DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked's Ashford, Bean, Espinosa, Murney and Thompson

By Andrew Gans
October 24, 2008

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

THE GALS OF WICKED
There can be little argument that the biggest theatrical phenomenon of the past five years has been the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical Wicked, which is based on Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name. The production, which celebrates its fifth anniversary at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre Oct. 30, has been a massive hit wherever it has played, including sit-down productions in Chicago and Los Angeles, a national touring company, and international stagings in London, Tokyo, Stuttgart and Melbourne (there will soon be a second U.S. national touring company, and the Los Angeles production will transfer to San Francisco in January 2009). Much of the show's success can be credited to the exciting score (years ago, Schwartz gave belting fans "Meadowlark," and his work for Wicked includes the vocally soaring "Defying Gravity," "The Wizard and I" and "No Good Deed" as well as the comic and catchy "Popular" and the touching ballad "I'm Not That Girl") and its big heart (Holzman's adaptation of Maguire's clever novel offers several touching moments and keeps the audience rooting for its green-skinned heroine). The musical also provides two of the greatest roles for women in recent musical theatre history, and the work of original co-stars Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel as well as future Glindas and Elphabas — including Annaleigh Ashford, Shoshana Bean, Stephanie J. Block, Kerry Ellis, Eden Espinosa, Megan Hilty, Kendra Kassebaum, Julia Murney, Jennifer Laura Thompson, among others — cannot be discounted. Recently "Diva Talk" posed the same four questions to several of the actresses who have brought Elphaba or Glinda to full life; their answers follow.

Annaleigh Ashford
ANNALEIGH ASHFORD
(Glinda on Broadway and in Chicago)

Question: What is the most memorable stage door moment/fan comment that you experienced during your run in Wicked?
Annaleigh Ashford: Just recently we had two fans who were dressed as Act 2 Glinda and Elphaba. Their brother had built exact replicas of Susan Hilferty's magical designs, and the little Elphaba even had a green little face. We walked out and did a double-take. They looked fabulous, and that certainly was the first time I saw a fully decked-out Glinda and Elphaba at the stage door.

Question: What is the funniest stage mishap that stands out in your mind from your Wicked run?
Ashford: One night during "Loathing," at the very top of the song when I have to jump up on the stage, I fell on my back. My feet flew over my head. And, my skirt followed! Thank God we wear spankys or I would have given a not-so-family friendly show that evening. Just kidding! It was hilarious. Any time somebody falls completely on their face, and they're ok, it's a big 'ol laugh to be had by the audience and everyone on stage. Falls are funny...if your ankles are ok.

Annaleigh Ashford in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: Would you say you're more Elphaba or more Glinda in real life?
Ashford: We all have a little of both in us, I hope. But I would have to say my spirit is a little bit more like Glinda's. I tend to be more silly, and I am terrible at flying on brooms.

Question: Why do you think Wicked has become such a hit all around the world?
Ashford: Regardless of its connection to "The Wizard of Oz" and its truly flawless production quality, Wicked is, at its core, a story of two friends and the sacrifices they both make to change the world and to change each other. That is the theme and the heart that remains universal. I believe that is why this show had been such a success in so many languages all around the world.

(A graduate of Marymount Manhattan College, Ashford also created the role of Margot in Legally Blonde—The Musical.)

* * * *

Shoshana Bean
photo by Tye Jakobs
SHOSHANA BEAN
(Elphaba on Broadway and in the 1st National Tour)

Question: What is the most memorable stage door moment/fan comment that you experienced during your run in Wicked?
Shoshana Bean: There was a little girl in Toronto who was trying her best to communicate to me what seeing the show meant to her, but she was unable to. All she could do was cry. So, of course, I started crying, too, and we just cried and hugged. I remember being so grateful in that moment that I was a part of something so powerful.

Question: What is the funniest stage mishap that stands out in your mind from your Wicked run?
Bean: I guess when I ran out onstage for my first entrance into Shiz and ran straight into the pit! [I was] caught by the net, of course, and no one was injured. . . but hilarious and humiliating nonetheless! Many others come to mind, but nothing can top that!

