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The role of Elphaba is one of musical theatre's most iconic roles, and it's one which Dutch actress Willemijn Verkaik has been playing for the past ten years. The first performer to play the role in multiple languages, Willemijn has now returned to the West End once again to celebrate her own personal decade as the Wicked Witch of the West. Having previously played the role in London, Stuttgart, Oberhausen, the Netherlands and on Broadway, she brings a fully international experience to the musical and is now wowing West End audiences once again.
We spoke to Willemijn during rehearsals to hear more about her experiences in the role over the past ten years.
Dom O'Hanlon: Willemijn, welcome to London. Firstly I'm interested to know how your personal journey with the musical Wicked began?
Willemijn Verkaik: I was in WE WILL ROCK YOU in Germany in 2005 when a colleague said to me “you have to listen to this cast recording – you would be a great Elphaba”. That was my first introduction to WICKED. I started to listen to it and I was immediately blown away by the score. I got really into the story and booked a ticket to see Idina Menzel playing the role in London. The minute you see the show you’re sold!
DOH: Are there obvious difference between the different companies which you've been apart of?
WV: The main difference is with German and Dutch audiences. The story of The Wizard of Oz is not as famous there as it is in America and the UK so at the start of the show you have to explain the story a little more. I’ve played the role in four countries so it’s interesting to find out whether something that worked well on Broadway works as well elsewhere. It’s been a fascinating and rewarding journey for me.
DOH: Now you're in London rehearsing, what's a typical day in your life like at the moment?
WV: Yesterday I had rehearsal from 10:30-4:30. We immediately go on stage and rehearse all the different scenes. Then I have a vocal call, I find out special timings and dynamics and then I go home and read my notes and the script and absorb everything that I’ve learned that day.
DOH: You're playing such an iconic role, how have you managed to make the role your own all over the world?
WV: Elphaba is easy to relate to. You can always find something that connects her to your history or your own experiences. You can take those experiences into the role of Elphaba and that makes it your own. That's what makes your Elphaba your Elphaba. Also maybe it’s because I'm Dutch, maybe my cultural roots add something to it – I feel so comfortable in her skin.
DOH: Have you found your favourite part of the show has changed at all?
WV: It has always stayed the same! My favourite scene is at the train station where Elphaba has begun to know Fiyero in a slightly ‘different’ way and she’s starting to feel something that she doesn’t fully understand. It’s a moment of discovery and its very touching and meaningful to play.
DOH: You must have worked with so many fantastic Glindas over the world, do you ever look across enviously and wish you could play that role for just one night?
WV: There was one time in a concert where I just thought I'd sing "Popular". Yes of course you're always looking at your counterpart. The roles are so well written that it's definitely something that's crossed my mind – but I'm definitely not the Glinda type! It would be so fun to play – all my colleagues enjoy playing that part so much. On the other hand, Elphaba is my role and I'm so so happy I've got to play it and can play it again in London, so no complaints here!
DOH: Some 12/13 years after the show originally opened it still has two of the best central female characters in musical theatre.
WV: It's amazing, there are other shows now that feature incredibly strong women but it's not a surprise that Wicked is still running so well because these two women really do touch your heart. It's so warm. Everyone coming into the theatre doesn't fully know what to expect but when they leave, their heart are open – they've laughed and they've cried – it's a very, very strong and powerful show. You can see that it's also universal. People from all over the world come and see the show – everyone is touched afterwards. That is very, very strong.
DOH: Finally, in London the show has just celebrated its 10th Anniversary - why do you think it continues to resonate so strongly with audiences?
WV: Not only is the show well written (and the music is great, the production design is spectacular and all the technical wizardry is amazing), but it also shows you that you can be the person you are and accept the person opposite you for who they are. You can be true to yourself and by letting someone else be themselves you will make the friendship or relationship stronger. Wicked is great for groups, colleagues and friends and if you open your heart to the story you will have an unforgettable experience that makes you think about yourself and those around you.
Willemijn Verkaik is currently starring in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre