BWW Interview: Wendy Worthington is Madame Morrible in WICKED

BWW Interview: Wendy Worthington is Madame Morrible in WICKED
Wendy Worthington & Stuart Zagnit. Photo by Joan Marcus

The wildly popular show about the witches from Oz is returning to New Orleans for the third time in recent years to share the magic! WICKED, a musical adaptation of the book by Gregory Maguire, tells the story of two young girls who meet at Shiz University, and go on an adventure that will lead them to become Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West. If you grew up with THE WIZARD OF OZ, you're going to love WICKED. Think of it as a behind the scenes look at everything that took place before Dorothy and her little dog too were dropped into the Emerald City.

Whether you've been a fan of WICKED since it's opening on Broadway in 2003, or whether you've only recently fallen under the show's spell, there are always new and exciting things to learn about this beloved musical. From character development to costumes to on stage mishaps, Wendy Worthington has all the secrets! She plays Madame Morrible in the touring production of WICKED that opens tonight at The Saenger Theatre tonight, and she shared with me everything that is good and wonderful about being an Ozian. Check it out!

Alright Wendy, so aside from being a huge fan of WICKED I am excited about this interview for an entirely different reason. I was a young teen in the late 90s - early 2000s, so I remember you from things like Good Burger and Even Stevens and So Little Time. My inner teen is freaking out a little.

I have a lot from your era who are fans of those things! I've gotten a whole lot of Tower of Terror fans and Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] fans as well.

Yes! It might sound goofy that that's what I remember you from, but you're such a memorable person and a funny actress so it's totally a compliment. Do you find that you get recognized from those types of things often?

I do. It depends on, you know sometimes there's little pockets of it. I was in K-Mart once with my mother and my niece, and this girl came up to me with huge eyes, and I don't even remember what it was she saw me in, but it's a lot of times in stores. I don't know why. And once in Disneyland. And once in... actually it was for Ally McBeal, and I think it was in Florence, Italy. I was with my friend Kathryn Joosten, and I got recognized for Ally McBeal and she got recognized for The West Wing. The fun thing is that with kids they don't want anything except to know that they're right. They don't even want to know my name. Once in a while they want to take a picture, but they don't want anything else. They just want to know that they were right.

That's great! Well... to get to what we're actually here to talk about, which is WICKED, it is one of my favorite shows and I absolutely cannot wait to see it again.

I love it, too!

I can't imagine that there are many theatre fans out there who haven't at least heard of it at this point since it's been around for so long and it's such a popular show, but there may be a few who haven't so can you give me a summary of what WICKED is about?

Sure, well, first of all, in every audience I find that there are a lot of people who have seen it maybe a time or two and just want to come back and see it again. We have a couple of uber fans who have seen a lot of performances of it. But we do have a lot of people who have not seen it before, and who have finally gotten around to coming and seeing what it's all about. I know that because a lot of them are friends of mine who said, "Alright, I'll come see it because you're in it." And then afterwards they've got huge eyes and their jaws are on the ground because they're just so astonished by it. The way I've described it to people, and I don't know if this is an official way of doing it, but I think of it as fan fiction because it's taking characters that we think we know from the movie The Wizard of Oz and those who have read the books and looking at them from a very different perspective. The way I've been describing to people is that it's the story of the girls who become Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West, and how they meet as young girls and become, first, immediate antagonists, and then become friends, and what really happens between the two of them as they become friends. I love the whole story of friendship and of people who are so different at first discovering in each other so much about each other. I think both the girl who becomes Glinda and the green girl, Elphaba, I think both of them find out more about themselves through their friendship with each other, and I love that. They both discover powers that they didn't know they had. Glinda thinks she's popular and knows everything and can't be improved on, and then discovers that there really is more to herself than she realizes. Elphaba gets someone who really comes to appreciate her so much for the wonderful person that she is, and isn't just blown away by her strange powers and her green skin and her unusual looks. I just love the story that it tells of the two of them getting to know each other and getting to know themselves through their friendship. It's quite an amazing thing.

