Wednesday 19 September 2018

Green is the Magic colour... go behind the scenes as Wicked comes to Dublin

Hold on to your (witch's) hat, multi-award-winning musical Wicked is coming to Dublin next month. The show with a big stage production -and even bigger songs - bewitches Leslie Ann Horgan who goes back stage to meet the cast, and reveals her true colours after a very wicked makeover...

Spellbinding transformation: Leslie Ann Horgan as Wicked character Elphaba at the Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre. Photo Rob McDougall
Spellbinding transformation: Leslie Ann Horgan as Wicked character Elphaba at the Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre. Photo Rob McDougall
Spellbinding transformation: Leslie Ann Horgan as Wicked character Elphaba at the Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre. Photo Rob McDougall
Leslie Ann Horgan in the make-up chair. Photo Rob McDougall
Amy Ross as Elphaba. Photo: Matt Crockett
Helen Woolf as Glinda. Photo: Matt Crockett

Green has long been my favourite colour. Unlike many of my classmates, I loved my forest-green primary school uniform, which 30 years later is echoed in the colour of my kitchen tiles and a good third of my wardrobe. With its entirely green costumes and sets, Alfonso Cuarón's A Little Princess was one of my favourite childhood movies, while Keira Knightley's green dress in Atonement will forever be a standout fashion moment for me. And that's all before we get to 40 shades of patriotic connotations - or the fact that I have green eyes.

Now, however, as I watch my face slowly turning a glowing emerald, I'm starting to feel, well… A little green around the gills. I'm supposed to be being transformed into Broadway's favourite witch - Wicked star Elphaba - but right now I definitely look closer to the Incredible Hulk.

Seen by over 50 million people worldwide since its inception in 2003, Wicked is arguably musical theatre's biggest production of all time. This is a show with big costumes, big sets and big songs.

Set in the world of Frank L Baum's Wizard of Oz, the story centres on the unlikely friendship between two witches: Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good. The roles were originated by musical theatre royalty Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel - who after winning a Best Actress Tony Award for her Elphaba would later go on to be known for voicing Elsa in Disney smash-hit Frozen. If you've ever heard the soaring Let It Go (and who among us has escaped that particular earworm?), then you'll have an idea of the vocal range and power required of Wicked's witches.

Leslie Ann Horgan in the make-up chair. Photo Rob McDougall
Leslie Ann Horgan in the make-up chair. Photo Rob McDougall

Stepping into the lead roles when the show comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre next month for a seven-week run will be Amy Ross and Helen Woolfe. I've come to meet them today at Edinburgh's Playhouse Theatre - as well as to get a literal rub of the green to see if it might unleash my own wicked side.

Arriving at the theatre earlier this morning, we were treated to a backstage tour. As a former stage school kid, it was a thrill for me to explore what lies behind the curtain where, alongside glittering props, a mountain of wiring powers the onstage magic. Wicked has a crew of 81, and when the tour reaches Dublin in July it will take them three days to erect the sets and the huge metal dragon that watches over the audience.

Moving on to the 'wardrobe village' we looked through the racks of costumes for the 31 members of the cast. There were stripes and patterns and frills and feathers. And there was green - lots and lots of green. The showpiece, however, was the blue and white glittering gown which Glinda wears in the second act. A princess dress pulled straight from the imagination of a toddler, the layered petals of its skirt are covered in thousands of hand-sewn sequins.

I was struck by the quality of the craftsmanship in the costumes - the coats of the Emerald City guards, beautifully embroidered with an inter-looped 'Oz' logo, particularly caught my eye - and also by the weight of the fabrics. How did the cast cope dancing under the stage lights in heavy wools and brocades?

"I've just accepted that sweaty is my life for the next year," laughed Emily Olive Boyd, who I met in the ensemble dressing room. The 25-year-old from Belfast, who is on her second tour with Wicked, dons four costumes as a member of the ensemble. She is also understudy to Madame Morrible. She has been involved in musical theatre since childhood. "In Belfast am dram is huge, so from the age of four I was prancing around doing different shows" she said.

At 18, Emily moved to London to study drama, and after graduation hit the audition circuit. A gruelling experience one assumes? "I am one of those weird people who actually enjoy doing auditions! You can have some that go on for months, and then it gets a bit tiresome, but for the most part I quite enjoy it.

Amy Ross as Elphaba. Photo: Matt Crockett
Amy Ross as Elphaba. Photo: Matt Crockett

"I auditioned for this show three years running and every time got a little bit closer. That made me want it more. When I actually got it I was like, 'Yes!' - I just started screaming. Nothing was better than that feeling."

Ballincollig man Jason Broderick - a fellow ensemble member who understudies Boq - also professed to enjoy the audition process. "It's really fun," he said. "You get to show off your strengths - you get to do what you want to do. For a really big show there's lots of rounds. I did 11 rounds for a show one time. For this job it was five or six, which is normal."

Twenty-seven-year-old Jason "kind of grew up" at the CADA Performing Arts school and also took classes at Cork Arts Studio with Philip McTeggart Walsh. He knew from a young age that he wanted to pursue a career on stage. He graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 2012, and has worked steadily ever since.

Emily has never done a show in Dublin before and is looking forward to her family being able to come and see her without boarding a plane. "There will be a big coach of them all coming down to it. I'm so excited!"

For Jason it will be a chance to familiarise himself with the 'other capital'. "The first time I came to Dublin was as a kid and I was in Oliver at the Cork Opera House and it was a co-production with the Helix and so we came up to do a photoshoot there. The second was to audition for drama school. So this will be the third!"

