Jennifer DiNoia’s journey with Wicked began ten years ago when she was cast as a swing in the Chicago company. After a year or so swinging, she was elevated (literally) to an Elphaba Standby track, and she’s been going on as the Green Girl ever since. Of course, there have been breaks throughout her ten-year stint—her most recent being the longest—but she’s back on Broadway as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. For the record, she has performed the role of Elphaba in seven companies across four countries, more than any other actress in the show’s history.
Before returning to Oz, DiNoia and husband Rion Stassi welcomed a newborn girl named Joules in November 2015. “Motherhood is a whole new perspective,” she says. “It’s like putting on this pair of glasses that you’ve never, ever looked through.” But, for eight shows a week, she trades in her mom glasses for a pair of green shades to don at Wizomania. In her Wicked dressing room, between shows in a Shiz University hooded sweatshirt, we catch up with DiNoia, who talks about Wicked—one of the biggest chapters of her life and career.
Tell me about your journey with Wicked. When did you start?
JD: I started in Chicago in February of 2006. I was hired as a swing, and I think it was when they were adding the crossover swing track into the show. When I started, the dancer swing was on a medical leave, so I was the dancer swing when I first started in the show. I didn’t cover any roles; that was my first swinging job, which is the hardest job in our business. I think swings are the unsung heroes of musical theatre. They have to know so much stuff, and it’s quite a task, so I did that for about a year-and-a-half, and within that year-and-a-half, I became an emergency Elphaba cover because some people had medical leaves, and I ended up going on, so they just kept me on as an emergency cover. I ended up getting moved into the standby position in Chicago around the year-and-a-half mark, and the rest is history from there.
What was your first flight like?
JD: I don’t remember. I mean, it was so magical, but I think that’s why I don’t remember it because it feels like it blew past me. It was so quick, and the show is not short. It’s quite long, but it was also so long ago, and I feel like I’ve grown up in these last ten years so much so that I can’t really remember it. It’s crazy. Every flight is amazing. It really is. I don’t know how else to put it.
Have you ever had any Plan B flights during “Defying Gravity”?
JD: Yeah! Plenty. I actually had one this week. It definitely pulls you slightly out of the moment for a second because you have to go into, “Okay, what do I need to do now?” In my head, I always think, “I know they want to see me fly, so I’ve got to give it even more.” It makes you pull up. It’s like anything in live theatre. If something goes wrong, you have to be ready to jump into the moment. I think it’s really exciting. Some people are a little like, “Womp womp!”
What has been one of your favorite Elphaba moments over the years or one of your most memorable experiences?
JD: One is popping into my head. This is outside of the show at the stage door. When I was on tour—it was while I was playing Elphaba—we were in Houston, and this girl who is clearly an Elphaba in real life walked up to me and couldn’t really talk to me. She couldn’t speak, but she had something in her hand, and she kind of just handed me this note and was like, “Thank you.” It was a piece of a paper bag, and it said, “You inspire me” on it. I framed it because it was just… That’s the reason why you do this for a living. You want to inspire people, and with Wicked itself, it’s such a gorgeous show, and it has such a beautiful message, and for somebody that is clearly an Elphaba, whatever characteristics she might carry in her real life similar to Elphaba’s, that made it all worth the sweating and the green and all of the moments where you might be tired. That’s why. [Plus] all the traveling—all the different cities and countries I’ve been to—those have been the most magical things that have happened.
You’ve been able to see the world because of Wicked. That’s probably one of the best gifts you could ever get.
JD: Absolutely. I wouldn’t take away any of those experiences. The first one was Sydney, Australia, which was just wild. I’m on the other side of the earth for the first time. I’ve never traveled that far. It was so cool to meet a group of people who had been doing Wicked, but on the other side of the earth, [and] probably not many of them have seen our version [on Broadway]. That’s why other countries have been amazing to do it in. I also did it in Seoul, which was mind-blowing, doing it with non-English-speaking audience… They don’t really know The Wizard of Oz, they don’t really grow up with it, but this story of Wicked still resonated with them so strong. It was about meeting those people and having those experiences and finding these new moments in the show—getting that opportunity to work with so many different actors, which has been cool, and London was really like the big, huge highlight. Going to the West End was just wild.