I've never heard it described like that before, which I really like because I think real people are like that. We tend to discover ourselves and see things in ourselves that we wouldn't have seen unless they had pointed it out to us.

Yeah, and when I got this part there were a couple of groups of friends of mine, not just my friends in Los Angeles and people who were also in theatre who were thrilled that I got this great part, but I have a group of tea ladies. We get together and do high tea together, and they're all also actresses, and so they were thrilled for me too, but they were also because the five of us have been friends for so long they were so thrilled for it. And then when they came as a group to see it when I was in Costa Mesa. And then I also had another group of friends, there are about eleven of us who are writers, and I was planning for the tour when I was gathering with them in Michigan last July, and I kept getting calls from the tour manager, our company manager, and people who were connected with telling me about it, and every time I got off the phone they were all gathering around and were, "Ok, what did you find out now?!" It was really quite fun. And then as I've been travelling around the country I've been seeing them because we're spread out all over the country, and so it's like I get little mirrors of my own friendships on stage every night which is so much fun.

Have you ever done a touring show before, or is this your first one?

I never have.

What's the experience been like so far?

It's been incredible. The thing that surprised me most, though, is how physically and emotionally exhausting it is. It's really a full time job, and I guess, because it's such a wonderful experience, but there's so much to it my emotions are really on boil all the time. It's just been fascinating to see how close to the surface a lot of things have come. It doesn't seem to go away, and it's wonderful.

So your character, Madame Morrible, is the headmaster (if you want to call her that) of Shiz University. Tell me about her because she's kind of toes the line between good and evil.

Yeah, I find her a fascinating character. She's the closest thing the musical has to being a villain, but she doesn't start out that way. She's the one who really brings the two girls together, and she's really the first one who sees Elphaba's power as being something really good, and she's excited by it. It's something that because I think for Morrible the interesting thing is she's kind of risen as far as she can go in running Shiz University, and it isn't until Elphaba comes along that she sees an opportunity to go farther, and it really brings out that kind of ambitious streak in her. And then when Elphaba doesn't want to play along with her, that kind of turns her against her, and in that moment at the end of the first act she suddenly becomes her enemy. She used her as an opportunity to move beyond running Shiz and becoming the Press Secretary to the Wizard of Oz. She's kind of the power behind that throne. And Morrible never really appreciates Glinda's good points. She always thinks of Glinda as this airheaded little blonde who keeps getting in the way. That, I think, is her biggest downfall because she doesn't seen in her what Elphaba sees in her. Elphaba really understands Glinda's... not just Glinda's goodness, but her powers as well. I don't know that Glinda really has magical powers, but she has a lot of depth to her character that she doesn't even realize until she becomes friends with Elphaba, and Morrible doesn't realize that and that's her downfall.

I think the thing about Glinda, too, is that she turns heads. She can command a room. People listen to her. It's great that she and Elphaba become friends because Elphaba has these more physical powers, but Glinda's the one who kind of tells everyone hey listen up.

Yes, it's only because Glinda sees those good things in Elphaba that anybody around her even gives her a chance. It's really Glinda's faith in her that makes her not as obviously wicked as she thinks she is.

Is it fun playing this... I don't want to say villain, because she's not really a villain... but, I guess the audience sees her as sort of a devious person. I hear a lot of times that people say it's more fun to play these villainous or devious characters.

Yes. Well, she's also... one of the things I love about playing her is it's almost not possible to... it may not even be possible... to play her too big, but there's also a groundedness to her that gives her roots so you can go huge with her. And I've been having a lot of fun playing with the voice for her, of doing a lot of things vocally with her. It's fascinating, she's a very big role who doesn't really sing. She has a few lines of music, but she doesn't really sing and that's kind of rare in a musical. But, I've still been able to do a lot of things with her vocally which makes her really interesting and fun. And then just the opportunities to get unexpected reactions. I love it when they all cheer when she gets dragged off at the end. That's great fun! They don't always, but when they do it's really, really fun. And the guards dragging me off let me know as I'm screaming no. They'll sometimes go, "Ooohhhh, exit applause!"

