Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Big Interview: Willemijn Verkaik - "I couldn’t be happier!"

Willemijn Verkaik is currently starring as Paulina in the West End premiere of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane's musical opens at the Playhouse Theatre on Monday 12th January 2015 (previews from 17th December 2014) for a 20 week limited run. Willemijn is working alongside a stellar cast including Tamsin Greig, Haydn Gwynne, Jérôme Pradon, Anna Skellern, Ricardo Afonso, Haydn Oakley and Seline Hizli. Bartlett Sher directs.

Earlier this year, Willemijn won West End Frame’s West End Debut Award for her portrayal of Elphaba in Wicked (Apollo Victoria). The Dutch star first played the role in Germany in 2007. She then starred as Elphaba in Holland before joining the Broadway company, making her the only actress to have played the iconic character in three different languages. Following a successful stint in New York, Willemijn joined the London production to tremendous acclaim. 

Willemijn is the voice of Elsa in the German and Dutch language versions of Disney's Frozen which is the highest grossing animated movie of all time. Her theatre credits also include: Donna in Mamma Mia (Stuttgart, Germany), Songs For A New World (Stuttgart, Germany), Amneris in Aida (Tecklenburg, Germany) and Killer Queen in We Will Rock You (Cologne, Germany).

During a break from rehearsals, I recently spoke to Willemijn about her return to the London stage, why Women on the Verge is a new challenge and what the rest of the cast are like to work with. We also discussed her emotional departure from Wicked, why winning West End Frame’s Best West End Debut Award meant so much to her plus much, much more…

Women on the Verge has been completely re-workshopped since its Broadway run and is almost like a totally new show. At what point did you come on board?
I didn’t do any of the workshops so for me this is really fresh. I first heard of the show when I was auditioning and I started to do my research.

What were your first impressions? The music is so refreshing!
I thought the music was amazing! David Yazbek is a genius – the songs that he’s written for Pepa (Tamsin Greig) and Lucia (Haydn Gwynne) and for everyone are just so thrilling and special. All those Spanish influences are very refreshing. I just love the way he brings a song into a scene and gets that Spanish feeling. He captures the feel of the scene and the show… I am a fan [laughs]!

So what has it been like to work with him? He’s been over, hasn’t he?
Yes he has! He’s very funny and has very dry humour. Bart (Bartlett Sher) and Jeffrey (Lane) and everyone are all very funny. David really is a genius and it’s great to be working with someone like him. I just want to grab on to how he works and how he thinks. Sometime he’ll just go away for a while and have his headphones on and then come back with a new suggestion. When he came in with the last song – the finale – everyone just said, “Wow, you are amazing!” 

Willemijn and the cast of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Being a part of an original cast of a brand new production is very different to going into something more established. How have you found the rehearsal process? Things much be changing all the time?
It is great! For me it’s a big challenge. You know my history with Wicked – I was doing it for about six years – and in between I’ve done some other stuff like Songs For A New World and Mamma Mia. It’s not like I’ve only been doing Wicked, but to be focusing on something really new and to be creating my own character starting from scratch is fantastic. Seeing everyone digging into their roles and digging into the scenes is amazing. Everyone is working together to make each scene more interesting, we try out different things. It’s so great for me, I’m just really happy that I can dive into something totally different. 

What has the atmosphere been like in rehearsals? It’s really interesting because you all come from different backgrounds…
That’s true! There are a lot of people coming from different backgrounds. Everyone is helping each other and supporting each other. If I am finding something difficult then I can always ask Haydn or Tam and then they can ask me something. It doesn’t matter if it is someone from stage management, from music or from the cast – everyone is working together and everyone is working towards that one goal… on the 17th December… that’s the moment [laughs]! 

What do you think people who don’t know much about Women on the Verge can expect?
I’m hoping they will come out of the show with muscle pain from laughing and feeling like they have spent a night in Madrid because of all the great songs and the Spanish roots. It’s such a great story. I’m very curious to see how audiences react. There have been so many moments where I’ve just watched everyone and thought, ‘wow’. Ricardo (Afonso) for instance starts the show and straight away I get goosebumps!

