Ever wondered what it's like working eight shows a week in London's West End? Us too. We spoke to Emma Hatton and Savannah Stevenson, Wicked's dynamic leading ladies (Elphaba and Glinda) about the responsibilities that go hand in hand with their roles, and their very special on stage rapport.
“It's an amazingly strong cast overall, and for me it takes a lot of discipline, and mind over matter, really; you have to take care of yourself, and listen to your body,” smiles Emma Hatton, who plays Elphaba. “With an eight-show week, you do have to pace yourself, and know when to say no, and that's hard, as you're in a high-pressure situation. It never gets any easier!”
Emma's musical roots are actually in jazz and blues, and she started out as a stand-by for the part of Elphaba. She's been in the role for just over a year now, and despite her future musical aspirations, doesn't plan on going anywhere until playing Elphaba feels like it's a real job.
“It's never an easy decision when you have security in a role like this, so you have to balance that with your own creativity,” she says. “I started off as a singer in a jazz and blues band – it's how I learned my craft, and I like to challenge myself. But Elphaba is such a dream role; in terms of female theatre, it doesn't get much better. On the flip side, it takes its toll physically, and emotionally, so it's about being realistic in how long you can expect to maintain eight shows a week, really.”
A fair point. Surprisingly, Emma doesn't come from a trained background, and describes her voice as 'very raw'. If that is the case, she's the perfect advert for not going to voice coaching lessons! Her voice is powerful, full of dynamics, and oozes character.
“Taking on Elphaba, you do need to look at technique, and the safety of your voice, so it's been wonderful for me, as it's taught me how to sing properly,” Emma explains. “But yes, I have come from a very musical background, and that's something I never want to let go. It's important as a singer to stretch your voice out and do other things, or it can settle. I also don't want to be pigeon-holed. I hope to do a lot more on the jazz and blues scene, and I am currently meeting with record labels, talking about doing another EP, and potentially even an album. It's a really exciting time for me, and I am so grateful for Wicked on that side of things, too: it's a wonderful platform, and it has a great loyal following. It's just nice to have a few irons in the fire, too.”
Savannah, on the other hand, comes from a more traditional background. Before she graduated from drama school, she had already landed a part in the original Mary Poppins. Impressive!
“I got a very lucky break, and I was understudy for Mary and Mrs. Banks; that was a huge learning curve for me,” she explains. “Then I started to want to play leads, and as my career progressed, I started to step up. I got the real breakthrough with Gone With The Wind, where I was understudy to Scarlett O'Hara – this was Trevor Nunn's production in the West End. And I got on the day after we opened to the press, without any rehearsals! [laughs] Thankfully, it went extraordinarily well, and I guess I had proved to myself that I could lead a company. I went on and continued to do leads, and the odd bit of TV, too. Before I got Wicked, my last role was in Chariots of Fire.”
Glinda is such a unique role in that it not only requires a great singing voice, but some true artistry when it comes to the acting side of things. Remarkably, Savannah manages to be extremely funny all the time, and nails all her vocals. That's talent!
“[laughs] Thank you! Well, I definitely see myself first and foremost as an actor, and you have to be able to sing a bit as well, I guess,” she says, modestly. “I think there are a few bits in Glinda that are a bit of me, but I just really highten them! But I am also very different to her. It's what an actor does: you find things that you connect with in a character, and then you use them, so that's what I have to do with her. The comedy was quite a scary challenge to me, as I've always done drama, and that's been really thrilling to me, that I do have comic timing, apparently! [smiles]”
She certainly does. Had us rolling around laughing in the stalls, in fact! Savannah has played Glinda for two-and-a-half years now, which she admits is longer than she ever expected to stay, but because she loves it so much, she isn't in any hurry to part ways with the production.
“Sometimes as an actor, when you have a good thing, you have to hold onto it a little longer,” Savannah admits. “I love the show, and the role, and it's such a challenge every day. But I never ever feel complacent – quite the opposite, actually. So much of what this show is, is about those two women: that Glinda and Elphie chemistry really is everything.”
We couldn't agree more. So what about the responsibility that goes with each of those roles? How important is it to make sure the portrayal of the characters is right on the money throughout?
“The Wicked fan base is so huge, and so dedicated; and following in the footsteps of Idina Menzel, whose career has just blown up, generates even more interest around the show,” Emma insists. “So yes, there is a responsibility as an actress to tell the story of Wicked; and Elphaba is someone a lot of young females in particular can really relate to, so there is also a responsibility that comes with that. On the stage, you're so exposed, there is nowhere to hide; and sometimes the slower, softer ballads are the more challenging, as it's just you and the story telling. If you feel vocally tired, or you're coming down with something, my goodness, do you feel the pressure!”
And what about you, Savannah?
“I totally agree. The pressure of this show is quite honestly exhausting, and the fanbase of Wicked is so crazy, I hadn't prepared myself for it at all! After my opening night, there was a wall of people at stage door, and it's amazing to feel that support, but it's kind of bizarre, too. It's my job, but it's strange having people waiting for you after you finish your day at work! [laughs] But the fans are really very supportive, and I have never had any negativity. You actually feel like you're entering into their show, as there is an understandable sense of ownership there; they're the ones that buy the tickets, after all, and that is kind of awesome.”
The electric on stage rapport the two of you have would suggest you're good friends outside of Oz, too...
“Oh, definitely! We spoke on the phone for an hour-and-a-half after the show yesterday, in fact,” laughs Emma. “We have a great friendship, and care about each other immensely. You spend so much time looking into each other's eyes, you know when it's touching a specific nerve. It's important to support each other emotionally on and off stage in those two roles, and although we are strong enough actresses that it would still be believable on stage, what we do have definitely adds to that."
Both girls say their roles still feel very fresh, and that they're able to find new rhythms and nuances when required, to help feed off each other all the time. But they're not robots, Emma is keen to point out:
"Energies can change dramatically: we're humans that go through emotional things off stage that can affect hugely what goes on onstage, so you have to be able to channel that to make the performances even better. It can be pretty straining in some ways, but that cathartic experience can also feel great. I mean, if i've been queuing at the bank all day, I can let that frustration out when belting out Defying Gravity, can't I? [laughs]”
Finally then, ladies, what advice you can offer to a budding Glinda or Elphaba?
“I think talent does come forward naturally, but it's such a difficult industry to hack," reflects Savannah. "I have plenty of days where I don't feel amazing, but even then, I still feel totally uplifted when I finish a show. It's what I love about this role: Glinda is the ultimate tonic! So I would say always stay ambitious, believe in yourself, but find some kind of pathway to try and achieve your goals.”
Look out for the full article with Emma & Savannah in the next issue of Headliner Magazine, out in March 2016.