Interview with the Witches

November 25, 2013 5:41 AM

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MANILA, Philippines - She’s the underdog and the bullied; she’s the queen bee and the bully. But somehow they strike an unlikely bond which underpins the untold story of their bewitching journey in becoming Elphaba the Wicked Witch and Glinda the Good Witch — the central characters in Wicked, the musical reimagining of the L. Frank Baum classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Having the same “love interest,” clashing personalities plus sentiments towards Oz land’s ruling Wizard that are at odds — these are just some of the things that make their friendship one of the most complicated ever in fairytale-history.

With music and lyrics from Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked is adapted from the 1995 “revisionist” Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

The STAR joined a media group that watched Wicked’s run in Auckland, New Zealand recently, ahead of the touring international production’s visit to the Philippines in January. We sat down for an interview with Suzie Mathers, the actress playing Glinda, and caught up later on with Jemma Rix, also known as Elphaba, via e-mail, although we saw them together at the Manila press launch hosted by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Concertus Manila, David Atkins Enterprises and 105.9 Radio High, with Visa and Smart Infinity as presentors — the people responsible for flying in the spectacular show to the country.

Watching Wicked for the first time had me alternately laughing and crying, awed and moved by its equal servings of splashy and subdued moments. But no amount of superlatives can capture what this decade-long, multi-award winner of a musical that originated in Broadway has to offer for its audiences.

Kudos are in order for the cast, although Suzie and Jemma would be quick to redirect the credit to the material itself, which they stressed is “wickedly well-written,” consequently making their job as actors a lot easier.

The Australian actresses have been doing Wicked on an equal amount of time. They became part of the original cast when it premiered in Australia in 2008 and then eventually toured cities in the Asia-Pacific.

Wicked was the first production Suzie undertook right after earning her college degree in Music Theater at the Western Australian Academy. She started out with the ensemble and moved up in the company, from Glinda understudy to lead, over time.

Suzie is endearingly convincing as the perky, pretty, popular Glinda, who initially comes across as flighty and superficial, somehow calling to mind “dumb-blonde” stereotypes.

“I’ve been blonde my whole life,” said the Scotland-born Suzie, readily admitting to being an easy target for the “dumb-blonde” stereotypes. “Sometimes, when people meet me, they treat me like I’m dumb. It takes me a little while to go, ‘Here we go again, I have to prove the fact that actually, I’m quite a smart female (laughs).’ So, I studied law for a couple of years and all those sort of stuff just to go, ‘You know what, I’m not an idiot,’ before dropping out and entering drama school.”

But apart from sharing the same hair color, how can Suzie relate to her character? “In the first act, it’s very hard for me to relate. I’m a much more grounded person than Glinda (laughs) but at the same time, she’s so much fun! It’s almost like you go back to being a child, no inhibitions at all, you just have a ball, and that’s Glinda.

“The second act for me is a lot easier to relate to. Glinda grows a lot in the second act because she learns a lot about life and about herself and about friendship and that what you want out of life might not always be what you will get. Glinda always gets what she dreams of but she doesn’t have her true love with her. I can identify more with that part of her. In life, you can get things like your dream role, and yet stuff still happens; it’s not always smooth-sailing.”

Jemma, on the other hand, first stepped into the shoes of the green-skinned outcast Elphaba in the condensed version of Wicked for Universal Studios in Japan. Then in the 2008 Australian premiere, she got in as a standby before eventually taking over as the lead role and getting acting nominations in the process.

“It’s been a long journey and the Elphaba that I have now is so different from when I first started five years ago. I’m always changing, learning and listening so she is now a very deeply detailed character,” said Jemma on what it has been like turning the role of Elphaba as her own.

“Any opening night as a leading lady is frightening and exciting at the same time. It’s a very proud moment,” she added.

Asked on the best part of being Elphaba, she pointed out, “Singing the most amazing music every night. It’s so empowering! I feel very lucky.”

In the eyes of the audiences, Elphaba pulls off one of the — if not the most — breathtaking and beloved scenes in the musical: When she’s sent high up in the air while hitting the difficult notes in the musical’s arguably most recognizable song Defying Gravity.

For having to deliver demanding scenes like that every day, how do they prep themselves up and sustain the intensity all throughout the show?

Jemma said, “The musical director David Young comes in every night and we talk through vocal techniques and we have a resident director that helps us with the scenes which keeps us in check so the truth of the story is being told. So it’s an ongoing process so that the show is always fresh and real. (Plus) lots of sleep, no talking and steam to rehydrate vocal cords.”

Jemma, nevertheless, has a different favorite scene. “At the moment, it’s the catfight scene between Elphaba and Glinda. Suzie and I have a lot of fun in that scene together.”

The fun onstage springs from a working relationship made stronger by a genuine friendship off-stage. They treat each other like family (Suzie has been to Jemma’s wedding, for one) and spend a lot of time in between matinees and galas doing “girly-girly” activities.

One of Suzie’s anecdotes is how Jemma generates a double-take when they’re out and about. “The thing with Jemma, she’s greened so much of the week that (the green make-up) doesn’t just come off easily, so people would kind of have a double-take. She always has this tinge of, yes, sea sickness (laughs).”

The STAR also asked the two if they’ve always known they’d end up pursuing careers in theater.

“My family took me to Broadway at 16 and I just fell in love with it. Even when I was in university, taking up commerce law, constantly at the back of my head, I wanted to do more in life, so I auditioned for this drama school and got in. My life just sort of worked out from then on, and led me to this place,” Suzie shared.

“But I always knew I could sing. My mom sings, although she only really started singing (professionally) maybe in the last four and five years, because I think she’s got a bit of a boost from me, seeing me on stage that she has just gone up and declared ‘I wanna do that.’ She now gigs more than I do, singing for several bands (laughs).”

As for Jemma, “No, I never thought that I would work in musical theater because my voice is more of a pop voice but when I heard Idina Menzel, the original Elphaba’s voice, I was blown away by her and the music, so I started to learn the music straight away.”

What makes Wicked a compelling musical production to people around the world?

Jemma said, “For Elphaba, it’s to never judge a book by its cover. Friendship, love and abuse of power: There are so many elements that people can take from this show. The music is stunning, too. I’m so lucky I get to sing it every night.”

Suzie added, “We’re so looking forward to coming to Manila. We already have some amazing fans in the Philippines. I think they’re running my Philippine Twitter account (laughs). The best thing about doing a show like this is we can tour around the world, visit new countries, meet new people — that really is the best thing for us.”

Wicked will debut in Manila on Jan. 22, 2014 at the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It will also hold a benefit show on Jan. 31, 2014 at 1:30 p.m. In addition to the matinee show, there will be an auction after the curtain call to raise more funds for the people affected by Typhoon Yolanda.


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