Jackie Burns, Defying Gravity in Wicked on BroadwayOctober 13, 2017 - by Elliott Richards
Jackie Burns and her family attended a preview of Wicked in 2003 at the Gershwin Theatre, starring Idina Menzel, defying gravity as Elphaba, the green-skinned Ozian who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Witnessing Menzel embody this fierce female character—who could really belt a ballad—moved Burns to make a vow. “I turned to my mom and I said, ‘I have to play Elphaba,’ ” she said. ‘She’s my dream role.’ It was mind blowing.”
Jackie Burns having a Wicked good time as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Since then Wicked has become one of Broadway’s biggest hits, with more than 5,800 performances and a devout following, especially among young girls.
And Burns achieved her dream. She not only got to play Elphaba, but she has played her on Broadway more than any other actress, including Menzel, who picked up a Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award for the defining role.
In addition, Burns has upped her Elphaba performance tally on the show’s national tour.
“She’s one of the best-written female roles in musical theater—period,” said the Connecticut native. “We’ve all grown up with The Wizard of Oz, and to tell the back story—to tell the misunderstood story of this complex woman—is such an honor.”
Wicked is both a prequel and sequel to The Wizard of Oz—with a smattering of quasi-homage references to that Dorothy girl and her traveling companion terrier, Toto. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire—and with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman—Wicked is a revisionist tale where no one dances down the yellow brick road.
The storyline follows the unlikely witch friendship of Elphaba, the green-skinned outcast shunned by her governor of Munchkinland dad, and the bubbly, self-absorbed blonde who becomes the good witch, Glinda. Like Kristen Chenoweth, who originated the role on Broadway, Amanda Jane Cooper brings fine comic timing to the ultra-“Popular” Glinda.
“She’s hilarious,” Burns said. “She keeps you on your toes.”
From reluctant roommates, Glinda and Elphaba becomes BFFs. Both fall in love with school heartthrob Fiyero (Ashley Parker Angel), and eventually find themselves separated emotionally in the battle of good and evil in Oz.
It is the Wizard (P.J. Benjamin) whose far from “wonderful” machinations—like sending flying monkeys to scout Oz for subversive animal activity, chiefly talking—that force the big-hearted and intelligent Elphaba into rebellious acts that cast her as the Wizard’s enemy.
“Her green skin is but an outward manifestorium of her wicked nature,” Madame Morrible (Tony winner Rondi Reed), the wizard’s haughty confederate tells the citizenry. “This—distortion, this—repulsion, this—Wicked Witch!”
Burns turns chartreuse eight times a week during a half-hour process requiring two coats of pancake paint and a layer of powder on her face, neck, hands and chest. She also wears green nail polish.
“I love getting green,” Burns says, but concedes, “You never really get it off. There’s always green around the hairline. I envy the Glindas who leave the theater in normal pretty hair and makeup.”
Audiences, on the other hand, leave the theatre with an indelible impression of Burns soaring above Oz, belting “Defying Gravity,” Elphaba’s anthem of empowerment. With fiery determination she sings:
As someone told me lately
‘Everyone deserves the chance to fly.’
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free.
To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me:
Tell them how I
Am defying gravity.
Wicked is playing at the Gershwin Theatre, 222 W. 51st St. For tickets call 877-250-2929 or visit wickedthemusical.com.
Photo by Joan Marcus.