It’s a pretty big deal when the Wicked witches fly into town. For the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, the Broadway musical’s 16-show run is by far the largest in the venue’s 13-year history, and it’s projected to be the highest-grossing show as well. They’ve been promoting the hell out of it, and for good reason — landing Wicked was huge for the venue, and, with fans driving in from across the region to see it, for the entire city as well.
The show, based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel which in turn was based on Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has developed into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon since opening on Broadway in 2003. You’ll still struggle to snag tickets for the Broadway show today, and there are national and international tours of the production as well. Numerous actresses have taken on the starring roles of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda since Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth set the bar nearly a decade ago; Charleston audiences will see Anne Brummel and Tiffany Haas filling the roles.
Brummel is the green-skinned Elphaba, the wicked witch who might not be so wicked after all. She’s been touring with the current production for three and a half years. The actress says she relates to her character on a drama-nerd level. “I think a lot of people that end up in theater have an outcast story at some point, and I didn’t ever really feel like I fit in in high school and junior high,” she says. “I was never really bullied quite like my character was, but I certainly know the feeling of being the outsider. And she’s a really strong, sarcastic girl, and I have those qualities as well. Things that I envy about her and that I’ve learned about her is that she’s very much an activist and she stands up for what she believes in and really tries to do good all the time. Whether that works out for her or not is a different story. But she’s very good-intentioned.”
In the story, Elphaba is shunned for her emerald-colored skin, but when she finds herself rooming with the blonde, popular Glinda at Shiv University, an unlikely friendship develops. Over the course of the tale, the two grow to respect and understand each other, despite bumping heads over a shared love interest and disagreements about the Wizard’s corrupt government. Anyone who’s read or seen the classic Wizard of Oz knows that things don’t end well for Elphaba, but ultimately Wicked is an uplifting, inspiring show. “You have this beautiful story that is about two women, which is rare in musical theater, and it’s about their friendship,” Brummel says. “It’s unique to have a heroine who is the outcast and who’s different and weird. I think our story is extremely relevant to our society today. It talks a lot about bullying and not judging a book by its cover and standing up for what you believe in.”
As the main character, Brummel appears in nearly every scene, and she describes the show as a three-hour marathon. “Once I get on stage, I don’t really ever leave. It’s definitely a challenge in pacing and stamina, but once you get started, you’re telling this girl’s story, so the progression is very natural and each number leads up to the next.”
The signature dramatic green makeup only takes about 20 minutes to apply and five minutes to remove. “Slowly but surely the transition begins, and once you get that green makeup on your face, your wig, and then you add the costume and the boots, you’re sort of that character. It’s sort of impossible not to be,” Brummel says. “I don’t even know that it’s on unless I stare at my hands or something,” she adds.
Joining a long line of Elphabas, Brummel has big boots to fill, but she tries to put her own spin on the character. “I think that every girl that plays the character brings something unique to the role,” she says. “I could never attempt to be an Idina [Menzel] or Eden [Espinosa] or Stephanie [Block]. They’re all so unique in their talents and abilities, and of course I’m sure I’ve stolen vocal risks here and there, or I’ll see a moment and think, I like that, I’m stealing that.”
But ultimately, like the character she plays, Brummel recognizes the importance of being true to herself. “I’ve probably drawn inspiration from every Elphaba I’ve ever seen, but at the end of the day the most honest performance I can give is to just be myself in the role. They hired me for a reason and I bring what I do to the role.”