Who became some of your closest Wicked friends?
JD: In the Australian company, I really got to be good friends with James Smith and Emma Delmenico, they were the Boq and the dance captain, [respectively]. They were invited to my wedding; I was invited to theirs. We keep in touch as much as we can. We couldn’t go, but… In London, [there were so] many [people I became friends with], like Savannah Stevenson, who played Glinda, was such a great girl, and we keep in touch—we FaceTime and Skype. On the road, the first time I full-time played Elphaba was with Hayley Podschun, who is a New York girl. She was part of my bridal party. And then in Chicago, I made some of my best friends in life—Nathan Peck, Alicia Albright, Meredith Atkins. There are countless people who have become staples.
What was your first memory of Wicked before you auditioned? When did you see it?
JD: I didn’t see it until I was cast in the show. I was doing We Will Rock You in Las Vegas, and myself and Marcie Dodd, who is a past Elphaba as well, drove from Vegas to L.A. to audition. She went into the singer call; I went to the dancer call.
You’re a dancer first and foremost?
JD: Yeah. I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve taken a dance class, but that’s how I got into the show—through my dance call. I sang 16 bars of “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston.
What was your reaction when you were first cast in Wicked?
JD: I was over the moon. When I was on tour with Mamma Mia!, I remember sitting in the National Theatre backstage in Washington, D.C., and we were listening to Wicked for the first time. The album just came out; it was 2003. And I remember hearing Idina [Menzel] sing “Defying Gravity,” and I was like, “Hold on? There’s a role out there that gets to do this every night?” I felt like I hadn’t connected with any roles I had seen [that were currently on Broadway], and I couldn’t believe it, so I just started singing it all the time. I’d play it over and over and over again, but I hadn’t gotten to see the show until I was cast in Chicago.
Wicked has become such a phenomenon, and there are so many YouTube videos out there. Do you ever feel pressure to sing a certain riff or feel like you’ll be filmed during the show?
JD: When I first started out, yes, and there obviously weren’t as many [bootlegs], but I’ve decided to stop looking at YouTube or any kind of websites or talking about the show. When you’re first starting out, and you go on for one show, you’re hoping that as many people got to see it as possible—hoping that it was good, anyway—but I am the kind of personality that I have to step away from that. If I listen to recordings of myself, I’ll judge every single moment. It’s live theatre, and nobody is perfect. There’s going be a bunk note every once in a while, and if I focus on that or listen to it or watch it too many times, I’ll get in my head, and I won’t be able to do it onstage. So the pressures of trying to stay away from it is hard because you also kind of do want to listen to them, so there’s that whole [thought of], “Don’t go there because you’ll fall into a YouTube hole.” I fall into YouTube holes in any genre, [like a] makeup tutorial, and five hours later, I’ve watched so many people put on makeup, and I’m like, “God where’d the time go?” If I was looking up myself, it would be way worse I think. It would have to involve something like wine.
Do you have any special vocal moments you get to do that you love?
JD: I have options that I’ll always take if I’m feeling good, so there’s a few optional notes that I’ll do in “Defying Gravity” or “No Good Deed” or “Wizard and I,” but I’m not really a “riffer.” I can do riffs, but they don’t come out of me flowy and naturally, like a Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. It doesn’t fall out of my mouth like that, so I don’t necessarily plan them, but I have a few options that I go with that will somewhat change or morph within where my voice is sitting for that day.
Over the years, I’m sure there’s been an onstage mishap or two. What’s a fun story you can share?
JD: Oh my goodness! I always forget because there’s so many! Moments where I just literally forgot the words completely and didn’t speak? There’s hundreds of those. I can think of one when I was in the ensemble, when I was a swing… I came in for the ballroom crossover, and those dresses are so big, and as a swing, you sometimes wear different ones, or at least in Chicago that’s how it was, and I hadn’t worn this one before, and I came out, and the automation brings off the armoire and vanity table as Nessa is leaving the stage, and my dress got caught underneath the vanity table, so I literally came out, and then I got dragged right back offstage. I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to milk this moment for all it’s worth.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.