• Sun. Sep 26th, 2021

‘Wicked’ Hits the Road, Carrying the Hopes of Broadway Tours

Aug 2, 2021

The production, which starts Tuesday in Dallas, is the first Broadway tour back onstage, a test as American theaters seek to rebound from the pandemic shutdown.

With a five-week run in Dallas, “Wicked” is set to become the first Broadway show to resume touring since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Talia Suskauer, shown here rehearsing “The Wizard and I,” plays Elphaba.Credit…Cooper Neill for The New York Times

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By Michael Paulson

DALLAS — Talia Suskauer knows what it’s like to be green. She remembers the feel of pigment and powder on her arms, neck, and face; how the color seemed to seep into her pores and linger behind her ears; what it was like to see a strange but familiar self staring back from a mirror.

She didn’t know that, on a hot July afternoon in Dallas, getting painted once again would make her cry.

Sixteen months after the touring production of “Wicked” in which Suskauer stars as the green-skinned witch Elphaba was forced to close, the cast and crew have reassembled in Dallas for a high-stakes effort to start again. The show’s first performance here on Tuesday, the first by any touring Broadway production since the coronavirus pandemic shut down shows across the nation, will be a sign of hope for a battered theater industry, but also a test at a time when the spread of the Delta variant has Americans once again on edge.

“Each show is going to be someone’s first time back at the theater, so each show is going to be emotional,” Suskauer said. She had her own emotions to draw on, tearing up as she eased back into the makeup chair for the first time since the tour’s March 13, 2020, shutdown in Madison, Wis. “I felt like our purpose was being stripped away,” she said, “and now, to come back, it’s overwhelming.”

Touring is a huge part of the commercial theater ecosystem. It’s big money — in the most recent full theater season, 18.5 million people attended touring shows in North America, and those productions grossed $1.6 billion.

The resumption of touring will once again allow people who live far from New York to see Broadway titles. And it will provide much-needed income for actors, musicians and other theater workers left unemployed by the pandemic.

“If anybody doesn’t love a national tour, there’s something they’re not getting,” said Cleavant Derricks, who in 1982 won a Tony Award for his role in the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls,” and who now plays the wizard in the “Wicked” tour. “You’re going from state to state, meeting different people, seeing different aspects of the country, and each night applause comes your way. How can you beat something like that?”

A revisionist back story for “The Wizard of Oz,” “Wicked” is a musical theater juggernaut that opened on Broadway in 2003, has sold more than $5 billion worth of tickets and has been seen by more than 60 million people in 100 cities around the world. The show, which revolves around a fraught friendship between the witches Elphaba and Glinda, has been running so long that Suskauer and her co-star and fellow Floridian, Allison Bailey, both saw it as children.

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    • 18-month drop in life expectancy. The coronavirus pandemic was largely responsible for shaving a year and a half from the life expectancy of Americans in 2020, the steepest drop in the United States since World War II, according to federal statistics released on Wednesday.
    • Disparities. Black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Latino and African American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors. And Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.
    • Infection rates. Higher rates of infection and mortality among Black and Hispanic Americans have been explained by exposure on the job and at home, experts said.
    • Vaccination gaps. Communities of color, which have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, have also received a smaller share of available vaccines.

    “I saw it in New York when I was in seventh grade, and it was so magical,” said Bailey, who plays Glinda. “It’s why I wanted to do theater.”

    “Wicked,” with songs by Stephen Schwartz, a book by Winnie Holzman and direction by Joe Mantello, has been touring North America since 2005. The tour now travels from city to city in 13 trucks that transport the set, the sound and light equipment, more than 300 costumes and about 100 wigs.

    The touring company includes 33 actors, an 18-person crew, six musicians, three stage managers, two company managers and a physical therapist, plus the 16 dogs, one cat and three ferrets brought along for companionship. The traveling company is then supplemented at each stop by 32 local crew members and nine local musicians, as well as dozens of stagehands to help load the set in and out.

    The resumption of the “Wicked” tour, which comes a month before the first musicals are scheduled to restart on Broadway, will soon be followed by others: Beginning in mid-August, touring productions of “Hamilton” will resume in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Tempe, Ariz., and in September tours of “Frozen” and “My Fair Lady,” as well as the play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” will hit the road.

    In New York, ticket holders to Broadway shows will be required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks, at least through October. In Dallas, the touring production of “Wicked” is requiring vaccines for cast and crew, but not for the audience, which will be instructed to wear masks. Actors will be barred from interacting with the audience, meaning no stage-door autographs or selfies, and no backstage tours.

    Early indicators are that audiences are eager to return: The five-week Dallas run has sold strongly, and prices have held steady, ranging from $25 for a lottery ticket to $169 for the best seats.

