Jennifer DiNoia is currently dazzling audiences as Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre.
The American performer originally joined the Chicago production of Wicked as a swing. She eventually became an understudy for Elphaba before taking over as standby Elphaba. Jennifer then transferred to the Broadway production of Wicked as standby Elphaba for two and a half years.
Next she joined the Australian and Korean productions of Wicked before taking over as lead Elphaba in the musical’s second U.S. tour. Jennifer briefly returned to the Broadway production earlier this year before joining the London company as lead Elphaba. She is set to play the iconic role in London until Saturday 31st January 2015.
One of the kindest and most inspiring performers I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing, Jennifer’s other theatre credits include: understudy Scaramouche in the U.S. premiere of We Will Rock You (Las Vegas, NV) and understudy Ali in Mamma Mia! (1st U.S. Tour). Wicked is now the 10th longest-running show in the West End. Around the world Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's musical has been seen by over 42 million people in 13 countries.
Earlier this week I visited Jennifer backstage in her dressing room where we discussed what makes Wicked different in London, her new way of pronouncing defying gravity and how she survives an eight show week. Jennifer and I also discussed which Elphabas she has learnt from, what she has discovered about London and her inspiring story to green stardom…
You’re into your third week now in London. How’s it going? Are you feeling settled in?
It’s starting to feel normal… well as normal as you can feel when playing Elphaba. I’m starting to feel at home because I’m settled into my apartment, I’m settled into the theatre and I know everybody’s names a little bit better now. When you’re the new girl it’s hard to remember everybody’s names [laughs]!
How does London compare to the other productions of Wicked that you’ve worked on? Is there a different feel to it?
It is different, for sure. I was on the road for a full year with the show and we were in a different theatre every three weeks so I’m kind of used to having to deal with the change. I’ve also been in a couple of other companies so I feel I’m quite adaptable which is probably why they sent me out here.
What has everyone been like to work with so far?
Everybody here has been so lovely. It was really cool to have such a big chunk of people coming in at the same time as me because we all got to bond together. There were a few people who had done the show before, but there were a lot of brand new people. It’s always refreshing to see young people getting their first jobs - they’re so excited… it’s a good reminder of how lucky we all are to be working!
Savannah Stevenson & Jennifer as Glinda & Elphaba
Did Savannah (Stevenson, who plays Glinda) help you to settle in?
Yes! She’s awesome, I love her so much! She and I private messaged back on forth on Twitter once it was announced that I was coming over; she’s lovely and has been very welcoming. It’s always different when you’re used to a certain Glinda because suddenly you have this whole new thing thrown in when you get to work with someone new.
It looks like the two of you are having a lot of fun on stage!
She’s so different to any other Glinda that I’ve ever done it with! It’s really fun to hear the British accent as well within the show. With the British Glinda it’s kind of like she’s that ‘proper’ girl… and obviously I’m not – I talk like… you know… ‘American trash’ [laughs].
I saw the show on Broadway earlier this year and couldn’t believe how different it was! The laughs come in totally different places and the audience reacted very differently. The change of audience response must keep you on your toes!
Absolutely! I feel like it’s definitely a different audience here than it is in New York. I mean, we still have the international crowd in New York which there is here as well… it’s not just people from the area. It’s cool to hear the differences!
If someone who had just been cast as Elphaba came to you for advice on how to survive an eight show week, what would your top tips be?
I think number one is keeping your mind healthy. I think a lot of Elphabas go through it – we all do. It’s such a demanding role vocally, physically and mentally… and I think mentally is the one which gets in your way the most. You can get off stage after ‘The Wizard and I’ and think ‘eurgh, that sounded awful’ and then you beat yourself up for the next three hours. If you start to unravel you can really fall apart, and your voice and physical being goes along with it. By staying mentally healthy I like to make sure I don’t deprive myself of things that I might want… like pizza – there’s a lot of acidity in tomatoes so a lot of singers are like ‘oh I can’t eat tomatoes because it’s going to mess with my voice’. But if I want a pizza at night time… I will eat a piece of pizza at night time!
