Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena met when they were cast in the 2012 Lucille Lortel Award-winning musical Dogfight, about a socially-awkward, yet charming waitress Rose Fenny (Mendez) who is asked out on a date by Vietnam-bound soldier Eddie Birdlace (Klena) in a cruel attempt to find the ugliest date to bring to the "Dogfight" — the annual dance held on the soldier's final night before deployment.
Under the direction of Joe Mantello (who also directed the Tony Award-nominated Best Musical Wicked), the two became fast friends and were often seen around the theatre circuit, performing alongside one another at various concerts and benefits.
As Dogfight's limited, world-premiere engagement came to a close at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, Mendez and Klena were unsure that they would reunite in a musical — seeing as how there were no immediate plans for a future life for the 1963-set musical — until they were enlisted by the Wicked creative team for the lead roles of Elphaba and Fiyero, another pair of unlikely lovers who see beyond one's exterior.
In Wicked, Mendez and Klena, who joined the show just in time for the hit musical's tenth birthday on Broadway, team up with Katie Rose Clarke, who began her journey to Oz on the show's national tour in 2007 before transferring to the Broadway company for a year-and-a-half-long run in 2010. Her current stay in the Emerald City remains through Sept. 22. Playbill.com sat down with Mendez, Klena and Clarke, friends both off and on stage at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre, in Clarke's dressing room, where they spoke about their individual journeys with Wicked, their first performances, dealing with nerves and the show's imminent tenth anniversary.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Katie, did you know Derek and Lindsay before they joined the cast?
Katie Rose Clarke: Lindsay and I had met doing a reading together, and it was pretty briefly. We didn't get a lot of interaction in that particular reading. So we knew each other, but I hadn't met Derek, and I didn't know Derek yet.
Lindsay and Derek, I know you are good friends. Did you know each other before going into Dogfight?
Lindsay Mendez: We didn't know each other. We met each other in my final audition. Derek got cast before me. We met then, but we're both from the same area in California, so we knew a lot of the same people, and when we found out each other were cast, we Facebook messaged each other. I was doing
Godspell at that time, and he was doing
Carrie [Off-Broadway with MCC], and we said, "We should meet before we start rehearsal." So he came and picked me up after the show one night — we had like a blind date. It was our first date! We went to Thalia right here [on 8th Avenue].
Derek Klena: We just talked about our mutual friends and where I was coming from and what she'd been doing.
LM: We were both super nervous and had the same level of excitement/[being] terrified. Anyway, that's how we met. From there, we just spent every day together. [Laughs.] For a long time it was just the two of us [in rehearsals for Dogfight] with Joe most of the time.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Where were each of you ten years ago when Wicked debuted on Broadway? What was your first experience with the musical?
KRC: I think the first time I heard anything about
Wicked was when I watched
Idina Menzel perform "Defying Gravity" on ["The Late Show"] with
David Letterman. I was in college at the time, and I just thought it was really special. There's something really special about this [musical], so it made me investigate the show a little bit. I just fell in love with the music that I heard [and] what I could find about the show at the time. I never considered — especially at the time because I was in college — that I would ever be a Glinda, much less do it for so long.
DK: It was actually the first Broadway show I ever saw. I always listened to the soundtrack. It was kind of a dream role of mine to get to play, and now that it actually happened, it's been kind of surreal.
And, you made your Broadway debut with this show! Tell me about that.
DK: It's kind of crazy. I think getting to work with people whom I've worked with before made it much more comfortable. Going into a show that has such a big following, and me seeing it so many times [with] tons of different Fiyeros, it was very nerve-wracking for me to jump into the show, especially it being my Broadway debut [and having to] live up to
ten years of Fiyeros. I just had to remember to make it my own and try to find something new with the character. It was definitely nerve-wracking [and] intimidating, but very special. My family all came out for opening. It was cool.
LM: I saw [ Wicked] when it first opened, and I thought it was awesome. I loved it. It's always been around, but it was never on my radar as a show that I could be in. And so, now doing it is like crazy and strange… And, I'm green all the time now! I really love playing this role. We're so lucky to get to [perform] such an epic journey every night. You don't always get that opportunity in a musical. A lot of times, you're playing something that happens over [the course of] a week. You're not getting to see people grow up and have these huge things happen to them [like in Wicked], and I think it's really special to get to dig that deep and go through [the journey] every night. And, to get to sing with a huge orchestra — one of the last huge orchestras on Broadway — and to be in a show that's this big and exciting, where an audience comes and is already excited to see it before it even starts… We have such an upper hand! They're already invested in the story before we even open our mouths because they know these characters, and that's really special and makes our jobs easier.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Did any of you have special ties with "The Wizard of Oz"?
