The Current was going to grill the Wicked Witch of the West (née Elphaba), the star (star!) of Wicked — a putative tale of Oz’s goings-on before that Kansas twister dropped Dorothy, and her little dog, too, smack on top of the WWE — which opens this very week at the Majestic downtown.
I mean grill. What’s up with this newfangled In Treatment treatment of our childhood villain? This compassionate, she’s-just-misunderstood-because-she’s-different bullshit? And: Are you telling me the Munchkins are vegetarians?! (Don’t let the American Beef Council get ahold of that tidbit.)
Moreover, we sniff more than a little Hogwarts/High School Musical perfume on this Broadway leviathan: Take one part popular/misfit dynamic, add a pound of pop psychology, slather it in raging-teen-hormones magic euphemisms, roll it in a heavy coating of self-empowerment, and presto-chango, you’ve got a hit. I mean, Nietzsche must be rolling in his grave.
But, I don’t know. Something happened during our phone call with WWW interpreter Donna Vivino, a Jersey native who debuted on Broadway in Les Misérables at age 8, and sounds just as
vivacious as her name suggests. Maybe it was her sincere enthusiasm for all of Oz’s misfortunates. Maybe it was the very Glinda-like way she gently pointed out our age difference. Whatever the case, pffft! went our claws, and out came our inner Dorothy.
Did you grow up watching The Wizard of Oz? We used to watch it every year — I think it would come on around Thanksgiving time.
Well, I imagine The Wizard of Oz is part of every child’s — I don’t know nowadays what it’s like — but I think it’s a story everybody knows. I had seen it, but I had also seen the Return to Oz, and all those other ones that came out when I was a kid. It wasn’t a tradition to watch it, but I had definitely seen the movie; I mean, who hadn’t?
Were you terrified by the Wicked Witch of the West the first time you saw her?
I loved her, actually.
What did you love about her?
I don’t know. I thought she was funny, like, I wasn’t scared of her at all. See ... I’m watching it like the late ’80s, early ’90s, and I’m like, oh, these effects aren’t scary. But I thought she was cool and kind of funny, and I liked to pretend to be her.
Did you change the ending?
No. But my brothers and I would act out all the parts. I would pretend to be Dorothy, too, and I would pretend to be Glinda. ... My brothers and I, we watched that and we watched Annie and we watched Grease. I think I liked Grease the most, actually, growing up, honestly. Grease was my movie.
Wicked seems like such a contemporary take on the Wicked Witch of the West. We’re going to understand her, and we’re going to be sympathetic. What do you think the backstory adds to the character?
I think that we’re really not doing Wizard of Oz at all. Because the point of Wicked, too, is that the story that was told of the Wizard of Oz maybe isn’t even the true story, maybe isn’t even the right depiction. That story is seen through the eyes of Dorothy, so that’s a whole other thing. Wicked is just the story of a girl who is different because she’s born with green skin, and is very smart, and very idealistic, and a very wise-beyond-her-years kind of girl. And she comes into college at the beginning of the show, and you sort of see what happens and what evolves from there, in her friendship with Glinda and everything. It’s not like The Wizard of Oz at all. And I don’t think people even worry about that the minute the show starts because they’re just swept into this whole world of Oz that they’ve never seen before.
Without any spoilers for folks who haven’t seen it yet, The Wizard of Oz had a happy ending ... sort of a bittersweet happy ending, with a message. Does Wicked have a happy ending? Does it have a message?
I can tell you it has a message — I mean, it has many messages, but one of the messages is sort of maybe always standing up for who you are and what you believe in, and questioning our leaders, and always sort of standing up for what you believe in and never compromising that. Because Elphaba never does, no matter what the consequences may be.
If that’s Elphaba, how would you describe Glinda’s character?
I think that she is misunderstood in many ways, because I think she’s a lot deeper than many people realize or allow her to be. I think that both of these girls, if you look at them at face value, you just judge them immediately without getting to know them: You assume that Elphaba’s just mean and rotten and Glinda’s just a bubbly airhead, but she’s actually a very kind, loving person who has a beautiful heart, who really would take the shirt off her back for her friend. But she, too, grows and learns a lot throughout the show. And they’re so different from each other, but they’re also alike. Glinda, too, believe it or not, is very strong and stands up for what she believes in, which in a way with Elphaba is, “You know what, you can’t be flying off the handle all the time, you can’t be angry all the time Elphaba. Sometimes you actually get more flies with honey. I’m not being fake, but if you sit down and talk with people instead of declaring war on them, maybe they will come to the table and talk with you and compromise.”
If Glinda’s a diplomat, Elphaba’s more of a revolutionary.
Is it too much to say there’s almost an animal-rights theme that runs through it?
Oh, well, I don’t want to say that the show itself has that. I think that Elphaba is an animal activist, but you have to take what you can get from it as an audience member. I don’t want to say that the show itself has an animal-rights theme. But Elphaba is by far an activist, for sure. I would call her an advocate of animal rights. But the thing is, the animals in Oz are very different from the animals that we know, to some extent. Animals talk and are professors and students and are among the humans just like everybody else, so there’s no real distinction yet, at the beginning of the show. But then Elphaba becomes an advocate for them when they’re being oppressed.
$25 orchestra-seat lottery 2.5 hours before each show (in-person, cash only)