“I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember a lot,” actor Brittney Johnson says of going on as Glinda in Wicked for the January 10 performance of the long-running smash. Having joined the Broadway company in June of 2018, this marked the first time she would go on in the leading role and the first time a person of color would go in in the role in the show’s history.
Though the production has a history of actors of color playing other principal roles (Taye Diggs, Derrick Williams, and Justin Guarini as Fiyero; Mandy Gonzalez, Lindsay Mendez, Lilli Cooper, and Saycon Sengbloh as Elphaba; Sheryl Lee Ralph as Madame Morrible; Ben Vereen as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Robin de Jesús as Boq; Arielle Jacobs as Nessarose; K. Todd Freeman as Doctor Dillamond—just to name a few in the Broadway iteration), Johnson was the first to play the Good Witch of the North.
While the Gershwin Theatre reverberated with a “wall of sound” unlike anything she’d heard before at the her entrance by bubble, some things remained unchanged. “I don’t think the story changes,” says Johnson, “I just wanted to honor the truth of the story about love and friendship and kindness [and] being able to break down barriers of color and otherness—and I got to tell it from a perspective.”
Wicked’s story, one that has resonated with audiences for 15 years, took on a different meaning for the audience in the house during the milestone performance. “I think Elphaba being green gave us a chance, as an audience, to empathize with her character and apply it to our lives while still allowing us to be somewhat removed because, I mean short of Comicon, you don’t encounter many green people!” she says with a laugh. “When Glinda is a person of color, it forces us to look at the similarities in their struggle and to really notice Glinda's growth in a way that maybe we didn't quite see before.”
Johnson and her fellow Glindas often talk about taking stock of that growth during the number “Thank Goodness,” which happens to be her favorite, though it carried new meaning this time. “Every Glinda who plays it, we bring our own experiences to our roles and I feel like ‘Thank Goodness’ for me is the culmination of this entire experience,” she confesses. “Singing those words, in this skin, on that stage, in front of all those people…the magnitude of it hit me during that scene.”
Speaking to her 14 hours after the curtain came down, Johnson still felt shell-shocked. “It feels like the energy of the dreams and prayers and everybody who’s been saying they’re inspired by this, it feels like all those well wishes and energy is holding me together,” she says. That force is hurtling towards her as, suddenly, people around the world see Johnson as an emblem for change. (Her Instagram gained 8,000 followers—and counting—overnight.)
“I just want to inspire people,” she says. “When you see yourself represented onstage—and that’s something that little brown girls and boys don’t get to see very often—to be able to see someone who looks like you have an experience onstage gives you strength and encouragement and makes you feel like you can do the same thing.
“That’s why theatre is important and that’s especially why representation is important,” she continues. “I hope to be able to continue to break down barriers and be an inspiration to everybody who comes after me.”
Progress is incremental, but Johnson is thrilled to been a part of moving the needle towards change. “The Statue of Liberty started out as a huge block, so you just have to keep [sculpting] away,” she says.
For now, she has one task: focusing on her role as Glinda, night two. “I’m excited to have fun tonight,” she says ahead of the January 11 show. “Any time I go on for the first time in any role there are always those butterflies and that nervous excitement, but there was another layer—or 16 layers—because of the significance of this moment specifically, so I feel like I was shouldering a lot there. I feel like [tonight] I can have a little bit of fun and maybe remember this one better.”
But Johnson won’t have trouble slipping back into character: “As soon as that crown goes on, it feels like Glinda.”