BWW Interviews: Jacquelyn Piro Donovan Talks THE WIZARD OF OZ
In no time at all, Houstonians will be able to click their heels and follow the yellow brick road to The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts to see Theatre Under the Stars' presentation of the National Tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE WIZARD OZ, which is adapted from the popular 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film. This production, which initially ran in Toronto from late 2012 through August 18, 2013, began touring North America on September 10, 2013. In anticipation of the musical landing in Houston, I spoke with Jacquelyn Piro Donovan who plays Miss Gulch and The Wicked Witch of the West about the show and her career.
BWW: How did you first get involved with theatre?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: Oh my gosh. I sort of came out of my mother's womb knowing [Laughs] I was going to be an actress. I used to run around the house all the time screaming that I was going to be an actress. I don't know why, but I just always knew. I never really varied from that confidence. My mother used to call me "Little Sarah Bernhardt" because I was so dramatic. [Laughs] I got into plays and musicals in grade school, then I did community theatre when I was in high school, and then I immediately went to Boston University. I was an acting major and got my BFA from there, and I moved to New York directly after graduation. I booked my first job, actually, and got my Equity Card in Boston. When I was still in school, I did a show called NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL, which was starring Carolee Carmello and Scott Bakula. It was crazy, and when I moved to New York, I had already gotten my union card.
BWW: How did you come to be involved with this tour of THE WIZARD OF OZ?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: I had actually just done the other version of WIZARD OF OZ for Sacramento Music Circus last summer, playing the Wicked Witch. I got home, and my agent called me. He said, "They're looking for a witch on tour." I originally had said to him, "No, I don't want to do that." I'm married, and I don't really like going away. He sort of wrote me back this very large, prompt e-mail saying, in all caps and exclamation points, "REALLY?" [Laughs] I had a conversation with him, and he said, "It's such a great role" and "You really should reconsider." I did, and I ended up auditioning for it in the city.
It was a really strange audition because none of the powers that be could be there. The casting guy, Justin, was there from Chelsea (Studios), and our general manager, but the Director, the Associate Director, the Chorographer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and all of them couldn't be there. They were all in different countries. So, they actually videotaped my audition, and I ended up getting it. They passed the videotape around, and everybody signed off on me. It's a very strange way to get a job. That's not the norm.
BWW: What is like bringing Miss Gulch and The Wicked Witch of the West, characters made famous by Margaret Hamilton, to life on stage?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: It's really fun! In our production, she's a bit more psychotic than Margaret Hamilton. She sort of turns on a dime. She's more playful. She's definitely funnier. I think that I walk a very, very fine line between trying to maintain that amazing menacing quality that Margaret Hamilton had and also trying to be humorous because our script lends itself to that. Things are different when you're watching them on stage as an audience member. I think it's a bit more entertaining for them, on stage, to see this crazy costume that they've built for me. My wig in the second act stands up straight, literally stands up straight, about a foot, a foot-and-a-half. I have a slit in the font of my costume. I'm wearing a corset with this absolutely crazy thing that goes around my shoulders and stands up straight as well. It's just cuckoo, and she's just really fun. I'm just having an absolute blast.
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: I think they've definitely expanded the Wicked Witch because, as you know, the movie had no song for her, and (Andrew) Lloyd Webber wrote this amazing song at the top of the second act where I'm up on this tower with my minions below me. I sing this crazy song about how badly I want the shoes and what will happen to my power once I get them. He sort of goes into more explanation of how exactly powerful she will be if she gets those shoes.
All in all, I think-and I love Danielle (Wade), our Dorothy-what's most exciting for me is playing with her on stage, really just flipping on a dime, going after her, and really being frightening and then in the same sentence being this sort of maniacal, comical thing. It's sort of hard to explain. It's something that I got form the director that he really liked that I was able to do, and it's absolutely that turning on a dime thing, which makes her very unpredictable and lots of fun to watch. She catches you off guard as an audience member. As an actor, it's really fulfilling and incredibly liberating.
I spent many years as an ingénue, then I went into the leading lady category, and this is really the beginning of my life as a character woman, where I am not being told constantly from the powers that be, "No, no, no. That's too much. Don't do that. Harness that." Now that I'm finally at this point in my career and my life, it's so much fun to hear them say things like, "Well, you could actually go further, if you want to." [Laughs]
BWW: The musical WICKED expanded the back-story of The Wicked Witch of the West. Does any element of that show color your interpretation of the character in this production of THE WIZARD OF OZ?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: No because I am probably the only person in musical theatre on the earth that hasn't seen WICKED. [Laughs] I have had so many friends play Elphaba and Glinda through the years. I've always been working, and I've never seen the show. I considered going to see it when I was starting to do this show, but then I decided that I didn't actually want it to color because it's another person's interpretation of what has happened to this woman and why she is the way she is and where she is. So, I sort of live in the land of my own creation of what, why, and how I think she got to where she got to. I'm old enough that I waited every year for this to come on television around Thanksgiving time, and I take more from the Margaret Hamilton character and what that made me feel like as I child. I bounce much more off that. And, considering I don't know WICKED, [Laughs] I just have nothing to do with that.
BWW: I know that Eartha Kitt has played this role in a staged musical version as well. I'm sure that was interesting.