So tell me about her relationship with the Wizard. In THE WIZARD OF OZ we see the Wizard as sort of this looney old man, but in WICKED he and Morrible have an agenda.

They do, although I think he's more opportunistic. He sees this as... he's just taking advantage of what's he's been dumped into. I don't think he's really manipulating anything in particular. It was funny because when we were first talking about it with the production manager, he was pointing out that this was written during the Bush era and that they kind of had the Bush/Cheney relationship in mind with her being more the brains behind the scenes. It's interesting because I was talking to assistant stage manager at one point and he said each Morrible has had a different opinion of exactly what kind of relationship Morrible and the Wizard have. In my case, Stuart Zagnit is playing him as just kind of a loveable con man, and I stand in the scene where I first reveal myself as his press secretary, I'm standing off stage listening to him talk and I always have a little dialogue back there with the stagehand who's holding the curtain for me. He says, "I'm the Wizard of Oz, I know everything!" I look over at the stagehand and go, "No he doesn't." And then he says, "And I fully intend to grant your request." And I go, "No he doesn't." It's just so much fun.

I love hearing backstage stories! The audience sometimes has no clue what goes on backstage and it's fun, but it can also be kind of a circus.

It is. Oh, it's crazy backstage. It's wonderful to watch it. I don't go... the only time I go back to my dressing room during the show is if the dressing room is close enough and I can make my costume changes back there. Otherwise I'm backstage the whole time because I just find that all of that backstage circus so exciting to watch.

Well you've got quite a costume in this production.

I have the best costume of a great set of costumes. Susan Hilferty did an amazing job in designing these costumes, and I have the best of the best.

BWW Interview: Wendy Worthington is Madame Morrible in WICKED
Wendy Worthington as Madame Morrible and Emily Koch as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What is your pre-performance process of getting into this costume and getting into your character?

Well I start my prep about an hour and fifteen minutes before curtain. I put on everything I wear under the costume and my wig cap. And then I start on my makeup, which Joe Dulude designed specifically for me. He has a basic Morrible design, but he had to actually come out and figure out how to make... I have little squinty eyes... and he had to figure out some way to make them more visible on stage. What he's come up with is actually a variation of drag queen makeup. So I actually have a second set of eyebrows that I have to put on. I use my actual eyebrows as kind of the eyelid, and then draw another set of eyebrows above them. And then our wig person arrives at half hour, and puts on my wig over my microphone, and then I get into my first costume at fifteen minutes before. And then I still have another about... by the time I'm done with that... about another fifteen or twenty minutes before I'm on stage so I use that for pacing around and saying hi to everybody and listening to the crowd and getting into the spirit of things. It's quite an experience.

What is the energy and anticipation like before each performance starts when you can kind of hear the audience and you know you're about to start?

A lot of the theaters we've played, once you get out on stage and you're hearing the orchestra and everything is going on on stage, sometimes it's hard to hear the audience. The best time to hear them is before all of that insanity has started, and you can hear lots of buzz and excitement. And then I love the moment that Elphaba first runs out on stage and gets huge applause for the first appearance of the green girl. But, it's also really fun when just before the show begins the lights come down and just before the pre-show announcement there's that incredibly buzz that you can almost feel as well as hear from a couple thousand people out there waiting to be part of all of this. It's quite amazing.

Is it intimidating having such large audiences?

No, I love it. I love it. That's the one thing you don't get in film and TV. You don't get the live audiences. There's nothing like it. And these are the biggest audiences I've ever played to.

We don't get a whole lot of Madame Morrible's backstory and how she got to where she is.

No, we don't. There's not a lot in the script that tells you much about her or where she's going.

Do you think she had some sort of experience that got her to the point where she is when we meet her?

