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Monday, April 2, 2012

The Elphabas: Wicked's Leading Ladies

It probably won't come as a major shock to tell you that I love musicals. I blame Julie Andrews. My favourite musical, and it's a tight contest, has to be Wicked. Unusually I fell in love listening to the Broadway cast recording long before I got to see it, first in New York, then many times more in London. As well as being based on a brilliant book by Gregory Maguire, the musical is written by one of my favourite composers, Stephen Schwartz. The story is a prequel to The Wizard Of Oz and reveals what happened before Dorothy crash landed in Munchkinland. The central character is a young green girl called Elphaba, who grows up to be known throughout Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West. The part has become iconic in musical theatre and this week I want to introduce you to some of the best actresses that have brought Elphaba to life. Each of them is very different and have brought new aspects to the role and they are supreme musical talents in their own right. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Elphabas!

Idina Menzel

The original Elphaba on Broadway was Idina Menzel, who was so sensational in the role she won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Idina had been part of the original cast of Rent and had a string of other roles on and off Broadway before landing the role that transformed her career. I was thrilled to get a chance to see Idina as Elphaba when she returned to the role in the West End opening. She truly was electric and I have rarely seen an actress so inhabit a role. Idina has an incredible voice; it has an edgy tone and rawness that made it perfect for the role of underdog Elphaba. She is capable of sweetness, but it is when she lets rip with pure emotion that she is at her most astounding.

The first act of Wicked closes with Defying Gravity, when a frustrated Elphaba literally takes flight for the first time. It is my favourite musical song, indeed one of the best songs of any description in my view, and Idina's supersonic delivery means though many have followed her as Elphaba, none have bettered her. The other standout song from the musical is For Good, like Defying Gravity a duet with Glinda, the future Good Witch of the North, who was originated by the blonde and bubbly Kristin Chenoweth. Although the two divas allegedly despise each other, they didn't let this effect their performances. This song regularly moves me to tears and is a wonderful paean to lasting friendships.

Post-Wicked Idina has developed a successful career as both a singer and an actress. She has had a recurring guest role on Glee as Lea Michele's mother, inspired casting given their physical and vocal similarities. She released her third album, I Stand in 2008 and it showed she is equally comfortable as a pop singer, with the anthemic title track a particular standout. I have been lucky enough to see Idina live on a few occasions; in a London showcase for I Stand, with Josh Groban in a concert production of Chess at the Royal Albert Hall (you can imagine my excitement that night - Josh, Idina and ABBA!), and most recently in her new solo concert at LA's Greek Theatre. It was a wonderful night in late summer in this beautiful open air venue. She has just released that show as a live album, Barefoot At The Symphony and it includes many classic musical songs, as well as a few surprises. Idina continues to grow as an artist and performer and I look forward to seeing where she takes us next.

Shoshana Bean

The actress who had the challenge of following Idina in the Broadway production was Shoshana Bean. She was actually my first live Elphaba, when I finally got to see the show in New York in 2005. Shoshana is a very different physical presence than Idina, she took the role in a different direction, playing an Elphaba more at ease with her difference, more feisty than vulnerable. Many shows succeed or fail on how well they transition from their original casts into new players and it is to Shoshana's credit that she showed that it was possible to reinterpret Elphaba.

Shoshana decided to leave New York for LA to pursue her music career and brought her funky, forceful personality to her debut album Superhero in 2008. The title track is a hot pop song and she nails the delivery. She has become a staple on the LA club circuit and has a loyal and growing following, not least from her time as Elphaba. Shoshana is working on a new album and continues to make numerous concert appearances.

Stephanie J. Block

It is a long road from concept to stage for a Broadway musical and usually the show is developed and tweaked in a workshop and out-of-town productions before it ever reaches the Great White Way. When Wicked was starting its journey back in 2000, the original actress who was cast as Elphaba was Stephanie J. Block. During these stages sudden and often brutal changes are made to the show, including songs being cut and actors replaced. Such a fate befell Stephanie when she was replaced by the more established Idina three months in to the process. Although she was devastated at the time, she stayed close to the production, understudying the role before finally taking the lead on the first national US tour. She later got to play the role on Broadway, showing that in showbusiness perseverance pays off.