Do you know what I mean? Some Elphabas will be like, ‘I have to be quiet all day and I can’t talk to anybody’ and then they get to work, sing and then go home and do the same thing. They don’t even talk to anybody! I think depriving yourself of the normal everyday life can really start to drive you crazy. That’s really the main thing I live by. I mean in general I take care of myself! I drink a lot of tea, I obviously don’t stay up late at night drinking until four in the morning [laughs] or anything like that! But on my day off I allow myself to have a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta with a lot of red sauce [laughs]… and I enjoy it!
So talk me through your day, at what point do you start warming up your voice? Do you wake up and hum or wait until later?
Well in the morning I always sound a lot different… like an octave lower and a little bit ‘gravelly’ as I guess you would say. When I get in the shower that’s when I see where my voice is lying. If it’s in a place where I think ‘this is a little bit on the fence, I’m not sure if this is going to work today’ then I do a full warm up and drink a lot of tea and then try and see how I’m doing around two hours before I have to go to work. Sometimes I’ll wake up and I’m just like ‘this is fine!’ Then I’ll sing the opening along with Savannah and as long as I can hit certain notes within that then I know I’m okay… I’m good [laughs]!
I can’t believe that when you originally joined Wicked in Chicago you weren’t even an understudy Elphaba! If I had popped up then and told you that all these years later you would be leading the West End company, what would you have said?
I would not have believed you at all! My first job was in Mamma Mia and I remember hearing the recording of Wicked for the first time. I remember saying that I wanted to play this role so badly… I mean Idina Menzel… I was a huge fan! I had loved her ever since RENT. I was a massive RENT fan and always wanted to play Maureen because of Idina Menzel and then I heard Wicked and was like, ‘oh my god I have to do this!’ But I was a dancer who had no training at all. I started taking voice lessons when I got Elphaba because I needed to learn how to properly sing without hurting myself!
Oh my goodness! That’s crazy!
When you sing this role you have to properly know where to place it so you don’t hurt yourself, that’s why I started taking voice lessons once they gave me the cover… I was an emergency cover!
Vocally you have done your own thing, how does that come about? Does it take time?
It does, it absolutely takes time. I feel like especially when you’re an understudy, or even a standby, you’re shot out of a cannon when you play the role. It’s so random, your nerves are crazy and you can’t even swallow. It hard… so hard, but you learn and listen to other people. I’ve worked with so many other Elphabas and it’s not like you steal their moments, but you kind of watch and take little bits and pieces and then it becomes your own. Over time things have become more of my own because they’ve changed.
Are there any particular Elphabas who inspired you?
Dee Roscioli was the first Elphaba I stood by for, and then I stood by for her on Broadway too. I’m a big fan of hers! I would watch her show a lot and there would be times when I would think ‘that was a really good choice, I’m going to try that next time I go on!’ So then I would try it, maybe it wouldn’t work for me, so then the next time I would change it a little and then it would work for me. I’m obviously not going to be like Dee or like any other Elphaba. Over time you can definitely hone in what your story is, because everybody’s Elphaba is different.
Elphaba has been part of your life for so long now. What does she mean to you?
I mean… everything that Wicked stands for – equality, understanding, not judging a book by its cover and friendship – and how powerful friendship is. As performers we are so highly critical of ourselves, we can really beat ourselves up about things. Playing a character who is so strong minded helps me feel stronger in life. It’s like a booster - if I can make it through a show as Elphaba I can make it through anything.
What do you think is the secret to Wicked’s success? There really is nothing else like it! It speaks to so many different people in so many different ways. Can you begin to put your finger onto its magic?
