(February 19, 2004)

She’s the Baum

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Each night at about 9:30 at the Gershwin Theatre, dozens of people stand up, catch their breath and reach for their cell phones. They've just seen "Defying Gravity," the first-act curtain-closer in "Wicked," Stephen Schwartz's musical back story of "The Wizard of Oz" - and they have to tell someone about it.

The number - in which Elphaba (EL-fuh-buh), the Wicked Witch of the West, makes a pivotal decision - is as spectacular as Broadway gets. Smoke billows, lights flash and stagecraft mixes with witchcraft. In the hands of Idina Menzel, the song soars to the rafters and sends goose bumps through the crowd.

"Wicked," which opened on Oct. 30, is a bona fide hit, filling the 1,773-seat Gershwin and taking in nearly $1 million a week. Based on an adult novel, it is not appropriate for children under 8, but those who see it won't look at "The Wizard of Oz" the same way again. After seeing "Wicked," you almost feel bad for Margaret Hamilton in "The Wizard of Oz," and who thought that would ever happen?

It's been eight years since Schwartz first heard about the book, after snorkeling with friends in Hawaii. (See Q&A.) It's been almost three years since Kristin Chenoweth and Menzel were hired to bring Glinda The Good Witch and Elphaba The Wicked Witch to life under director Joe Mantello, composer Schwartz and book writer Winnie Holzman.

There were scripts and rewrites, songs written, changed and cut altogether, a lot of readings for executives at Universal Pictures (the principal backer) and a San Francisco tryout.

So how did Menzel, who once played Dorothy (in fifth grade on Long Island), turn herself into the Wicked Witch of the West?

Menzel - a Tony nominee for "Rent," her Broadway debut - wanted the role, in part, because of Schwartz's participation and because it meant being the first to play Elphaba.

"I take a lot of pride in originating a character," she says. "It's not something that's easy to come by. Revivals are so often the thing. It's really an honor to be in an original musical."

The experience, she says, was a true collaboration: "There was a lot of discussion and a lot of honoring of what Kristin and I felt about these characters."

Sometimes it meant asking Schwartz if she could go out on a limb. In "Defying Gravity," "the last chorus used to be in the same octave, lower, more spoken," she says. "One day I said, `Can I just sing it all the way up there?' It was good we did that, because there's so much going on then anyway, you wouldn't have been able to hear it. He was always so gracious and welcomed any of my ideas."

To bring Elphaba from the page to the stage required research, beginning with reading Gregory Maguire's book. But later, Menzel says, she had to put the book behind her.

"I was sort of holding on to this character that was, like, from the East Village, Goth chick or something, which is sort of what I pictured her as when I read the novel. And then I had to open my mind to allowing other characteristics to come in.

"It took us awhile to fill the many levels that she needed in order to be the fully realized person out there," Menzel says.

Director Joe Mantello was a trusted guide in the process, she says. "He helped me find such depth and not to take the first general stereotypical choices, because you can do that in a musical, you can get by being cute and singing and, then, whatever. We had higher expectations."

Elphaba is a wicked witch, yes, but "Wicked" is as much about prejudice and acceptance as "The Wizard of Oz" is about "there's no place like home." Elphaba has wickedness thrust upon her.

"I wanted (the audience) to see a girl grow into a woman and also keep trying to think that she could change things until finally, finally, finally she feels like the odds are just against her because of the way she looks and who she is she'll never be able to do that."

Schwartz cast about trying to find an Ozian sound "that you couldn't quite place where it was from, that there was nothing that suggested a specific either American or sort of `Earth' genre."

Still, this is Broadway, and there are what Menzel calls "musical-theater moments" that are among her favorite scenes to play, scenes that would have moved a little girl from Long Island.

"In `Defying Gravity' ... the smoke, the fans blowing, up there singing this incredible song in the spotlight. Those moments where, when I see the kids after the show that love it and have tears in their eyes, I realize that those are the moments that I would have gotten chills."

And she hasn't skipped one of those moments.

"I haven't missed a show, knock on wood, haven't missed one yet. ... I feel like people are coming to see the two of us. And I want them to see what we've created. I will, eventually, have to take a vacation. But I like being here."

Her role is draining physically and emotionally, but Menzel says she relies on a work ethic - a regimen of voice-training, running and steam - to keep her voice in shape.

"The kind of singing I do is like a marathon; you have to build your muscle. And the more singing the better, in a way. When we're off for a day and I come back on Tuesday, sometimes I have less control than toward the end of the week."

So on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when she has two performances to give, she'll be up at 10 a.m., get to the gym, run, do cardio exercises to get her voice going - and then sit in a steam room. Then it's off to the theater, where she's due in her makeup chair (Elphaba's green, after all) by 1:20 p.m. The curtain rises at 2, and for the next two hours and 45 minutes, it's full-out.

After the matinee she'll relax but won't nap, because then she'd have to start her vocal warm-up all over again.

Menzel will have dinner, answer some e-mail and then sit in the steam again, "because the steam helps my skin with the makeup and also with all the [stage] smoke." Then it's back in the makeup chair at 7:20 p.m., an eight o'clock curtain and another two hours and 45 minutes full-out. After the evening show, she'll "go home and zone out in front of the TV."

Is it easy being green? As a matter of fact, Menzel says, the makeup is lighter than what most women wear.

"It's really subtle and gentle. ... If you saw me up-close, you could see the pink from my real skin sort of comes through. ... It's painted on like watercolor with really soft Japanese brushes that we dip in water, and then we dip into this little thing, like a pancake. It's lighter than what Kristin wears."

You can bet that Margaret Hamilton spent a lot more time in the makeup chair than Menzel does.

Maybe that's why she was so wicked.

Bye-bye, bar mitzvahs

A wedding and bar mitzvah singer at her first audition for an Off-Broadway musical.

An outsider.

That was Idina Mentzel in 1995.

Now, as the misunderstood green girl in a world of closed-minded Munchkins, she's an outsider again - Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West - in "Wicked."

Idina Mentzel (pronounced men-ZEL; she dropped the "T" later because people pronounced it MENT-zel) grew up in Woodbury, on Long Island. She got a job singing at catered affairs. In 1995, she was getting steady work as a free-lance wedding singer, armed with songs from every category ("bossa nova, jazz standards, Top 40, Motown") when she heard about an audition for an Off-Broadway musical - "Rent" - that would be in production in early 1996.

"That time of year, January and February, is the slowest time of the year for weddings and bar mitzvahs ... so I kind of went on a fluke," she says.

She got the part of Maureen, the tough, sexy performance artist. The NYU theater major put her black cocktail dress in the closet and said farewell to singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" and Kool and the Gang's "Celebrate" on weekends. Within months, she made her Broadway debut and was nominated for a Tony Award.

She made a CD ("Still I Can't Be Still"), played Lillith Fair, was cast as Kate in "The Wild Party," and performed in an all-star concert version of "Funny Girl."

Then along came Elphaba.