McKenzie Kurtz Alyssa Fox

Alyssa Fox and McKenzie Kurtz on Leading Wicked‘s 20th Anniversary Cast

It’s a question that prospective leading ladies have been asking themselves for two decades now: Are you an Elphaba or a Glinda?

The two witches — neither wicked, but both accessibly imperfect — at the center of one of Broadway’s longest-running and most beloved musicals have been launching dreams and careers since Wicked, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s adaptation of novelist Gregory Maguire’s re-exploration of The Wizard of Oz, arrived on Broadway 20 years ago this month. Both roles require considerable vocal and dramatic chops; the green-skinned Elphaba, introduced by Idina Menzel, who won a Tony Award for her performance—has to be a powerful belter, while the part of Glinda, first played by Kristin Chenoweth, requires both a flair for daffy comedy and a solid high B (with the option of scooping up to a high E).

Alyssa Fox and McKenzie Kurtz in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Alyssa Fox and McKenzie Kurtz in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The characters, who meet and clash as students at Oz’s Shiz University but then form a deep bond despite their different personalities and goals, have also influenced creators of musical theater and film. Alyssa Fox and McKenzie Kurtz, the actresses currently playing Elphaba and Glinda at the Gershwin Theatre, both made their Broadway bows in Frozen as, respectively, a standby for Elsa and a replacement for Anna, a pair of princesses plainly influenced by Wicked’s witches.

Kurtz first saw Wicked when she was about 9 years old. “Growing up, I was obsessed with both witches,” she notes. “I mean, what kid doesn’t want to be painted green and lifted in the air in one of musical theater’s most iconic moments? But I figured out pretty early on that I was a Glinda. I love to do comedy, and I definitely share some attributes with her. Alyssa and I were joking about this the other day: I love the glitzy and glamorous things in life.”

Fox confirms that Kurtz has “dressed me up a couple of times now,” as Glinda does Elphaba during the appropriately named “Popular.” “And at her core,” Kurtz adds, “Glinda wants to help Elphaba so much. I have a younger sister and we’re super-close, so I can relate to that as well.”

Alyssa Fox and the cast of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Alyssa Fox and the cast of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Fox, in turn, “identified with Elphaba in a deep way” when she first saw the show in high school, in a touring production in Dallas. “She has this goal and this dream of fighting for something she loves, and inside of me, there’s also this sense that there needs to be justice in the world. And I always felt like an outsider too; there was bullying in my life, and things that were difficult to work through, and Elphaba went through a lot of tough things during her childhood.”

While both women have loved Wicked’s score since discovering it — “I remember listening to the cast album for the first time and a light turning on inside me,” Fox says — both have songs they especially like to perform. Fox cites “Defying Gravity” “because it shows such a connection, with Elphaba trying to make Glinda understand why she’s doing what she’s doing. It’s a big turning point in the show, and in their friendship. And I just love singing it — it’s extremely hard, but the challenge makes it more gratifying.”

Kurtz says her favorite number “changes all the time,” but she points to the “underrated” “Thank Goodness”: “It’s sung when Glinda has become this public figure in Oz, and she has her dream man. She’s engaged, she’s a celebrity, she’s gotten everything she’s always wanted, but at the same time, she’s experiencing this inner turmoil because her best friend is off who-knows-where and her supporters are saying horrible things about that friend. It’s a gorgeous song, and it’s about how getting your dream can be complicated. I think everyone can relate to that.”

McKenzie Kurtz and the cast of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.
McKenzie Kurtz and the cast of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As Fox points out, Wicked “touches everyone,” and both of its current stars continue to draw fresh insights from it. “I’ve been in the show eight months now,” Kurtz says, “and honestly, even in that time my portrayal has changed and grown. Glinda arrives ready to take on this university experience, thinking nothing’s going to stop her. Enter Elphaba, and she experiences some jealousy and insecurity, but then realizes we all need to celebrate each other for our differences and love each other regardless. Glinda becomes Elphaba’s biggest cheerleader, and she learns that she doesn’t have to be the center of attention all the time.”

Regarding Elphaba, Fox continues to be struck by “the arc of this character as she learns to own her power. She tries to hide it so much at the beginning of the show, because she wants to be accepted by others, but then she realizes that her power is important to the world, and she owns it, in a way. Playing that role every night has given me permission to do the same: to own my power, but also to accept my limitations. That’s been a beautiful thing.”

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