LM: When I was 12, I played Dorothy in my community theatre production of
The Wizard of Oz, and it was
very critically hailed by my school paper! [Laughs.]
LM: So I loved "The Wizard of Oz," and I'm a huge Judy Garland fan, too. I can recite the entire movie by heart, so in that way, yes, I was a big "Wizard of Oz" fan, but I never thought I'd play the witch. That was not a dream role of mine! [Laughs.] But it is now!
DK: I played the Scarecrow and Tin Man growing up in different Wizard of Oz productions.
LM: Were you in The Wiz, [Derek]?
DK: That was my first show ever. I was a flying monkey in The Wiz.
LM: I knew you did The Wiz! [Sings "Ease on Down the Road."]
DK: They ended up doing The Wizard of Oz in that same children's theatre, and that's where I got to [play] Scarecrow.
Katie, you've been doing the show for so many years. What is it like when you're playing opposite new co-stars?
KRC: It is different. I had a long break before this contract, actually — over a year — so I really did come in just naturally fresh. I had to re-memorize the script and score again. It was like coming into it for the first time. You are so reliant on your partner, especially Elphaba, of course, but also Fiyero. When new people come in, and they bring their own viewpoints and their own energy, it completely freshens it and changes it. Especially with these guys… We've gotten so close so quick. I've never experienced anything like that. I think it's because they had an established friendship before, and it was really easy. We just fell in love with each other really quickly, so the offstage chemistry really has dictated the onstage.
LM: We're all very similar actors in the way we approach the scene work, and that makes it a big dream. It's so easy and comfortable on stage, and everyone is so truthful — just in being present and telling a story… It's an amazing thing because it doesn't always happen, and it has really happened for us.
DK: And, no show is the same. I'm big about making different choices every night, and shows just go differently [because of] the way audiences react, so being able to trust one another and know each other and be comfortable with each other off stage makes being on stage in those moments that are new comfortable.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
"Friendship" is a big theme in Wicked. Tell me about your offstage friendship. You are often tweeting about hanging out outside of the show.
LM: Derek and I were such good friends coming in, and we had rehearsals together — we were always together. I just hoped Katie liked us! [Laughs.] It was like we were dating her — friend-wise.
KRC: [I thought], "Can we make this duet a trio?!" [Laughs.]
LM: Our first night, [when Derek and I] watched the show, we fell in love with Katie. We thought, "She's incredible." And, we were so stoked to perform with her and felt like we had to rise to the occasion because this woman is incredible.
DK: [The show is] kind of a beast. I was sitting next to [Lindsay] when we saw it for the first time, and at intermission, she was like, "I have to go to the restroom!"
DK: She was so nervous and distraught, and I said, "Are you okay, Linds?" I was like, "I'm so excited to start this," and she said, "I'm going to step out for a minute." She was terrified. I was so pumped, and Lindsay said, "She never leaves the stage." I thought, "I feel really good about this." [Laughs.]
LM: He said, "I'm probably just now getting dressed" [when] he leaned over to me [after] "The Wizard and I." [Laughs.] But that night, what we mainly came away from [the show with] was how excited we were that we got to work with Katie… I chose to do theatre because I like hanging with people, and that's what theatre is about — it's about the "hang." I think our roles can be very solitary. I can make a choice — my door can be shut all the time or it can be open. I choose to have it be open, so I can spend my time getting green hanging with my friends and not being in my head about how hard my job is.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Lindsay and Derek, tell me about your first show.
DK: I kept telling myself that I was not nervous at all. I felt like we had a good rehearsal process, we felt comfortable, we were ready, our put-in [rehearsal] was great. Lindsay and I were like, "Yeah! We're ready for this!" Everybody kept asking me, "Are you nervous? It's your Broadway debut. It's your first time. It's such a big show." I said, "Yeah, I'm actually feeling okay."
Once I sat down in the carriage that I get ridden out on for my first entrance, that's when it really hit me. I was going out on stage, and I was terrified from then on. I would literally run on stage, do my scene, come off, and it would be a blur. I [thought], "Did that go okay?" And, I couldn't remember. I was like, "I guess it did." You just got to keep going!