I think it’s the story about the girls, those two girls. Everybody will walk into the theatre – male, female, young, old – and they will have either a quality of Elphaba or a quality of Glinda, or maybe even qualities of both of them. They can relate to these people a lot. We’ve all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives, we have all maybe felt ashamed of what we look like or who we might love. Everybody has a part of them in those two women. Everybody has had these moments in their lives, whether or not they know The Wizard of Oz. That was the interesting think about Korea – nobody there grew up watching The Wizard of Oz! They didn’t necessarily understand all the references, but they could still relate to these two girls.
"If I can make it through a show as Elphaba I can make it through anything."
Do you have any favourite moments in the show or certain scenes you particularly look forward to doing?
It goes in waves because I love the whole show, I really do because every moment is so important. But right now [laughs] I love the Munchkinland scene which is when they have their big fight right before ‘No Good Deed’. These two women are so mad at each other but they love each other so much. They’ve both hurt each other and I just think it’s such a beautiful scene because it’s coming from such a real place… and then ‘No Good Deed’ is the explosion that happens afterwards! So right now that’s my favourite, but I could never pick my ultimate favourite part of the show!
Obviously the first half ends with a very iconic moment. What goes through your mind during those ten seconds before you defy gravity?
It’s different… there are some days when it’s so real to me, like so incredibly real that nothing is running though my head apart from ‘I’m flying now and I’m gonna take over the world’ [laughs]! There are also days when I’m like, ‘Oh god, what are the words?’ [laughs] or ‘Oh my god I have sweat dripping into my eyeballs, will I have a second to wipe it before I get into this contraption?’ [laughs]. Every day is different! Most of the time it is very real; you have to be prepared to go with the flow, that is the beauty of musical theatre. Sometimes little things will creep in.
It’s so hot in this theatre! I’m wearing Willemijn (Verkaik)’s second act costume because, I’m not kidding, it’s like ten pounds lighter than mine! When they said they had this costume which was ten pounds lighter I was like, ‘I want to try it on’ and then it fit me so I was like, ‘I want to wear it!’ [laughs]. All the others are my own.
So let’s discuss travelling the world! You have been everywhere with this show, do you enjoy exploring new places?
I love it so much! It’s so cool! Not only do I get to see a whole new take on the show, but I also get to see a part of the world that I wouldn’t necessarily be seeing otherwise. I get to work here so I can spend time in the area and get to know it. It’s very hard to be away from people at home, but it’s not hard to be in a different city.
I was checking out your blog before and was learning things that I never even knew about London!
Oh really?! I need to keep going with the blog.
What have been your favourite discoveries so far? I saw that your mum flew over.
My mum came for my opening so on one of the days – this is one of the most recent posts on my blog – we did this taxi tour. This guy just drove us everywhere – it’s amazing! It’s not like you get to walk through the museum, but you get to see the outside and get the gist of it. That day I literally made a list of everything I want to go back to see and explore in depth. He personalises the tour, so I told him I’m a Harry Potter fan - which I am [laughs]… sorry…. not sorry [laughs] - and I told him I’m obviously interested in theatre. I mean, theatre has been here forever so I wanted to hear all about the old Globe and all those different places where it all started. My mum used to be a history teacher, she’s retired now, so he personalised it for her too – it was really cool. And then I’ve been to Brighton! And where all the shopping is - Oxford Circus – like Soho in New York where it’s just massively filled with people… but kind of fun.
Have you picked up any British lingo from the company?
Oh goodness! I don’t think I’ve really picked up anything that’s rolling off the tongue. Knickers – I love knickers! There’s a lot of lingo here. Because I’m the only one in the cast who doesn’t have a British accent, during the show when I sing with other people I have to pronounce my ‘Ts’ and pronounce “last” differently when I sing “still I do believe that it can laRst” in ‘What Is This Feeling’ because otherwise it would sound funny. It’s starting to roll into my own singing when I’m singing by myself. I don’t know why but I’ve started pronouncing the ‘T’ in ‘Defying GraviTy’. It’s just coming out! I’m just like, ‘oh, I’ll guess I’ll sing it like that’.
