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Defying Gravity

Last week I made my Broadway debut in the smash hit Wicked, and like the best theater always does, it left me with some big life questions. Based on the clever book by Winnie Holzman and songs by Stephen Schwartz, this musical tells what happened before the Wizard of Oz. Seeing this spectacle of sound, imagery and acting as an audience member turns upside down the hundred-year-old Oz story. Last weekend, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience to not only see what happens backstage during such a phenomenal production, but to play a tiny role as the first ever walk-on in the show's history.


My Broadway Debut
My experience for Wicked began a few days before the actual performance. I had a tour backstage and then a trip to see Alyce, a veteran seamstress and costume designer as evidenced by the "No Whining!" button on her lapel. I was outfitted from head to toe with an elaborate costume: witch-green boots, a colorful coat, gloves, and a whimsical hat selected by my young sons.

A couple of days later I showed up for rehearsal. Cast member Jennifer Waldman patiently walked me through the "train scene" in which I was to appear. She probably thought I was dense when I asked her to repeatedly go over my bit part, which had no singing or speaking. My job was to walk on stage with Jen like travelers with our suitcases and freeze when Elphaba (the wicked witch of the West) says, "... there will always BE...." Then, when the conductor screams "All Aboard!", I was to spring to life, wish Jen farewell, then move to another woman (Jan Neuberger), talk with her for a moment and then rush to board a train moving offstage.

During the show, I anxiously waited backstage for my two minutes of fame, all the while marveling at the machinery and process to put on such a production. I heeled like an obedient dog to stage manager Bess Glorioso, who constantly moved me to avoid being crushed by skyward props or trampled by cast members rushing to their next scene. Astonishingly, every cast member took a moment to whisper in my ear a warm welcome and cheerful 'good luck' - no exaggeration - every one of them.

When my moment finally arrived, Jen ushered me on stage. I hit the freeze queue. (Yeah!) Then kissed her hand as we parted. (In rehearsal, she told me the regular guy did that so I figured I'd go with what worked!) Then over to Jan for a few moments where she spoke in hushed terms - something about "having fun" - but it was all such a blur. Then when I turned to exit the stage, I was startled to see 10 or more cast members watching my every move and quietly cheering me on. I left the stage elated and relieved, but the pageantry wasn't quite over... as I was to later discover.

I watched most of the second half from the audience where I could ponder the play's meaning a bit more. The play tracks the iconic symbols of good and evil from the Wizard of Oz - the Good Witch Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba (whose name originates from the initials of the original Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum). I will not give away the premise of the play except to say that your moral compass will be left spinning out of control after learning what happened before Dorothy showed up in Oz. I was moved and motivated by the evolution of Elphaba, which was best captured in lyrics from the final number of the first half, Defying Gravity: click here to see the video clip.

Something has changed within me.
Something is not the same.

I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game.
Too late for second guessing. Too late to go back to sleep.

It's time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap.
It's time to try defying gravity.

I was back in costume on stage for the curtain call with the rest of the cast. I took a bow with the line of gentlemen, which was a great - if undeserved - honor given the minuscule role I played. Then the ladies took their curtsies and then the bigger stars, including finally the witches Glinda and Elphaba played by Jennifer Laura Thompson and Shoshana Bean. With their mics still on, the witches announced to the packed theater that it was one cast member's

The Wicked Cast Members
Broadway debut. The two lines of actors and actresses parted leaving an astonished me alone. I sheepishly made my way to center stage between the witches and took a final bow.

The curtain fell and the cast congratulated me and then erupted in a chorus of "Happy Trails" as is customary to sing for departing cast members. If it is possible to defy gravity, I felt like I was at that time. It was a far more emotional experience than I would have predicted. On the plane flight home, I couldn't help but to remind myself to trust my instincts, close my eyes, and leap.

-- Michael


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