Shoshana Bean in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: Would you say you're more Elphaba or more Glinda in real life?
Bean: I definitely think I'm a combo of both. I loooove pink and girlie things and coordinating outfits and performing make-overs and being the social event planner like Galinda. . .but nothing pains me more than seeing injustice or another living being suffering. I speak my mind even though it may not be the popular opinion, and I have been known to put up a hard protective front or two. . . .much like our green girl.

Question: Why do you think Wicked has become such a hit all around the world?
Bean: I think it's initially appealing because it gives the audience an incredibly imaginative extension on one of the greatest stories of all times. Beyond that the music is ridiculously amazing. It is visually stunning, and there is smart commentary on social and political themes. Above all, there is this amazing friendship between two iconic characters who represent the best and worst in all of us. In one way or another, there is something in the show that appeals to everyone.

(Bean also originated the role of Shelley in Broadway's Hairspray, toured in Leader of the Pack and was seen in the Off-Broadway revival of Godspell.)

* * * *

Eden Espinosa
EDEN ESPINOSA
(Elphaba on Broadway and in Los Angeles)

Question: What is the most memorable stage door moment/fan comment that you experienced during your run in Wicked?
Eden Espinosa: I really don't have one favorite stage-door moment. It's always amazing to meet people after the show who appreciate your work and are so in love with the show. I love it when you see fans that come to the show as Elphaba with the make up and the costume!

Question: What is the funniest stage mishap that stands out in your mind from your Wicked run?
Espinosa: Oh, there are sooo many mishaps that have happened. In the original cast when I was on for Idina [Menzel], Norbert [Leo Butz] swung in on the rope and kneeled with his gun as Fiyero, and he didn't get up right away. Kristin's (Chenoweth) back was to him, so she couldn't see what was happening. I thought he hurt his knee or something, but he had split his pants from the front to the back, and he didn't want to get up and show his stuff! We all started cracking up, and the audience caught on. It stopped the show and was an amazing moment.

Eden Espinosa in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: Would you say you're more Elphaba or more Glinda in real life?
Espinosa: I think I'm more of an Elphaba in real life. I'm a little shy when I first meet someone, but when it comes to something that I'm passionate about and believe in, then I have no problem speaking my mind and standing up for what I believe in.

Question: Why do you think Wicked has become such a hit all around the world?
Espinosa: Wicked has been an amazing chapter in my life, and I feel so blessed to have been a part of this show and this family. I think people have responded so well to this show because everyone can relate to something in it. . . . It's about misconceptions, friendships, politics, love....so many different layers. I give that credit to Winnie and Stephen and the heart they gave the show. It's the humanity that you find even in Oz.

(Espinosa also starred in the title role of Brooklyn the Musical, played Maureen in the final cast of Broadway's Rent and headed the cast of the Reprise mounting of Flora, the Red Menance.)

* * * *

Julia Murney
JULIA MURNEY
(Elphaba on Broadway and in the 1st National Tour)

Question: What is the most memorable stage door moment/fan comment that you experienced during your run in Wicked?
Julia Murney: I found myself consistently amazed at the numbers and passion of people at the stage door, both on tour (props to the sea of people every night in Atlanta) and on Broadway, and I am hard pressed to pick just one memory...One that comes to mind is the girl who showed up one night and said she was the "tattoo girl." She lifted her pant leg to show me a beautiful and rather large tattoo of a butterfly on her calf, with the words "defy gravity" on it — in my handwriting. She had asked for the writing while I was on tour, and I figured, well why not — practiced writing it about 500 times before sending it in, and now there it is permanently on her leg. Holy cow!

Question: What is the funniest stage mishap that stands out in your mind from your Wicked run?
Murney: A few times, Kendra (Kassebaum) tossed her wand off stage during "Popular," and it would bounce off the tower and back onto the stage — her improv around that killed me every time. There was the time the monkey forgot to bring me the note about Fiyero in the final scene, so he just looked at me and mumbled, "Figure it out." I also have to give shout outs to both the tour and Broadway casts for taking such incredibly good care of me on nights when things were not going well health wise for me. They are salt of the earth, every one of them.