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: Yeah, she did. And Roseanne Barr. And Jo Anne Worley, I think, did it. They all kind of went in and out of it when it was at Madison Square Garden. That was probably 15 years ago.
BWW: How does playing these characters compare to other notable roles, such as Cosette and Fantine, you have played?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: It is so absolutely opposite. So many people in the business in New York, and it's a large compliment, tell me, "You're my favorite Fantine ever. I just love you in that show." But, you know, I've been spending a great deal of time and energy, which obviously has been successful now that I'm playing the Wicked Witch, trying to change peoples' minds by showing them that I am funny, and that I can cross over to these character roles. For many, many women, all the crossing over that you end up doing during your life as an actress is difficult. Many ingénues can never cross into the leading lady thing. Many leading ladies don't tend to cross into character.
I've always known when the time comes to say, "Ok, I'm done with that genre. I need to move onto the next." So, moving into this is just unbelievable. It sort of harkens back to what I said, it is a phenomenal experience to not have somebody telling me to hold back. I spent many years harnessing other parts of my personality. For a long time I used to say to people, "Oh, yeah, yeah, here's my heart, throw it on the stage, and make people cry." [Laughs] People would constantly say, "You touched me so much," "You made me cry so much," and "You moved me." It was quite the compliment.
It's also exhausting in an entirely different way when compared to comedy. After so many, like 20, years of doing that, it's been really fun harnessing my skills of comedy and throwing my voice around in an entirely different method than singing a beautiful ballad. It's really exciting, and I'm incredibly fortunate that I'm able to do that because it just doesn't happen for a lot of people.
BWW: Everyone knows that Dorothy melts The Wicked Witch of the West. What types of visual trickery can Houston audiences expect from this highly anticipated scene?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: I'll just say that I disappear. I physically do melt, and I disappear. There's lots of smoke involved and lots of light. It always garners a large applause. The audience seems to really like it. I think that it's done fairly well for a traveling show, where you cannot cut into the deck. Because we travel, it's too difficult to do that. So, it's in a different piece of scenery, and I won't say much more, but it really is effective.
BWW: Without giving away too much are there any other special effects audiences in Houston can look forward to seeing in THE WIZARD OF OZ?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: My favorite effect in the show is Glinda's entrance into Munchkinland, and they will have to come see the show to see it. It's a really beautiful effect. It's another thing that usually gets the audience applauding. It's very simple theatrically, but it's incredibly mesmerizing when she comes on stage.
BWW: I heard, from a friend in Arizona, that...
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: Did he come in Tempe? We had the most spectacular audiences in Tempe!
BWW: He said that the projections were some of the best he's seen.
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: Yeah, that's a whole other thing that is great. You know what's funny is that I'm actually going to sit out because there's a new Wicked Witch understudy. She going to go on for the first time Tuesday night, and I'm going to sit out and watch the show. I've actually never seen the projections. I've only seen parts of them. When we teched the show, I kept saying, "Can I do the lines from the front of the house?"
I never got to see the monkeys. In Toronto, they came on the stage, hooked Dorothy up, and actually flew her out. It took a considerable amount of time to do that. What they ended up doing, when leaving Toronto, was videotaping her being flown out and turned it into this projection. I can't wait for Tuesday. I'm dying to see the projections because I'm always on the other side of the projections, and I can't tell what's going on.
BWW: What advice would you offer to others hoping to make careers in performing?
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan: I would say, "Train, train, train." I'm a big supporter of training. I was very well trained. I went to Boston University for acting. When I was there, I wasn't so happy. I wanted to get out of school, and I wanted to just do it. Starting about five years after I graduated and since, I've said, "Wow! I really got amazing training." It's helped me in that I've done tons of shows long term.
I did LES MISERABLES for probably a total of five years, I did SECRET GARDEN for two-and-a-half years non-stop, I did two or two-and-a-half years of MISS SAIGON, and training really helps you and teaches you how to do that-how to bring it every night, and bring it like it is the first time you're doing it. The audience is paying a lot of money to see that.
Training your voice, understanding your instrument, knowing how to do that, you are just like an athlete, and you need to understand your emotions and your vocal capacity so that you can manipulate it and use it to your advantage. I really did learn that in school. In my twenties, every time I did a different show, I learned more. Now, obviously, the learning is not as much, but, like I said, since I've been doing comic roles for the past seven years or so, I've really been honing in on that.
I've also never, and I do really mean never, I've never stopped trying to learn about the craft. I keep trying to pay attention. I always feel like I can learn something from what everybody has to say. If it doesn't work for me, it doesn't work. Lots of times, people give me insights that work. My production stage manager here, Michael McGoff, has given me some great little tidbits for the witch that I was like, "Ow, wow! I never thought of that." Everybody has a different eye when they're looking at something.
For me, when I meet kids, I'm like, "Try to get the training, and you also have to persevere. If you really want it, you have to be willing to have people shake your faith." When I was young, I was told, "You'll never make it." I'd be like, "Really? Ok. Bye!" [Laughs] You just sort of have to have that kind of tenacity to make it in the business, and obviously talent. Honing that talent, I think, is an incredibly important thing.
THE WIZARD OF OZ, presented by Theatre Under the Stars, plays the Sarofim Hall at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 from March 6 - 14, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesday, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.tuts.com or call (713) 558-TUTS (8887).
Photos courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.