Certainly. She's worked her way up as far as she can at that point. She's worked her way up to a position of a fair amount of power and responsibility as head of what may be the only big university in all of Oz. It's certainly the only one on the map. But, I kind of feel that she's gotten as far as she thinks she can go and is a little bit frustrated at this point, and when she suddenly realizes that there is actual genuine magical ability... because the other thing that's interesting to me is that she's the only other character that we see in the whole show who actually does demonstrate magical ability in her ability to control the weather. I wish I had that myself considering all the hot places we're going this summer!

And New Orleans is one of the hottest, I'm sure!

Yeah, and I started last August in Tempe, Arizona so any day that it was under 100 degrees was balmy. But it's interesting because she's the only other one who we see who really does have magical powers, and I think she to some extent sees a kindred spirit in Elphaba for a while and is kind of drawn to her for that reason because she's the only one she has met who really does have abilities. And, she says that... "Many years I have waited for a gift like yours to appear." And she's finally found someone who she can teach something to. It's quite fascinating. And then including Glinda in those lessons.

I imagine with a show that is this big... it's a huge set, it's lots of costumes, lots of people... I imagine there's been a mishap or two. Have there been any that were particularly funny or memorable? Or things that go on that you guys notice that maybe the audience doesn't?

There hasn't been anything truly horrifying that has happened because we have the most amazing crew. They're incredible. But we've had a few times when the computer has gone out in mid show and it does move some set pieces. Some of the set pieces are physically moved, but some of them are moved by computer and they've had to really frantically reboot things. We did have one recently where the Oz head is supposed to come down stage and it got jammed up stage and everyone had to kind of punt around that. There's occasionally a time when the stage manager will come up to me right before I go on and go, "There's a glove on the stage... stage left. We're gonna get it up in the next thing, just don't step on it." And there's, you know, there's a few things that do inevitably go wrong, and most of the time the audience has no idea because this show in general is very good with smoke and mirrors and "look over there!" There's a lot of wonderful distractions, and it's quite amazing. But you know there's all kinds of things that go wrong. I had one Elphaba... our Elphaba standby who is marvelous... she at one point embraced me so enthusiastically when I told her that she was going to meet the Wizard that she practically knocked me off my feet. I'm really glad she didn't because I'm not sure I could've gotten back up in that dress! And then I always have to check myself and make sure I haven't been slimed after she's hugged me. But, yeah, there's always some little things. And that's what's wonderful about live theatre, too. I'm always amazed at the little things that go wrong or... we have a couple of dancers who danced off in one scene because she had gotten entangled in his costume. They pulled each other apart and then danced back on stage. We've also had some shows where the Elphaba standby has taken over the role in the middle of the show, and there was one time I missed the announcement and I walked out on stage and realized I was looking at a different green girl.

How does that work when that happens? Do they announce the change to the audience or do they just roll with it and not say that they're switching?

They announce it to the audience at intermission if it's happened. The only times it's happened, it's happened in the beginning because that first really big number is really her vocal test. If she thinks she's ready for it and she gets to that final huge big note and just... usually the audience can't even hear it, but we know her so we can hear it and go, "hmmmmm." And then she'll say you've got to bring in MK [Mary Kate Morrissey]. She'll continue until MK is green because that takes about... if it's really rushed they can do it in about 8 minutes.

That's quick!

Yeah. But then they have to run around and change all the costumes and get everything ready and all that kind of thing. Usually the audience can't tell. They only know because there's an announcement.

Do you guys have a crew that travels with you or do you use whatever stage crews are in each city or a combination?

It's a combination. There are about 75 people altogether who travel with the show. 33 of them are actors, 6 of them are musicians, 5 of them are office people and stage managers, and all the rest are crew. And then we hire a lot of crew locally. We hire like 9 musicians, 12 dressers I think, I don't even know how many stagehands. Each place we have to teach them the show and we've got to figure out where things are gonna go. The onstage is always the same, but the wings and backstage are always different. Our first couple of shows in each new place you run off stage and try to figure out where props is now. But, most of the cities the people are great.