Tell me about your character, what has she been like to explore?
I’m still doing research, but she’s a tough, very efficient lawyer. She wants the job done and wants to do it well, but also has a weak spot. It’s very interesting.

What is it like getting to know a new character? A tough lawyer couldn’t be more different to Elphaba or Donna!
She’s completely different! I’m curious to know what people who have seen me play other roles will say. It’s a challenge! It’s great to dig into something so different and to get away from everything that I’ve done before.

Everyone was so excited when it was announced you were coming back to London; how does it feel to be back? 
London is a great city and the theatre scene is so amazing… there are so many things to do and so many things to see. For me, having to cut my run short at Wicked because of my back problems and then already, after four months, being able to be back again in this great theatre city is… amazing. I’m so thankful and so happy, every day I’m saying to myself, “Would you ever have thought that you would be walking down the London streets when four months ago you were in a totally different state?” I couldn’t be happier!

Are there any sights left that you need to see? I guess when you’re playing Elphaba or rehearsing a major new musical you don’t get much time!
Yes, there are a few more things I should see. I haven’t been to all the museums. Celinde (Schoenmaker) said to me, “You have to see the Natural History Museum, it’s amazing!” Of course my family and friends came over and I just put them on a big red bus and drove with them to all of the great things to see. 

2013 was an absolutely crazy year for you! You made your Broadway debut, your West End debut, you voiced the lead character in the Dutch and German language versions of the highest grossing animated movie of all-time AND starred in the Stuttgart production of Mamma Mia! What was that year like for you? Did you get a chance to actually take any of it in or was it just a big whirlwind?
[laughs] Wow! Well, both. If I look back on it I think, ‘Really? Did I do all of that in one year?! Really?!’ It didn’t feel that way at the time though, it just happened. Yes it was a whirlwind because all these amazing things happened – it was like, ‘Oh my god I’m on Broadway… oh my god I’m the voice of Elsa… oh my god I’m in Mamma Mia… oh my god I’m in the West End!’ [laughs] When I look back it seems more crazy than when I was doing it. It happened and I had the energy for it and it was all great! So yeah… it was one of the better years [laughs]!

We obviously have to discuss Wicked. When you were cast in the German production, what would you have said if I’d told you that you were going to play the role in Holland, on Broadway and in the West End?
I would definitely have said, “No way!” 

Willemijn & Martyn Ellis in Wicked

Now that you’re out of the ‘Wicked bubble’ what is it like to look back at your incredible career within the show?
I have such good memories! Wicked has a very special place in my heart. Just to be cast as Elphaba in Germany was amazing; I couldn’t believe they had given me the chance to do that! I’ve been given such great chances and I’ve learnt so much. People ask me sometimes, “Do you ever get enough of the role?” and I can honestly say no… still now! It’s an amazing role, you have to fight every day to get her out there and to fight ‘Defying Gravity’. Of course things have happened and having to cut my run short in London wasn’t the best thing, but I still had such a great year there. You build amazing friendships; Savannah (Stevenson) is such a dear friend to me, we still text each other every week. In every cast you have a few people who become so dear to you, that’s what the show also does – it is about friendship. I had a great journey, I had great chances and now I can just put that in a box and with a good, warm feeling I can go down another path. 

Did it feel strange to recently return to the Apollo?
Yes, I saw the last show with Kerry [Ellis] and everyone which was very emotional. It was so great to see everyone!

This is the question I have to ask every Elphaba... do you remember what used to go through your mind each night during those few seconds before you defied gravity?
[long pause] Good question! You just know this spectacular thing is going to happen. The whole scene before helps you to get there… the only thing I can say is that if your energy is too low you will have to fight harder. I always tried to build, build, build, build, build and then I would just go! You see that happening with every Elphaba. It’s not really a thought; it’s more of a feeling. 

Willemijn & Savannah in Wicked
A few weeks ago you were back in Holland taking part in the huge ‘Musicals in Concert’ show. What was it like to sing a bit of ‘No Good Deed’ and ‘Defying Gravity’ again?
...in front of twelve thousand people! It’s crazy, right?! It’s in such a big arena and all those people are coming to see us there, I felt like a rock star! It was amazing and great to be one of the performers standing on that stage. I know that a lot of people wanted to hear me sing ‘Defying Gravity’. I had to sing it in Dutch which I hadn’t done for a while so I had to train my muscles again for that! I mean, as I’ve said, I’m used to having a certain energy for that song, but when you perform it out of the blue it is a very different feeling. You have to walk out on stage and then hit those notes! So backstage I was building up that energy. 