Julia Murney in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: Would you say you're more Elphaba or more Glinda in real life?
Murney: I'm an Elphie. Why is my own to know, but I'm definitely an Elphie.

Question: Why do you think Wicked has become such a hit all around the world?
Murney: I think it starts with the brilliance of Gregory Maguire's novel and then to Winnie and Stephen's adaptation. They happened to catch lightning in a bottle and wrote something that anyone who has ever felt like not enough can relate to. Even if you don't know the "Wizard of Oz," you can relate to the desire to belong, the dreams of overcoming adversity, the power of a true and good friendship. You also cannot discount flying monkeys and girls belting in the stratosphere.

(Murney will perform in concert Nov. 24 at 11:30 PM at Joe's Pub. She will be backed by musical director Chris Fenwick on piano, Damien Bassman on drums, Michael Aarons on guitar and Konrad Adderley on bass. Visit www.joespub.com for tickets.)

(Murney has also been seen on Broadway in Lennon and Off-Broadway in Saved, The Wild Party [Drama Desk nomination], The Vagina Monologues, Crimes of the Heart, A Class Act, Time and Again [Lucille Lortel nomination] and First Lady Suite. Her solo album is titled "I'm Not Waiting.")

Jennifer Laura Thompson
JENNIFER LAURA THOMPSON
(Glinda on Broadway)

Question: What is the most memorable stage door moment/fan comment that you experienced during your run in Wicked?
Jennifer Laura Thompson: I could feel the impact the show had on its audience every time I exited the stage door. The fans were so in awe of the characters and those of us who were lucky enough to play them. In tears, one fan told me that I had changed her life "for good." She had been suicidal earlier that year, and Wicked showed her that there was goodness in everyone, more importantly in herself.

Question: What is the funniest stage mishap that stands out in your mind from your Wicked run?
Thompson: It happened on more than one occasion, but the first time that Elphaba's pink flower barrette failed to fasten to her hair, at that moment it became my mission to make the faulty piece stick. Before we knew it I had climbed on top of Idina [Menzel], and the scene became all about the silly flower in her hair. I wouldn't give up. We both had a good laugh.

Jennifer Laura Thompson in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: Would you say you're more Elphaba or more Glinda in real life?
Thompson: Definitely more Elphaba — I have never honestly felt as confident, polished and perky as Glinda.

Question: Why do you think Wicked has become such a hit all around the world?
The message speaks to everyone — that outer appearances are just that. We all struggle with this issue at every stage of our lives.

(Thompson received a Tony nomination for her performance as Hope in Urinetown and was also seen on Broadway in Footloose and Off-Broadway in Little Fish. She appeared in the Encores! mounting of Strike Up the Band! and in the national tours of Carousel, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

[Wicked plays the Gershwin Theatre, which is located in Manhattan at 222 West 51st Street. The cast is currently headed by Kerry Ellis as Elphaba and Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda. For more information visit www.wickedthemusical.com.]


Buy this Limited Collector's Edition
DIVA TIDBITS
Speaking of Wicked, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Broadway hit on Oct. 30, the trademark yellow masthead of the musical's Playbill cover will be printed green for one performance only. The green Playbill banner will mark the first time in the publication's history that the color has been changed for a particular production. In addition to audiences attending the Oct. 30 performance at the Gershwin Theatre — which will co-star Kerry Ellis as Elphaba and Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda — Wicked fans can also purchase the limited edition Playbill by visiting the Playbill Store. Pre-orders are currently being accepted for the commemorative Playbill — priced $11.95 — which ships the week of Nov. 3.

Tony Award winner Judy Kaye, who played vocally challenged soprano Florence Foster Jenkins Off-Broadway and subsequently on, will reprise her performance for Baltimore audiences this spring at Centerstage. Stephen Temperley's Souvenir — which replaces the previously announced Theresa Rebeck play, The Understudy — will be seen at the Maryland venue April 24-May 24, 2009. Vivian Matalon, who directed the New York productions, will again direct, and Donald Corren, who originated the role of Cosmé McMoon, will co-star with Kaye. Prior to Centerstage, the production will be seen at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. For tickets visit www.centerstage.org or call (410) 332-0033.

