DIVA TALK: A Chat with Dutch Actress Willemijn Verkaik, Star of Broadway's Wicked

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Dutch Actress Willemijn Verkaik, Star of Broadway's Wicked
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Willemijn Verkaik
Willemijn Verkaik

Willemijn Verkaik
There is a new "green girl" in town, and her name is Willemijn Verkaik, the Dutch actress who has the distinction of playing the role of the misunderstood, not-so-wicked witch Elphaba in the hit Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical Wicked in three languages: Dutch, German and, now, English. The acclaimed singing actress, who flew into the Gershwin Theatre in February, is making her Broadway debut with a limited 15-week engagement.

Verkaik has played the green-faced witch for over 1,000 performances in both Germany (Stuttgart and Oberhausen) and Holland. In fact, she was awarded the Musicalworld Award for her performance and also received the 2009 and 2010 Readers’ Choice Best Musical Actress Award from the German magazine Musical. Her other musical credits include Joop van de Ende’s production of the musical Elisabeth; the world premiere of the musical 3 Musketiers; the Dutch Army-Orchestra’s Eternity; Killer Queen in We Will Rock You in Cologne; and Amneris in Aida at the Open-Air Theater of Tecklenburg, for which she received the Da Capo Award for Best Musical Performer.

Composer-lyricist Scott Alan, who is currently preparing for a reading of his Broadway-bound musical Home, had this to say to me about Verkaik: "I have had the distinct honor of working with Willemijn on a few projects over the past couple of years — joining her as her special guest in both her Germany and Amsterdam concerts as well as having her record on my last two album releases — and it still surprises me every time that she opens up her mouth to sing. Her voice is filled with layers of emotion and depth, and it often feels like there is no end to where she is able to take a song. It's voices like Willemijn's that writers like myself dream to write for. On a personal note, she is just as kind as her talent is raw. I treasure her (and her husband Bart) just as much a friend as I do the great artist that I get to have the pleasure singing my music."

Last week I had the chance to chat with the Wicked star; that brief interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, let's start from the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Willemijn Verkaik: I was born in Holland in a little town in the south of Holland and raised there also. Question: At what age did you start performing?
Verkaik: I think I was 14 years old… We had an anniversary in the school I was in, and some people at the school got to join the celebration, and we played music for the whole school, so that was the first one.

Willemijn Verkaik in Wicked.
photo by Brinkoff-Mogenburg

Question: Were there any artists or singers or actors that you particularly admired growing up—anyone who influenced you?
Verkaik: Well, in musical theatre, I always—but who didn't?—admired Barbra Streisand, but I was also very into the pop world, and then I was a big fan of Whitney Houston also. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you remember when performing changed from a hobby—something you did for fun—to when you knew or wanted it to be your profession?
Verkaik: Well, I had my first singing lesson also when I was 14 years old, and then I already started to have the biggest wish and the biggest dream like, "Wow, this would be great if I could do this for a living." And, I think when I was 16 years old, I joined a band, and I think from then on, I was just like, "If this could be something I could do always, then that would be great." The dream just got bigger and bigger. [Laughs.]

Question: What was your first major professional production?
Verkaik: The musical theatre production was in Holland. I joined a production Elisabeth, and that was about the Austrian empress, and that was in, I think, '99.

Question: When did you first get involved with Wicked because I know you have a long history with the show?
Verkaik: Yes. I started the show in 2007, when it got to Stuttgart in Germany, and I was chosen to be the first-cast Elphaba there.

Question: Where else have you played the role?
Verkaik: That production was for two years, and then it moved up to Oberhausen in Germany also. That was one year, and then it moved to Holland—I did that one year—and now I'm here.

Verkaik, with Alli Mauzey, at her first Broadway curtain call.
Photo by Monica Simoes

Question: How did this Broadway engagement come about for you?
Verkaik: Well, the American creative team was involved from the beginning, so everyone already knew me, and they cast me also for the German production, and they just followed my year journey, and we met every time they came and watched the show again. Maybe it's some sort of icing on the cake of my Wicked career, having played it so long, and they just asked me to come here for a few months, so yeah, I'm very happy about that.

Question: Was playing Broadway a goal of yours or was it something that didn't even occur to you?
Verkaik: Everyone is like, "Oh, well, Broadway is like the main, biggest achievement." And, of course, I knew it was running here, and it's running so well… I was really, of course, dreaming about one day coming here, so it came true.

Question: Now that you're here, I wonder how does your dream of it or what you imagined Broadway to be like—how does it either live up to it or how is it different from what you thought it might be?
Verkaik: It's actually a lot of what I expected because this show is running so well here, and the audiences—they know the show so well, the music so well—and it's such a big hit. It's so great to be a part of such a big success here, so yes, everything I hoped it would be.

Question: You've been playing the role for a few years now. What are the challenges of the role?
Verkaik: Well, you know, it's one of the toughest roles in musical theatre, I think, for a woman to play because it's a very emotional journey, but yet you also have to have the vocal range. The challenge is to every day do that again and have that stamina and be able to go through all of the emotional stages that she goes through. That's hard work, and you have to do that eight shows a week. It's a challenge. Because it's also so rewarding, and it makes the challenge really great to take on every night.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Elphaba? Is there something that you look forward to playing…
Verkaik: Well, I mean, I couldn't not say a lot of the scenes are great, but I always enjoy a very little scene, which is between Fiyero, Glinda and Elphaba. It's the train station because it's so awkward, and I always enjoy that. It's just a tiny moment, but it's such a sweet moment, and I always love, love to do that. Question: You've sung the role in three different languages. Have you ever been confused and started singing something in the wrong language?
Verkaik: Well, it happened one time in Holland because German and the Dutch language are very similar. Sometimes the sentence will be almost exactly the same, it's only pronounced differently, so there was one time that I started to say the German sentence, and then I just very, very quickly translated into Dutch, which was not the right text [as] written, but it made sense! [Laughs.] But, yeah, of course, because everything—the songs, the music—it's all so similar, so you can easily make that mistake, but knock on wood, it didn't happen that much, so that's okay.

Verkaik in Elisabeth.
Photo by P. Bärtschi / ThunerSeespiele

Question: Since you have played the role around the world, why do you think the musical has been so successful everywhere it's been?
Verkaik: Well, apart from that, the music is great, and the staging and everything is so fantastic. It's also the story that people can relate to. I get a lot of people writing me letters or after the show at the stage door telling me that they can recognize stuff in Elphaba in their own lives. People connect to that—to that feeling different—maybe one moment in their life or maybe for a longer period. And, I think that is something that everyone in every country—it doesn't matter where you come from—you can recognize that, and that's why I think it works so well.

Question: How long are you scheduled to stay with the Broadway production?
Verkaik: I'm here until the end of May, so I have two whole months to enjoy it.

Question: Do you have other projects in the works?
Verkaik: I'm talking about a few stuff, which I cannot tell anything about, but it'll be in the theatre. It'll be in Europe again, so I'm very much looking forward to that also.

Question: Have you gotten the chance to explore New York while you're here? Have you been here before?
Verkaik: Yeah, I've been here as a visitor a few times, so I know the main things, and when I started working here, I didn't have the chance at all to go and see stuff because it's just a lot, and I need to save my strengths for the show. But hopefully, you know, the sun is shining, and the weather is getting better, so hopefully I'll get the chance to do some more.

[For tickets visit WickedtheMusical.]

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

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