I know you’re doing eight shows a week, but are you planning so see any theatre whilst you’re in London?
I saw The Book of Mormon because I know Billy (Harrigan) Tighe who is playing Elder Price right now. There’s so much I want to see!
What’s on your list?
Matilda, because I haven’t seen it in New York. I want to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – I’ve heard so many good things about it. I want to see King Charles III too!
Seeing as you’re wearing her act two costume, you’ll have to see Willemijn in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown!
I know! I’m a huge fan of Willemijn, she’s probably one of my top Elphabas. When I heard the German recording of Wicked I was like ‘oh my god, wow’. She was here for the cast change but I didn’t get to see her because I wasn’t there. I would love to meet her and get a picture! I’m a big fan! There really is so much to see and it’s mostly about finding shows that have a matinee when we don’t.
Wicked has been such a huge part of your life and career for so long, but is there anything else you have your eye on and would like to do in the future?
Nothing that’s coming up right now. I would like to use my dance ability with my singing ability to do a role. I’ve always been a Sutton Foster fan and when I saw Millie I was like, ‘I want to do that show so bad’. I’m a tapper – if I had to say what my best dance was I would say tap. Playing Millie would be amazing! I just want to be in a show where I can sing and dance! But it’s so hard… when Wicked calls… I mean Elphaba is just the best role! The singing, the acting – it’s got everything! Hopefully something new will come along at some point.
So many of the actresses who have played Elphaba in London have gone on to record music and release albums and do concerts and so on. Is that something you would consider doing?
I would love to do that but I’m not a writer at all. I could collaborate on something. I kind of play the guitar, but not to the point where I’m writing music and I would want to do original stuff. I don’t think I would want to do a full cover album ‘cos it would be all over the place – I would be singing everything from musical theatre to Pink and then to like… Queen. It would not be an album that makes sense [laughs]!
Ok, time for a horrible question! Imagine you have to go to a desert island and can only take three musical theatre songs with you. Which three would you take and why?
Ok! That’s a really, really good question. I would take ‘Bill’ from Show Boat because it was the first Broadway show that I ever saw and it was at the Gershwin Theatre (where Wicked runs in New York) where I did my first Broadway show. I just love that song so much and would love to play that role too! Then ‘The Wizard and I’ because I really just think it’s the best and coolest song that Elphaba gets to sing. She gets to go through this incredible journey with a nice big ending! I had to pick a Wicked song because it’s such a big part of my life.
What is your last one going to be?
Oh god! I’m probably going to pick the wrong one. Ahh… I’ve gotta say… [sings] ‘And I Am Telling You… I'm Not Going’ (from Dreamgirls). There are a lot of musicals which I obviously can’t be in because of what I look like, but I would love to be in something like The Lion King or any musical with that R&B feel. I can’t sing like that but I adore it.
Wicked has such loyal fans all over the world, what has it been like to come to London and receive so much amazing support from theatregoers and Wicked fans here? There has been so much excitement about you playing Elphaba here!
It is so overwhelming and wonderful. With Wicked the fans are such a humongous part of the journey that you take as a performer within the show. Coming here I was very, very nervous because you want the fans to like you! I found my first week here very nerve-wracking but I’m starting to feel more comfortable. I have a lot of people who are writing to me and I love putting everything up in my dressing room. It’s so cool to see how much the show touches other people and how you may have helped someone get through a hard time. Being here in London is incredible! It’s another place that loves Wicked just as much as they do in New York or Korea. It’s insane!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Jennifer DiNoia plays Elphaba in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre until Saturday 31st January 2015 (the production is currently booking until 7th November 2015). Please visit www.wickedthemusical.co.uk for further information and tickets.
Check out our interviews with previous Elphabas including Kerry Ellis, Rachel Tucker & Louise Dearman
All photos taken by Matt Crockett