LM: The first moment that we were actually able to [breathe was] when we sat down to sing our duet, ["As Long As Your Mine"]. We were like, "Oh, hi! Oh, this is happening. How cool is this!" We felt comfortable, and we could breathe and enjoy it. We came off that night, and we both said that was the moment where we were [thought], "This is happening." … I have the most terrifying [first] entrance of [my] life! [Laughs.] It's awful. Running downhill [from upstage], the lights in my face, glasses, can't see the front lip [of the stage]…
LM: My heart was pounding behind that clock [tower] so hard. You could probably see my heart pounding through the wool jacket. I was so nervous. We also had so many people there. All of our friends just thought it would be the coolest thing to come on our first night.
DK: I said, "Come three months from now!" They said, "No, dude. We want to see when you're terrified!" [Laughs.]
LM: I mean, we must have had — between us — like 50 people there, right? We had a party afterward. It was crazy and awful…
DK: …and also the best!
LM: It was the best. It was great because they were all so excited to be there.
DK: And, Katie came to our after-party.
KRC: Hell yeah!
How was the crowd that night?
LM: They were amazing, yeah. We got a lot of great applause. It was great, but I had no breath under me. The end of "Defying Gravity," I was gasping for air because I was so nervous — nervous that I was going to fly and do it right. There's just so much to think about.
KRC: Y'all were both rock solid. I kept saying to everyone, "It's like we've been doing the show with them for months!" They're so calm — both of y'all were.
DK: On my first steps, I was literally afraid I was going to topple over… And, when it was over, I had the jitters for two hours afterwards.
LM: And then we realized, "Oh, wait! We have a matinee tomorrow!" [Laughs.]
DK: Which was a blessing. It was a gift and a curse that we had two [shows] the next day because we could settle in, and after tomorrow we [would] feel good, and we did.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Speaking of nerves, do you have any parts in the show you are nervous about — when it comes to the technical aspect? Flying in by bubble, taking flight at the end of Act I…
LM: Do you even think about it anymore?
KRC: Not the bubble anymore, but after all this time, there's this one entrance that I still hate because I fear for my life. I have to come down stairs in this giant ball gown… My dresser is laughing, because I always get caught on something!
LM: I saw you get caught the other night!
KRC: One part, right when I get on the top of the staircase to enter on the stage, there's no railing, and my dress gets caught, and it pulls me back, and I feel like I'm going to fall every time. I think about every night how I would play it off.
LM: I would help you! I will totally help you if you need help… Before we even started rehearsals, the [creative team said], "We want you to come in and get in the levitator to see how it works," so I flew. I hadn't even started rehearsal yet, and I [thought], "There is no way I'm going to be able to do this." It is so scary to do it with lights on and with people [watching] — when you're not focused on what you have to do. I was terrified. And, now I don't even think about it. I think about singing and the broom — not dropping the broom — and that Act I is almost over! [Laughs.] You're so in the moment, and it just happens. I don't think about it at all anymore — ever. Except I had some problems with it for a while — maybe my fourth and fifth week I was having some issues — so then I was nervous for it every night, hoping that it would work because one time it didn't work, and that was awful.
You didn't go up?
LM: I didn't go up: Plan B. But that hardly ever happens.
KRC: Someone gets on the loudspeaker: "Everybody, it's Plan B. Tonight's a Plan B." Everybody knows what they're supposed to do.
LM: Yup, I Plan B'ed. I Plan B'ed my third weekend.
KRC: What about you, [Derek]? Are you scared of [entering on] the rope [in Act II]?
DK: No. There's certain times… Because I wear this big wool suit, half the time I'm really sweaty, and my hands get sweaty, and I'm afraid that I'm not going to be able to hold on [to the rope] because I hold the gun [in my hand], too. But now I've figured out a way to hold the gun and get it so it's solid.
Is it a special time to be in the show right now because Wicked is approaching its tenth anniversary? LM: Yeah, it's really exciting. It's an honor to be here this year and to be celebrating such a huge, huge moment for this incredible show. The show deserves it. It's so well-kept, and I'm so proud to be in it — I know we all are. It's such a great story, and it's really so magical and so well done. It's really cool to say we were a part of it this year, I think.
DK: Even now, it's so relevant and so modern. It fits in. It's ten years old. You look at other shows that have been around for as long as Wicked has, and you see how amazingly well-kept [it is]… It looks like it could have come out this year, and it could have fit right in. It's kind of bizarre how it [remained so] timeless.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)