But ‘Defying Gravity’ is no longer your only signature song…
[laughs] I know! ‘Let It Go’! I have two now… yes [laughs]! And they’re both the two easiest songs to sing [laughs]! 

[laughs] What was it like to sing ‘Let It Go’ in an arena with everyone singing the words back to you?
It was an amazing feeling. There’s some sort of warmth you feel from the audience. You step on that stage and it feels so great and I feel so much power from that. It wasn’t 1,800 in the Apollo Victoria, but it was 12,000 in an arena who gave me that feeling – you just, as we say in Holland, grow a few inches higher!

And now you’re about to open in the Playhouse which is one of the smallest West End theatres!
I know, and for this show it’s perfect. It’s the kind of show that needs to stay in a sort of living room situation. I have done a few smaller shows before and it’s a totally different energy. I’m really looking forward to it, that’s the great thing about this job! You can go from a big arena to a smaller theatre. We get to switch around and you can learn from everything. 

Willemijn performing at Musicals in Concert

You’ve spoken in the past about wanting to do an album... is that something you’re still aiming to do?
It’s still on my list but I’ve been saying that for a long time [laughs]. I keep saying my album, my album, my album, but I’m not going to say it anymore [laughs] because everyone is expecting something! I really don’t know when I’m going to do it, but it’s definitely at the top of my list!

We need to talk about your West End Frame Award!
Yes, thank you very much for that!

The support you received was just incredible! What was it like to have all that support behind you?
Well at that time, because I was in a difficult situation, it was such an amazing amount of support. I had to leave Wicked and I didn’t want to leave, but everyone wanted to give me so much support… what else could I ask for? I’m still getting emotional when I think about it because it was a very hard time. To have all those people saying, “Willemijn, we’re there for you” was fantastic. 

Willemijn & Anton Zetterholm
at Scott Alan Live
There are people who will travel all around the world to see you!
It’s amazing! It’s incredible, they’re so dedicated. When I announced I was leaving Wicked people all over the world wanted to make that effort to be there for my last night.

Right, time for a very stagey question. I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs with you. Which three are you going to take and why?
[laughs] What will I take with me?! Which ones do I love…? Umm…. well… I would need three atmospheres, so a happy song, a sad song and… a crazy one. That’s what I think! So, my happy song would be something from Avenue Q. I like them all! Can I take the whole album?

No, that’s definitely cheating!
[laughs] Ok, I’m going to take ‘Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist’ because it would really make me laugh. The sad song would probably have to be something from Aida which always gets me down very easily in a good way. I’m going to go for ‘Easy As Life’. So I have funny and sad, now I need something crazy…

Maybe you need something big and belty?
Yes, let’s do a big and belty one! I’m not going to take Wicked with me because it’s in my system – I don’t need to hear it. My big belty crazy song would be… oh I love ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ (from Funny Girl). I did it in the arena too!

I know you’re here until next May, but do you have any idea what you might like to do next? Most people would just look for their next West End show but you have endless options! You could do so many different things in so many different countries!
I have a lot of options and am very open minded. I want to challenge myself and still be able to spend enough time with my husband, which can sometimes be very difficult. I always have to see if we can do it and if we’re both happy – that is one of the most important things. Of course this career is really great and important, but the most important thing is having my hubby there.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opens at the Playhouse Theatre on Monday 12th January 2015 (previews from 17th December 2014) for a 20 week limited run. Please visit www.womenonthevergemusical.com for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 1-2:  Jay Brooks
Photo Credit 3&7: Darren Bell
Photo Credit 4-5:  Matt Crockett
Photo Credit 6: Robin Kamphuis


  1. Thank you Willemijn and West End Frame for this interview! I couldn't be happier to read it!

  2. The photo of Musicals in Concert is from Robin Kamphuis. ;)

  3. I can't wait for your album...I would love to buy wicked album with you singing english<3