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INTERVIEW: Lissa deGuzman and Jennafer Newberry on Embodying Wicked

Jennafer Newberry as Glinda and Lissa deGuzman as Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Broadway megamusical Wicked is playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through August 28. This revisionist take on the events of The Wizard of Oz foregrounds the evolving relationship between Galinda (later to become Glinda the Good) and Elphaba (later to become the Wicked Witch of the West), played by Jennafer Newberry and Lissa deGuzman.

The Arts Reader’s Kit Bix spoke with Newberry and deGuzman about playing these iconic roles.

Lizza, your show bio states that you’re thrilled “to be living out your childhood dream.” Was this a childhood dream of being in this show in particular, or more generally a dream of performing in Broadway musicals?

Lizza: Both. Performing has always been a dream; to play Elphaba was always a secret dream that I held very close to my heart for a very long time.

Jennafer, you understudied the role of Glinda before, as you put it in your bio, you “stepped into the bubble full-time.” Does it feel different to be performing Glinda every night?   

Jennafer: It does. What’s so interesting is that I got to play in the ensemble – which was super  amazing – and then, when I got to join the cast as Glinda, I got to build this bond with Lizza. That helped with our chemistry and it helped us build the story together…

It felt very different.  And I was able to make Glinda my own, which was just incredible.

When they cast you, were they looking at you as a pair? Did they audition you together to see how you’ll work or sound together?

Jennafer: To my knowledge, hey don’t audition people together. (I’ve never done that, anyway.) But they do keep in mind the vibes that both women have. I don’t know what else they look for…but I hit the jackpot with [being paired with] Lizza.

Each of your characters has an arc, as does the relationship between your characters. When Wicked came out in 2003, it really struck people – because it was still unusual – to see this big Broadway musical with a relationship between two women at the center. Wicked is both the story of a friendship as well as the story of Elphaba and of Glinda’s respective growth and development as individuals. As actors, how do you balance the arcs? How do you do justice to the story of your individual character’s development, and, at the same time, keep the relationship between them, which has a life of its own, at the center?

Lizza: That’s a really good question – I love that! I think it’s a balance. When we were first rehearsing together and crafting our own [version of this] show, we were able to watch each other’s character development, which I think influenced how we [eventually] come together and grow apart in the show. That just makes it easier to identify with each other and to really make those friendship moments very special and palpable.

Jennafer: Yeah, I think the really important thing also is that  every night, when I’m onstage, I know that Lizza is listening to me and I’m listening to her. We’re here with each other, here in the moment.

It could be very easy for someone to say, “Well, I always did it this way…”, but I’m just really grateful that we have that. The listening to each other really helped with that process.

It helps us to stay connected to each other.

Lizza: There’s another layer of that…there moments in my songs when I can hear Jennafer offstage listening and cheering at the end, and Jennafer can hear me cheering during her songs.

We’re grateful that we are there for each other through the entire show.

Do you ever surprise each other? Are you ever surprised by each other?   

Lizza: For sure, in the best way. We keep it fresh, and you know, what’s cool about touring through the country is that each audience is different in each city. Each setting is different so different jokes will land in certain cities and some jokes won’t land. We have to sort of change it, feel it out, and figure out what works for them.

Jennafer: It’s just like diving in: Here we go! I’m with you. You’ll be my lifeboat.

How are the audiences in Minnesota?

Jennafer: They’ve been incredible.

Lizza: We’re loving it so far!

Do you ever have an audience that is just not laughing at all, not getting any of the funny parts?  

Jennafer: Not really, but we do have some audiences that are more subdued, and some that are just really quick to just goof off.

Those subdued audiences are always the ones that, at the end of the show are literally on their feet. They’re screaming! So we don’t take silence as an indicator of “they hate the show”, or “Oh, gosh this is an off-day.” We take it just as they’re just quieter.

Lizza: They’re listening intensely and picking up every moment.