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    When the pandemic forced the tour to close last year, the crew packed the set and costumes into boxes and left them in the Madison theater, imagining they’d be back in a few weeks. Then, as the shutdown dragged on, the crew went back to load those boxes into trucks. Ten of the trucks spent nearly a year parked in a Wisconsin truck yard, while three, containing temperature-sensitive electronics, wigs and wardrobe, were sent to a climate-controlled warehouse in Pennsylvania.

    Some members of the company went home, but some had no homes — they are usually on the road so much, they don’t need them — so they stayed with family, or rented something somewhere.

    “Since I’ve been married, I’ve never been home this long, ever,” said the tour’s hair supervisor, Andrea DiVincenzo Shairs, who has been with “Wicked” off and on since 2003. “I went to Fort Lauderdale — my husband is there — and we actually still love each other, so it worked out!”

    Reuniting was fun, but restarting was complicated, and the show set aside three weeks to get ready at Dallas’s Music Hall at Fair Park, the 3,420-seat venue “Wicked” was returning to for the sixth time. The cast was rusty, and needed to re-rehearse the show, while the crew needed to assess each piece of equipment for possible damage after months of disuse.

    “We were worried about what was going to come out of the trucks,’’ said David O’Brien, the tour’s production stage manager. “Opening these boxes of clothes, what are we going to find, and what’s it going to smell like?”

    There were minor problems — a dimmer rack that needed to be reprogrammed, and a warped board in the set floor that caused a sliding statue to jam — but for the most part, the crew was delighted with how well the equipment held up.

    While the crew reassembled the Tony-winning set, the cast rehearsed in the lobby, working on a sprung floor rented from the Texas Ballet Theater. “It’s been 16 months of singing in your shower, which is different than singing with multiple people,” said Evan Roider, the tour’s music director, “but they came back ready to go.”

    There were jokes about expanded waistlines and forgotten dance steps. “It’s a little more snug this time around!” Suskauer said of her costume when a button popped as she rehearsed.

    By the time they were working in the theater, underneath a proscenium featuring the show’s red-eyed dragon, the cast was polishing details. “Careful with your wand!” the associate director, Lisa Leguillou, instructed Bailey as she rehearsed her entrance in a floating bubble. “It’s covering your face!”

    There are, of course, new safety protocols, which the “Wicked” team is sharing in video meetings with crews from other tours as they, too, prepare to restart. Some measures are now familiar: plentiful hand sanitizer, plus masks and gloves and air scrubbers. But there are also more theater-specific strategies. Ultraviolet wands are being used to clean mask interiors, lest too much disinfectant give actors headaches. Actors now scan QR codes for their daily check-ins, in lieu of the traditional sign-in sheet on a clipboard. And partitions are being installed in the orchestra pit to try to contain any aerosols emitted by reed and brass instruments.

    “Our biggest concerns have been how to reinvent things we do in a Covid world,” said Steve Quinn, the tour’s company manager, who has been touring with “Wicked” for 16 years. “We’re the guinea pigs, and we’re just trying to navigate this.”

    The company’s excitement about being back together, and making a show, is tempered by some anxiety, particularly among the crew. “I want to make sure I have covered all my bases, so not by my hands would anybody become sick or injured by something I didn’t think of,” said Joyce B. McGilberry, the tour’s makeup supervisor. “I wanted to come back, but I can’t deny my concerns.”

    The tour company has a wide range of experience. Rebecca Gans Reavis had been playing a flying monkey for just a week before the tour shut down, while Laurel Parrish, the advance wardrobe supervisor, has been with “Wicked” since it opened on Broadway.

    Reavis, heartbroken, spent the pandemic in Wichita, Kan., where she and her husband took jobs teaching at her mother’s dance studio; Parrish, in northern Manhattan, worked for a cheesemonger while taking on passion projects in embroidery and sewing.

    “I don’t think I knew how much I missed it until we started back,” Parris said. “Seeing the clothes was like seeing old friends.”

    When two of the show’s cast members opted not to return after the pandemic, that created openings for the return of an alumnus, Clifton Davis, who at 75 is the oldest member of the tour cast, and a newbie, Anthony Lee Bryant, a Los Angeles-based dancer who had auditioned for the show six times before landing a spot.

    “Theater is being resurrected, thank God,” said Davis, who is relishing a second go as Doctor Dillamond, an erudite goat who taught at Shiz University when Glinda (then known as Galinda) and Elphaba were students there. Davis previously played the same role in 2012.

    As Bryant scrupulously took notes on dance moves, and Davis practiced his bleat, some moments seemed sure to land differently, even though they were crafted years ago. Chief among them: Glinda’s opening line, which Bailey utters as she floats in on her bubble.

    “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?”

    “I think I’m going to say it the same, but it’s going to feel different,” Bailey said. “I feel like I’m saying it on behalf of theater itself.”

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