, who boasts one of the more exciting, rich and rangy belts in the business. Block is newly married; in fact, she currently shares the Gershwin stage with her husband, Sebastian Arcelus (he's now Fiyero and will soon be Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys). The onstage and offstage duo are also new parents . . . to a four-month-old puppy named Macaco. Earlier this week I had a great chat with the good-spirited Block, whose Broadway resume also includes The Boy From Oz and the recent The Pirate Queen.
Question: Congratulations on your recent wedding.
Stephanie J. Block: Thank you.
Question: How is married life so far?
Block: It's remarkable. We had a lot of time off, he and I. We came back from the wedding, we did five shows, and then we were on strike. Now we're back to work, but [the wedding and the honeymoon were] so magical and just perfect.
Block: We did a couple of things. It sounds so much fancier than it is, but we rented a villa in Tuscany for the wedding. We were there for a week with really close family and friends. There were about 50-some people at the villa. Then he and I went off to the Amalfi Coast — Capri and Positano for the honeymoon.
Question: How did you and Sebastian meet?
Block: Well, it truly was on tour at Wicked. I was with somebody else at the time. [Sebastian] came in, [and] I recognized how extraordinary this person was, but I was fully committed in my relationship. When I left the tour, he still had ten months out with Wicked. A couple months later, my relationship was no longer working, so he started flying out every Monday from the tour. We didn't really start dating for the first couple of months. It was just, "I happen to be in town checking on my apartment," or "I have an appointment" or "I've got an audition." I would say about June of 2006, we were officially dating. It was interesting how we met, [and] I recognized [that] this man is really something special, but I'm not into the "show-mance" type thing. [Laughs.] He was still on the road, and I was here in New York, and we really just made it work and put a lot of effort into it. Starting a relationship when it's long distance is not always the best, but it was immediately right. You know when your mom says, "You'll know when you know" — well, you totally know when you know! [Laughs.]
Question: Do you think it's easier being with someone who is also an actor?
Block: I personally do. I know there are ups and downs with any relationship. I think when somebody is in this business and it's so much more than just a business — it becomes a passion and a lifestyle — to have your partner recognize that and understand that you may have to have a rehearsal that lasts until two o'clock in the morning. . . .They just understand the whole mindset of being so passionate about your work. Instead of clocking in nine-to-five and then coming home, theatre is a completely different business and a completely different vibe. I think with someone in the industry, they get that. They understand that, and they're of great support.
Question: You've been involved with Wicked for years. How did you initially become attached?
Block: It was kind of a random phone call. It was back in February of 2000. Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman were out [in California] creating Wicked because Universal Pictures was looking to back it. Story goes, as it's been passed on to me, that Stephen Schwartz went to dinner with a nice group of friends and he said, "I'm not familiar with a lot of the musical theatre talent out here on the West Coast. Who would you guys recommend?" Luckily, my name came up several times. They referred him to me, and he literally left a voice message on my home phone and just said, "Stephanie, you don't know me, but my name is Stephen Schwartz. I've written Godspell…" and he started to give his resume, and my jaw just kept dropping on the floor! . . . Once I regained myself, I called him back. I think we met the next day or the day after that. I sang a couple songs for him, and he played me three tunes from the show and kind of taught me there on the spot.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Question: Do you remember which songs?
Block: One song was "Making Good," which was in place of "The Wizard and I." Another song was "One Short Day," and the other one was "As Long As You're Mine." . . . . He was going to get another gal to play Glinda and then a Fiyero, and we were just going to present these three tunes while Winnie and Stephen kind of narrated what the show was going to be, and we were going to present it to Universal Pictures. So that was my first involvement. About six months later he called again and said, "You know, we've got a rough draft of the first act. We'd love you to come in. We're going to gather some people, and it's going to be a really closed thing," so I did that for him. They made some adjustments and some changes and edits and then called me back again [in] I'd say another six months [and] we did another table reading. Then several months later, it was a full two-week workshop and presentation to Universal Pictures. They had invited guests and they also had the CEO, the CFO, all the bigwigs from Universal there; and that's when Kristin Chenoweth came on board. That was about a two-year on-and-off process of working with them in its kind of birthing stages back in Los Angeles.
Question: What was it like working with Kristin during that final workshop?
Block: Oh, incredible! She and I bonded very quickly and maintained a friendship. I went off with the cast to do it in San Francisco — I was standing by or understudying for Idina [Menzel] — and she and I got to play it onstage in San Francisco together, and that was a really amazing experience as well. It's been a long journey, you know?
Question: Were you at all disappointed that you didn't get to open the show?