Gypsy's Alison Fraser and recent Xanadu star Mary Testa will return to the Laurie Beechman Theatre in November following two sold-out concerts at the intimate nightspot in the past few weeks. Their show, Together Again, celebrates the work of Fraser's late husband, composer Rusty Magee. New show times are Nov. 10 at 7 PM and Nov. 24 at 10 PM. Part of the Voices from the Great White Way series, Fraser and Testa's concert features a four-piece band led by Allison Leyton-Brown and special guest Annie Golden. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Cafe at 407 West 42nd Street. There is a $25 cover charge; for reservations call (212) 695-6909.

Christine Pedi, who was last seen on Broadway in Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio (she lent her voice to several of the radio callers), will also play the Beechman. Pedi will offer a holiday-themed show, Yule Be Swell, Yule Be Great, Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30 at 7 PM and Dec. 1 at 8 PM. Audiences can expect to hear Pedi's impersonations of Liza Minnelli, Ethel Merman, Joan Rivers and Julie Andrews, among others, as well as her acclaimed version of "12 Divas of Christmas." For tickets, priced $55, call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.TicketCentral.com.

Actors from the Broadway casts of Avenue Q, Billy Elliot, Spamalot, Spring Awakening, Xanadu and The Color Purple will take part in a one-night-only production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Directed by David Lefkowich, the benefit performance will be held Dec. 15 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. Show time is 8 PM. The cast will feature Tom Deckman as Snoopy, Morgan Karr as Charlie Brown, Matt Crowle as Linus, Carmen Ruby Floyd as Lucy, David Larsen as Schroeder and Kenita R. Miller as Sally. Jonathan Rose will be the musical director. Producers are Philip Accorso, Frances Mercanti-Anthony and Lefkowich for The Friends in Theater Company. The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College is located in Manhattan at 899 10th Avenue. Tickets, priced $35-$100, are available by calling (212) 279-4200 or by visiting www.ticketcentral.com.

Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole and her 42nd Street co-star Billy Stritch will return to Birdland in November. Ebersole, who has been cast in the forthcoming Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit, and Stritch will play the famed jazz club Nov. 26-29. Show times are 8:30 and 11 PM nightly. The duo, according to press notes, will "cover cabaret standards, all the while bringing their own lively and exciting personal touches to the classics." Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $40 cover charge ($50 for orchestra seating); call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.birdlandjazz.com.

And, finally, Tony, Grammy, Oscar and Emmy Award winner Liza Minnelli will return to Broadway in Liza's at the Palace . . .!, a two-week concert engagement that will begin performances Dec. 3. Tickets go on sale to the general public Oct. 26. The limited engagement will play Broadway's Palace Theatre through Dec. 14. Ron Lewis directs and choreographs. Minnelli will be joined onstage by Cortés Alexander, Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina and Johnny Rodgers. Conductor/drummer Michael Berkowitz and pianist/musical supervisor Billy Stritch will lead a 12-person orchestra, and the concert will be scripted by Minnelli and Tony winner David Zippel. The evening, according to press notes, "will feature an incomparable Minnelli songfest including many of her personal favorites and signature hits, followed by a dance-filled tribute to the groundbreaking late-1940s nightclub act of Minnelli's godmother, Kay Thompson." Concertgoers can expect to hear Minnelli's renditions of "Cabaret," "Maybe This Time" and "New York, New York." Minnelli will also "pay an affectionate salute to her godmother, the late Kay Thompson," who coached Minnelli's late mother, the legendary Judy Garland. The Thompson tribute will include musical hits (with the original vocal arrangements) from Thompson's act, including "I Love a Violin," "Clap Yo' Hands," "Jubilee Time" and “Hello Hello." The Palace Theatre is located at Broadway and 47th Street. Tickets, priced $25-$125, will be available by calling (212) 307-4100 or (800) 755-4000. For more information visit www.lizasatthepalace.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.