How, I wondered, do the actors keep their energy levels up with a two-and-a-half hour show to perform, sometimes twice a day? "Even on the days where we're kind of tired - and we've done the show nine times in the week - we have to remember that the audience are there for the first time," Jason said. "It's not a cheap show to come and see, so you're responsible for making this as magic as possible for them."

Given that they're now citizens of Oz, do they believe in magic? The two actors laughed at the question. "Oh god, that's a tough one!" Emily said. "I would say that there's certain things out there that you can't necessarily explain… Yeah, I believe in magic."

For Jason, it's is a more prosaic matter. "I think where this show is concerned, magic is the experience you create for someone. That's the real magic."

Next it was time for me to experience some real life wizardry in the make-up department - which is how I come to find myself looking like a cross between Kermit the frog and a not so jolly Green Giant.

Having begun with a thick layer of flesh-coloured foundation to prime my skin, make-up artist Camilla applies the green with brush that looks more suited to paint than make-up. The formulation, which feels thicker than foundation but lighter than pan stick, was created specially for Wicked by MAC. As Camilla moves slowly up my face, applying the paint in steady strokes, the sensation is actually quite therapeutic. Underneath, however, I'm already visualising the nightmare of getting it out of my hairline, ears and nose. Some 10 minutes later and not a centimetre of my freckled Irish flesh is left uncovered. I've gone full green - and I look a fright.

But we're not done yet. Next, Camilla adds a layer of setting powder over the make-up, explaining that it helps to guard against that green running under the heat of the stage lights or from rubbing off on contact. I'm grateful that it dulls the glowing green a little. Then comes some eyeshadow, in shades of black and white, before Camilla paints over my usually fair eyebrows with black paint. It gives me the full HD brows effect but, with a clearly defined feature, my face begins to look a bit more normal - if it's possible to look normal when you're painted green. A slick of black winged eyeliner is the final touch for my eyes.

I laugh when I discover that the next step is contouring - even wicked witches take tips from the Kardashians, it seems. Camilla dusts a powder over my cheekbones and jawline, restoring some shape to the flat emerald (incidentally, if you ever need to contour a green face, use purple). The final touch is some green lipstick topped off with a hint of gold shimmer, which I'm rather taken with.

And that's it. After a half an hour of Camilla's makeup magic, I have been transformed from mild-mannered reporter into wicked witch - and I find that I quite like it. With every amused glance I get from strangers, I hold my head that little bit higher and try to own my new hue. For the first time in my life, I'm not uncomfortable in front of the camera for our photographer; I already know that I look a state, so I put on a witch's hat and have some fun with it. I wouldn't say that I'm feeling like a villain, but I certainly feel a little more powerful.

"I adore it," says Amy Ross, who plays Elphaba, when I ask about her daily greening later on. "Well, my skin has been better - and I permanently look a little ill," she laughs. "But it's so removed from Amy that I feel transformed. I just love that."

The actor - who gave a guest performance on the Ireland's Got Talent semi-final earlier this year - was in drama college when Wicked first opened on Broadway. "We all used to listen to the soundtrack and I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of it. It's perfectly crafted - a beautiful show. I felt like it would be somewhat arrogant to want to play Elphaba, but I just wanted to be part of it in some way."

One of the most striking things about Wicked is that it has two female leads - and neither is there just to look pretty. "We are so lucky to be involved in the show for that reason," Amy says. "Not only are they two strong women but they are likeable. The show has a strong message that's positive rather than negative. It's about embracing each other's differences."

Helen Woolfe, who plays Glinda, agrees. "Quite often you'll have a strong female character but they'll come on, do one song and off they go," she says. "Whereas we pretty much don't leave the stage for two-and-a-half hours."

While Amy began performing with ballet lessons at age three, Helen came to musical theatre later in life - an unusual story in an industry powered by youthful energy. "I didn't go to drama school until I was 27," Helen says. "Music has very much been in my family. My uncle was head of music at the RSC, and from a young age it was listening to Barbara Streisand with my dad on a Sunday night. I've always loved theatre but I never really thought I'd be part of it. I've had loads of jobs - I worked in France, and as head receptionist in a hotel. I was always singing on the side so eventually I decided to give it a go professionally."

She says that the character of Glinda was "in my casting bracket: blonde hair, blue eyes, a little bit ditzy - but underneath it is a fiery, feisty, very strong female."

One of the show's central themes is intolerance - in it we see a ruler who wants to divide society and rid Oz of all those who are different. Though it's 15 years old, Wicked has a lot of parallels with what's happening in the wider world today. "Without giving the plot away, it's very relevant in the fake news era," Amy says. "You can't help but make comparisons," Helen agrees. "But that's the wonderful thing about this show - there's an awful lot of dark content, but equally there's a lot of good. It has so many layers. I think that's one of the reasons that so many people come and see it time and time again."

Helen says that shows like Wicked have set a new standard for what audiences can expect from musical theatre. "When I was in the London company, the company manager was a magician. Every day at warm-up, he'd do these fantastic tricks. And then he went to work on Harry Potter. I went to see that and I was just gobsmacked. I think that's where theatre is going, into that next level of spectacle."

But no matter how good the spectacle, every show needs great characters for the audience to connect with. I wonder what the actors draw on to create their characters - what's the most wicked thing that the stars have ever done?

Both are momentarily flummoxed. Laughing, Helen confesses that she once ate a castmate's stash of chocolate fingers and then refused to admit to the crime. Amy, however, is at a loss to think of any evil leanings that she's used to feed into the Wicked Witch of the West. "There's a chance I might have cheated on a test at school but I don't really remember. I'm quite a good girl really!"

'Wicked' runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from July 17 until September 1. To book tickets, visit bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

Irish Independent

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