A lot of the cities have touring companies come through all the time, and I feel like it's probably a lot of the same crew and musicians and such. They're used to this.

And they're union members, and some of them have done WICKED before. We're going back to a lot of places that we've been before.

This will be the third time in the past few years that it's been to New Orleans, so we've gotten lucky with that for sure. Is there anything, since this has been a touring show for a long time and it has been on Broadway... it's still on Broadway... has anything changed with the show or has it been pretty much the same since it opened?

The tour is slightly different from Broadway and from a couple of the shows that have been sit down productions where they have stayed in the city for a long time. The tour has streamlined just a couple of elements. There's one aspect of the set that's a little bit simpler just to make it easier to travel with. I think we fly two students and then we later fly two monkeys, and I don't think they do that on Broadway. Broadway has an extra level that a few things happen on that we don't on ours. But, otherwise, it's really pretty much the same. And their quality control on this show is amazing. The attention to physical detail, the attention to what happens on stage and what each of us do... we are always rehearsing, we are always getting notes, we are always getting adjustments, the creative team visits. The whole creative team visits at least once a year and the assistant director comes every couple of months. And frequently the assistant choreographer will be there and so there's a lot of stuff that they... they just keep making sure that the quality stays completely on track. And our production stage manager is amazing. He's had a lot of things to deal with because a number of injuries that are not anybody's fault they just happen in the course of things... between that and people on vacation and people taking personal days and all that kind of stuff it's very interesting every night seeing who's there and what's happening now and what new people are coming in. The ensemble has open ended contracts so they can stay as long as they want to, whereas the principals have finite contracts. We have one dancer who has been with the company for eight years, and we have a couple of others who have been with it for much less time and are cycling out now so we're bringing in... we have somebody who is going to be replaced in... I think New Orleans is her last city... and so her replacement will be rehearsing and just arrived and will be rehearsing throughout and then will take over right at the end of the city. We have somebody else, one of the other dancers, who has been with us for a long time is... her last performance is Sunday and her replacement will be taking over for her. Anything that has changed has been more just because people move on and we say goodbye or we say hello again. Sometimes they bring back people who were in it a couple of years ago to fill in in the meanwhile. Once you're part of the WICKED family you never quite say goodbye.

I feel like that with being a fan of the show too in some ways. Once you've seen it, it's there, you love it, it stays with you. So to wrap us up, what are you most looking forward to about bringing the show to New Orleans?

Well I have several friends who New Orleans is their favorite city, and they're making special trips there to see me and to spend some time. One friend is coming for Memorial Day weekend because she loves New Orleans so much, and so she's promised to show me around and show me the best places, the highlights. That's always the fun thing about touring is coming to a new city and finding out all of its best stuff. The best places to eat, and best things to do and see. The only frustrating thing is that because we're doing 8 shows a week there's never quite enough time, so you do what you can. You see what you can, but I'm looking forward to seeing what she's going to show me. I've actually never been to New Orleans. I've traveled all over the place, and I've been to Louisiana, but I don't think I've been to New Orleans.

We certainly can't wait to have Wendy and the rest of the cast in our beautiful city. Make sure to check out WICKED at The Saenger Theatre starting this week through most of June. You can visit www.saengernola.com for tickets and more information.

Keep in mind that there's also going to be a ticket lottery for WICKED in New Orleans. Come to the box office two and one half hours before showtime to enter your name into the drawing. Names will be pulled two hours before showtime, and there's a two ticket limit per person at $25 per ticket - cash only. Each person may only enter the drawing once, and make sure you have a photo ID on hand when you enter your name and to purchase your tickets.

See you in Oz!

ARTICLE MAY ALSO BE VIEWED HERE: http://www.nolabackstage.com/single-post/2016/05/26/BWW-Interview-Wendy-Worthington-is-Madame-Morrible-in-WICKED




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