Block: Oh, I was heartbroken! [Laughs.] Oh, yeah, it was like someone punched me in the gut, quite frankly. But I understood. My heart didn't understand, but my head certainly did. When producers say, "Well, you have no Broadway credits and we're about to mount a $14 million production, it's just a huge risk," you want to fight your case and say, "I can do it." But Idina was nominated for a Tony before. She had been on this route of originating a Broadway role. They wanted that and they needed that. I, at that point, had to understand. But being with the original company, that was kind of my wake up to take the leap from Los Angeles to New York. [And, then] Wicked had been postponed. It was supposed to open in spring and then it got passed until the fall… I moved out to New York with every intention to be part of the original Wicked company and then had several months before it was to start, to kind of fill my time. So, I was auditioning and getting out there and really trying to get the lay of the land here in New York City. But Wicked was certainly [the impetus to] "get up and go try it and see what happens."
Question: When your friends recommended you to Stephen Schwartz, what had you been doing in Los Angeles?
Block: My gosh, I had been working and making a living at theatre since I was about 18. I had done most of the regional playhouses — the Pantages, the Ahmanson, Pasadena Playhouse, all of the CLOs. I played the Narrator in Joseph and I played Polly in Crazy for You and I did multiple productions of Funny Girl as Fanny Brice. I made my presence known, certainly, as a regional theatre [actress] and made a nice living. You always had to supplement it with other things, whether that was a special event for Disney or doing some voiceovers every now and then. But musical theatre was always my meat and potatoes, even when I was on the West Coast.
Question: Was Broadway always in your plans?
Block: Yes, it was always my desire. . . . [But] I was dating someone who lived in Los Angeles, my entire family lived in Los Angeles, so . . . in order for me to uproot my entire existence from Los Angeles to New York, something was going to have to shake up my life. Whether that was going to be personally or professionally, I wasn't sure, but in this case, it was Wicked.
Question: You also got the opportunity to launch the Wicked tour. How did that come about?
Block: I went off and did The Boy From Oz and then [Wicked] producer David Stone called my agent and said, "We're going to have an opening in the Broadway company, and we're going to be launching the original cast of the national tour." So my agents and I looked at the pros and cons of both, [and] the national tour seemed right for my career. It was going to allow for a lot of great press. It was going to allow for me to get back to Los Angeles for about six weeks so I could see my friends and family. It was going to be a great homecoming in that respect. It was really important to me, instead of coming into a cast that kind of already existed and to be a puzzle piece, I really wanted to start from scratch. I really wanted to work with [director] Joe Mantello and flesh out this character in my own way, as opposed to having to fill Idina's shoes and what she had already established with the Broadway company. So, for me, I just thought the national tour was a better fit for where I was in my career and for what I wanted to get out of this role.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Question: It's also a great way to get your name to different parts of the country that wouldn't necessarily know you.
Block: I had no idea what sort of fan base you could gain by going out on the road until we were out there. I still get emails from people that had seen it in Denver or St. Louis. It was really remarkable to me. I didn't understand that until we were on the road for the year, and those sort of fan relationships are still existing.
Question: How did you find touring?
Block: It's tough. I'll be real honest. I think if I was in my early twenties, it would be a fantastic lifestyle, to see the country and to just kind of enjoy it for what it is on a day-to-day basis. But for a person who is playing a role of this magnitude, you don't really get to see the country. [Laughs.] You get to see your hotel room and all the different theatres and, in between that, you're fighting allergens or pollens or what the weather is bringing in every city. It was really a huge test of my endurance [and] my health. And I'm a nester, I like my things. I like my own bed and my own chachkis and all of that stuff. [Laughs.] This time around, being in New York playing the role, has really [been] a much happier existence for me. You get to come in and do a magnificent show, but then you get to go home to reality, which is your husband, your house, your chores.
Question: Regarding touring — I know the same crew puts the show in in each city, but is it difficult adjusting to a new theatre every few weeks?
Block: For me it wasn't necessarily the blocking or the stage or lights, it was very much the sound. The sound was always very different. And the backstage traffic patterns! . . . [Also], we didn't bring our own dressers, so we had to train dressers in every city, and there are some changes that are [completed in only] 20 seconds. . . . And, of course, this show is very technical . . . with trapdoors and levitation. The levitation always seemed to be perfect, but the trapdoor — you can't just cut holes in every stage throughout the country, so we would have to restage certain things.
Question: Tell me about your decision to now join the Broadway company.
