Today, we are thrilled to share an exclusive interview with Donna Vivino. Ms. Vivino portrays the role of Elphaba on the 1st National Tour of “Wicked”, a role which she was first the standby for, then was promoted to lead in November 2008. Previously, she understudied the leading role of Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray” on Broadway. Check out her interview below!
What was your first professional acting job, and how did you get it? What did you learn from the experience?
My first professional acting job was on a Jello Pudding Pop commercial with Bill Cosby. I auditioned as a child for that commercial since I lived near NYC. I learned from that experience how important it is to be professional and to stay focused but still have fun! I was seven or eight years old at the time.
How did you come to audition for “Wicked”? How long was the audition process, and what did you have to do?
I had wanted to audition for the show for years but could never actually get an audition! Then one day my phone rang and I was asked if I would audition for Elphaba. I was given “The Wizard and I”, “Defying Gravity”, and a few scenes to learn. I went to the audition on a Tuesday morning in August at 11 am and by Friday of that week I was offered the position as standby for Elphaba on the first national tour.
What was your reaction when you found out you had been cast in the show?
I screamed with excitement and delight. And then I was like, “oh my goodness…how am I ever going to do this??”
How long was your initial rehearsal process for the show? What was it like?
I learned the role of Elphaba in about two weeks. The first week I worked in a rehearsal room with the stage manager, a CD with the music, and a dance captain. My stage manager and dance captain played all the other parts, and there I was in a room with a mirror and makeshift props pretending to be on the stage – it was crazy. In week two I got to rehearse on the stage, but still with just a dance captain and stage manager. At the end of that second week I had my dress rehearsal and that was pretty much it!
What was your first performance like as standby? How did you feel throughout the show?
My first performance was honestly a blur. It was a total and complete blur but it was an amazing experience. It was the day after Christmas and I found out 15 minutes before the time I would have to begin getting green so it happened very very fast. The tour was in St. Louis, MO at the time, so I will always have a special place in my heart for the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. The other crazy thing is that the Fox is one of the biggest theatres “Wicked” has ever played — so during my first show as Elphie, I was doing it in front of around 5000 people instead of the usual 2000 or 3000.
Did you take up any hobbies backstage as standby? How did you pass the time?
I caught up on the show “Lost” and am still a Lostie — can’t believe the series finale is coming up so soon. I sometimes worked out during the show with DVDs. But honestly, I watched a lot of movies and TV shows. I wish I could say I wrote an album or knitted a blanket, but I pretty much was a either a couch potato or a clutsy aerobic gal trying to follow the workout routines on my mini-DVD player.
What is your favorite part of the show to perform?
It used to be the scene in act one with Glinda when she sings “Popular”, and I still love that part of the show, but now my favorite thing is the final scene with Glinda when we sing and say goodbye to each other.
How did your promotion to lead come about? Did you have to audition again? What was your reaction when you were told you were being promoted?
I did not have to audition again. I was asked to take over for Carmen Cusack about four weeks before she left. I was very happy to be taking over, but also sad because I really had grown close to Carmen and was sad about her leaving.
How do you keep your performance fresh after performing the role for over a year?
It really is about just staying in the moment. Every single performance is totally different as long as I stay in the moment. Also…understudies go on for Fiyero or Glinda here and there and that helps mix things up. I also think that there is always something new to discover about Elphaba, as she is so complex and interesting, so I am constantly still changing and growing in the role. Also…being on tour helps keep things fresh. Every month or two we change cities and venues, and that really helps keep things incredibly fresh for everyone.
Have you had to change any daily habits to protect your voice and body while in the show?
I rarely speak outside of the show and try to exercise every day to keep myself healthy. While everyone goes out after the show to enjoy a drink or blow off steam, I am usually heading home and getting to bed in order to be rested for the following day. Every now and then I will go out and socialize so I don’t feel totally isolated or lonely, but I have definitely gotten used to the silence and the solitude that my body and voice requires for this role.
Have you witnessed – or perhaps been involved in – any onstage bloopers or mishaps that you’d like to share?
Right off the top of my head I can only think of the fire alarms that constantly went off in Appleton, WI during the show. Sometimes we would have to stop the show and resume etc. And of course, little bloopers will happen here and there all of the time, but I honestly remember very few of them because you just keep going and they are just (poof) gone and 90 percent of the audience had no idea that anything was even off track.
(addendum): This interview was conducted before we lost power in New Orleans in the middle of Act 2. The show could not continue since the entire city lost power, so we went out onstage with flashlights and a piano and no microphones and sang “For Good” for the people in the audience who were still patiently waiting and hoping the show could continue. It was truly a magical night.
What’s it like to perform in a heavy singing-show like “Wicked” vs. A heavy dancing-show like “Hairspray”?
It’s very different. But “Hairspray” was also a heavy singing show believe it or not. In fact, I had more vocal struggles with “Hairspray” at times because I had to sing and dance at the same time. Both shows require an enormous amount of energy. It’s amazing how the body adapts, though, quickly. In “Hairspray”, I moved around so much that I was icing my ankles and taking Epsom salt baths at the end of the night. With a show like “Wicked”, Elphaba is very physically demanding as well, because the intense vocals require an enormous amount of physical energy too. I find that after doing a performance as Elphie, I feel more emotionally drained and with “Hairspray”, I felt more physically drained.
Are there any dream roles that you’d like to one day perform?
I’d love to play Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” someday. I’d also love to originate a role in a brand new play or musical.
What advice would you give to aspiring performers?
Never try to be someone else. Of course you may have people whose talents you appreciate but find what your uniqueness is and don’t be afraid to bring that to your work! And remember that while it is fun to be a performer it is also a lot of work and dedication so always keep working on your craft!