A lost gem from the early workshops of Wicked appeared on Stephanie's debut album This Place I Know in 2009. Making Good was a cut song that was in the slot that would later become The Wizard And I, it's a fascinating glimpse of the show's development and you can hear many familiar themes, references and lyrics. The album was critically acclaimed and shows that Stephanie is a strong musical theatre talent, I love the Peter Pan themed track Never Neverland (Fly Away). I got within a whisker of seeing Stephanie live in her West End concert debut in 2010, when food poisoning led to the show being cancelled at the last minute. Hopefully I can rectify that some day so I can tick her off my Elphaba spotting list!

Kerry Ellis

When Wicked finally reached London's West End in 2006, Idina returned to the role of Elphaba, as I mentioned, for the first four months. Her understudy was Kerry Ellis who took over the role fully on 1 January 2007. Kerry gave a strong performance as Elphaba, though clearly indebted to Idina's portrayal, she made the character softer and more romantic. In June 2008 Kerry became the first Elphaba to move from the West End production to Broadway and made a positive impact, winning the 2009 Audience Award for Favorite Female Breakthrough Performance.

Before Wicked Kerry had already earned her musical theatre chops, including originating the role of Meat in the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You. In fact Brian May became something of a mentor to her, producing a number of recordings for Kerry, including an EP Wicked In Rock, which includes rock versions of the Wicked songs Defying Gravity and I'm Not That Girl. May also produced her album Anthems released in 2010. The album is a mix of show tunes, original songs and Kerry's own favourites; it is an interesting and eclectic collection, but perhaps shows Kerry hasn't yet decided which direction to take her career.

Kerry was in the cast of the concert production of Chess with Idina and Josh and does a robust cover of Anthem from that musical on the album. She also released a dance remix of Defying Gravity as a single in support of the Mercury Phoenix Trust AIDS charity. It's a fun disco take on the song, remixing her earlier rock version. Inexplicably Kerry recently auditioned for the UK version of the reality singing contest The Voice, but failed to get past the initial stages. I'm not sure that was the smartest career move, but perhaps she is becoming frustrated at the lack of a big mainstream breakthrough. I hope she recovers quickly from this setback, as she has too much talent to stop now.

Julia Murney

Julia Murney used to be known as the Broadway actress who had never technically appeared on Broadway, as she was known for performances on the cabaret circuit rather than actually in productions. That changed in 2005 when Julia made her Broadway debut in the short-lived musical Lennon, but greater success was to follow when she moved from the touring production of Wicked to the main stage in 2007. Sadly I never got to see her Elphaba, a great regret of mine because I adore her singing voice; it has real warmth and a rich vibrato.

In 2006 Julia released her only album to date, I'm Not Waiting, which is a great favourite of mine. On the album she shows just how talented she is, covering everything from country rock to Joni Mitchell. Julia does a great jazz pop version of I'm Not That Girl, but the standout for me is the album opener, a medley of Annie Lennox's A Thousand Beautiful Things with U2's Beautiful Day. I love this track! It starts out with a gorgeous lilting vocal from Julia on the Annie song, before it breaks into the bridge from Beautiful Day, then Julia rocks out on the chorus. Fabulous stuff and an inspired pairing of songs. I can't recommend I'm Not Waiting enough, it is one of my most played albums and I hope Julia gets around to following it up soon. I'm also hoping for a chance to hear her live before too long.

So as you can see, there has been some phenomenal talent taking on the iconic role of Elphaba and I will continue to watch who takes on the part in the future as it is a sure indicator of talent: this is not a part that can be taken on lightly! I hope this has introduced you to a few new divas who are slightly off the beaten track for most people, unless you're a dedicated show queen like me! And if you're yet to see Wicked, what are you waiting for? Surely you want to know how it ends for Elphaba: or should that be how it begins?

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: The Elphabas.

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