Block: It came about because I think it's just the perfect circle. I'm coming full circle, and it's great closure for me. Not to say that I would never come back to the role, but it's just a beautiful way to [end] a long journey, [which is] now going on seven years with Wicked and the role of Elphaba. Being home, knowing I was going to be onstage with my husband — there were a lot of perks with it, and it fit perfectly in the schedule to come off of Pirate Queen and have just a few months to rest, doing this role and knowing that I can complete this role, have another few months to rest, and then move on to 9 to 5.
Question: How demanding is the role of Elphaba? Pirate Queen seemed pretty demanding as well.
Block: Pirate Queen was very demanding. I think it was a different type of singing. It allowed me to use more of my legit voice and head voice. With Elphaba it's power ballad after power ballad after power ballad. [Laughs.] But I certainly would say, from a physical standpoint, Pirate Queen was much more exhausting. Vocally, I would say they're probably about the same. I think there were 23 songs that I was involved in with Pirate Queen, so it was non-stop singing for that. But I kind of knew what I was getting into [after doing the Wicked] tour, and it's just that sort of discipline where you know you're not going to go out after a show. You're going to stay in in between shows. Your day off is going to be very much about maintenance and maintaining your vocal health and resting your body, and that's kind of what it becomes. Your life becomes about playing Grace O'Malley or Elphaba. You have to give up a lot to do roles like this. But, for me, it's worth it.
Question: What time do you get to the theatre now? How long does it take you to greenify?
Block: I have to give myself a good hour-and-a-half before curtain. I'll walk in, and I'll have a nice half hour by myself to stretch the body, start warming up the voice, get the humidifier going. And then once everybody else is in, stage management will start bringing in business, whether it is, "Can you say this in the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS speech?" or "Here's your fan mail" or "We've got so-and-so on for the role of Boq." So it's about 20 minutes, half hour with notes and business, and then a half hour [prior] to curtain, I'm in the chair getting green and putting my wigs on. Then that's it. You're kind of at the mercy of, as they call themselves, the Green Team. [Laughs.]
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Question: Once the make-up is on, does that bring you into character more?
Block: Yeah, the transformation completely happens. It's amazing. I know a lot of people like to get into costume and character a couple minutes before places so they can feel the shoes and get reacquainted with the wig and just become that character. I get to watch myself become that character through an entire half-hour process. It's pretty remarkable. When I step onstage, I'm certainly ready and I'm certainly Elphaba. It allows you that time to slowly become that character.
Question: After spending so many years with the character, how would you describe her?
Block: I think it's not so much how I would describe her, [but] this is what I admire about her: her integrity, her sense of right and wrong and willingness to continue down a path which she feels is right and feels is important, regardless of who is going to throw obstacles at her. I admire her strength, I admire the vulnerability that she chooses to show only in moments of solitude or with people that she then begins to trust. There's so much about her, to me, that resonates with me as a person. I just feel like I'm really connected and know her very well.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
Block: I know it's going to sound so silly because there's no huge belting, but it's "I'm Not That Girl."
Question: That's such a great song.
Block: It's quiet and personal, and I think the lyrics are really touching and just perfect for where that character is in the course of the play.
Question: I think everyone feels that way at some point in life.
Question: Since you've been involved with the show so long, why do you think it has become the hit it has? And, did you think it would be this kind of a hit when you were first doing the workshops?
Block: Yeah, I did. I'll answer your last question first. I remember being in the reading. I invited my parents to the final reading we did with Kristin and the bigwigs from Universal. It was awesome, and I looked at my parents and said, "It's a winner, right?" And they shook their heads, and I said, "Whoever plays this role is winning the Tony, right?" And they shook their heads. So from the very beginning, did I know it was going to be this phenomenon? I have to answer, I didn't know. But I heard the music, those first three songs, and I knew it was going to be a really special project. I knew that I certainly and desperately wanted to be a part of it, but once that final reading in Los Angeles took place, it was crystal clear what this show was going to be.
Your first question was, "Why do I think it's become this huge hit?" You answered it yourself. It's that everybody feels like there is a piece of Elphaba inside of them. You want to root for her because of her integrity, her purpose, her meaning. There was a reporter that used a great quote, "Most people may come in thinking that they're Glinda and, for some reason, by the time they leave the theatre, they've adopted the character traits, or want desperately to adopt the character traits, of Elphaba." And I think that's very true. I also think that the history with "The Wizard of Oz" and how everybody feels like they know these characters and they've grown up with these characters, to see a completely different point of view and a different take on it is really such a great form of entertainment and really so very clever. It's amazing to me that, even after all these years that Wicked has been playing — and now it's intergalactic with the many companies they've got — that people still respond when they hear about the ruby slippers or they get the nuances of the storyline that connects "The Wizard of Oz" with Wicked. They're just in awe of how clever Winnie [Holzman] made this book.Continued...