Jennafer: We can feel them. That’s why the shutdown was us so hard…

You know, we came back and in every new city, we realize that for those people in that theater, this may be their first live theater experience since the shutdown. It’s so special, because we can feel them there. We’re sharing that with them, even if they’re  not screaming, laughing, or crying.

What was the first time you saw Wicked?  

Jennafer: I saw it in 2004 on Broadway – I’d guess in August. (That would have been right after the Tony Awards.) I think I saw Idina Menzel, but I think Kristin Chenoweth had already left…so I think I saw Jennifer Laura Thompson, who I just love.

Lizza: I remember my first exposure to it: my brother went to see it on Broadway, and he brought home this soundtrack and told me to listen to it – and to listen to “Defying Gravity.”  I remember hearing it for the first time more than seeing it for the first time…and listening to it non-stop, and thinking, “I need to learn how to do this someday.”

Lissa deGuzman as Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

You both really put your stamp on these roles, and as a result, we are able to see all sorts of different dimensions – for people like me who keep going back to see Wicked again and again  to glimpse new dimensions in the characters and in the relationship. What‘s involved in the process of really making these characters your own?  Do you have to filter out previous Elphabas and Glindas, the Idinas and the Kristins and all the others, when you’re creating your version?  Do you integrate some of these earlier performances into your own? 

Lizza: It’s definitely a process… But there comes where you need to stop listening to the soundtrack and stop listening to others. When you enter the rehearsal room, you re-learn the songs, or you learn them from the ground up. So you get to sort of really find your voice and your own way to say the lines, and so you get to make it your own. And as we do the show multiple times, we’re constantly finding those dimensions you were talking about.

Jennafer: I grew up with the soundtrack, so I think vocally my performance is paying homage to what I heard Kristin Chenoweth do vocally. I think you go in with an idea of what you think the character should be, and – if you’re lucky enough, like we have been – you’re surrounded by people who genuinely coax you into inserting yourself into the role.  Because you are enough for it.

It helps to kind of put yourself in the shoes, to live in the shoes, of this other woman and find out what makes her tick. Like Liz said, I feel every night, “Oh, she would be heartbroken. I am heartbroken in this scene!”

The trust that we’ve been given within the direction has been paramount to our finding our stamp.

This show is incredibly vocally challenging – it’s almost like an opera – which songs do you are your favorites?

Jennafer: It changes all the time. All the time.  Some nights, it’s “Defying Gravity, and I’m really just watching  but then there’s something really special about when we’re singing “Defying Gravity” together and that’s really special to me. But then, obviously I love “Popular” and I love “Thank Goodness.” I can sit here and just tell you every song because I think that with Steven Schwartz, you can’t go wrong.

Lizza: It’s a hard question…My favorite song is “Popular!” because I just get and sit there and watch.  But I truly would name every song in the show .

What’s it like touring? What do you like about it, and what are the particular challenges?   

Lizza: Touring is almost a lifestyle. It’s fun because I get to visit cities and to live “essentially” locally.  I get to eat the food, meet the people, and learn how [they] live, and that’s really exciting to me.  What’s a better way to learn about a country than to visit these cities and live there for a few weeks?  …but there are challenges. It’s an amazing challenge to live out of two suitcases. I suggest everyone try it; it’s very humbling. You learn about yourself.

Jennafer: You learn about allergens.

Jennafer Newberry as Glinda in the National Tour of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.


Jennafer: In each city, you think, “Are you sniffing? I’m sniffing.”  Different cities have different things in bloom.

Lizza: But it’s nice seeing Minneapolis in the summer, as opposed to the winter.

Jennafer: I will visit at least 30 cities across the US and I’m flabbergasted by that, because I can look back on it and I can remember each house, each backstage, and each dressing room – and I’m like wow!  It had already been a dream of mine to tour on a national tour. I’m also really fortunate because  my husband and my dog travel with me. So I’m really lucky in that we can do this together.

Lizza: What’s really nice about touring is that our company grows really close. Your company becomes your family because when you go places you don’t know people there.

Wicked runs through August 28 at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, MN.

Kit Bix