Today’s Exclusive Interview is with Etai BenShlomo who currently performs the role of Boq in the San Francisco production of WICKED. Among his credits, Mr. BenShlomo has performed in the ensemble at the St. Louis Muny. We thank Mr. BenShlomo for his interview which you can check out below!
What was your first professional acting job, and how did you land it?
My first professional acting job (if you don’t count imitating “The Wiggles” at kids’ parties to make extra money in high school…oy vey) was in the Ensemble of three shows at the St. Louis Muny, the largest and oldest outdoor summer theatre, where I got my Equity card. I was a humble servant to the King in THE KING AND I, an obnoxious show-boy from New York in GYPSY, and a filthy, thieving street-child in OLIVER! At the end of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I caravaned with most of my department down to St. Louis for the audition (I had heard of the theatre, and heard they were doing WIZARD OF OZ and OLVER! that summer, so I knew short, munchkin-esque people would be in high demand). I sang 16-bars of “Make ‘Em Laugh” and then sang them again at a call-back…it was all over in a flash. Then three weeks later, I received a call telling me I was hired. I worked there for three more summers (throughout my entire college career), and had the time of my life!
How did you come to audition for “Wicked”?
Quickly after graduating from Michigan (Go Blue!), I signed with an agent who saw me in my Senior Showcase. The casting director of WICKED also saw my showcase, and soon enough, I was submitted for an audition for the role of Boq that summer. I was working at the Muny at the time, and flew back to New York on my day off for the audition, and then again for a callback – and I didn’t land the role. I was a little bummed, but I soldiered on. Turns out the investment was well worth it, because a few months later, in October, I was called in to audition again for the director, and 45 minutes later was told I got the job! Hallelujah!
How was the initial rehearsal process for Boq?
Well, I learned pretty quickly that replacing someone in a long-running show is an art-form in itself. Usually when you’re putting up a show, you rehearse with the whole company, putting the show on its feet together as an ensemble. But in this case, it was just me and our stage manager in an empty studio, going through the whole script and mapping out exactly where I move and when. So, initially, I had to basically act with invisible Glindas and Nessas, pretending they were there, pretending I was on a massive set, pretending there was a dancer to my right whose deadly kick I had to avoid. All the while learning the music with the Music Director, practicing choreography with our dance captains, and watching the show every night to track what I had learned that day. Slowly, other actors trickled into my rehearsals and I got to work with actual bodies. And then about a week into my rehearsals, I had the privilege of working with our incredible creative team, delving more deeply into character and scene-work. After three weeks, I had my “put-in,” my one and only rehearsal on-stage with the entire cast…no lights, no orchestra, and half our set. Needless to say, it was an intense experience, but amazing nonetheless.
What was your first performance in “Wicked” like?
I can’t say I remember it too well, since the sheer terror, excitement, and nerves pretty much sent me into a coma-like twilight that night. Most of the performance involved me praying that I wouldn’t accidentally kill myself or someone else on-stage by being in the wrong spot, or running someone over with that god-forsaken wheelchair, or tripping on my mob-coat and tumbling down the ladder in the opening number, or accidentally pushing Deedee (our Nessa) into the pit. Don’t forget – my first performance was my first time doing the show with lights, full sets, and the entire cast in costume. Terrifying. But I do remember my adrenaline rushing and my heart pounding and suddenly being in front of thousands of people standing up and clapping, thinking to myself: “Did that really just happen…?”
What are your favorite parts of the show to perform?
My favorite Boq scene is the Governor’s Mansion scene in Act 2. There’s a lot of meat to that scene, and it’s so vastly different than all of Boq’s scenes in Act 1. More than any scene, that one really illustrates Boq’s journey in the show – his constant love for Glinda, his enslavement by Nessa, and his transformation from having maybe the biggest heart in Oz to literally no heart at all.
As for other scenes, I love doing the opening number “No One Mourns the Wicked.” It’s such a powerful way to begin the show, with this loud, maniacal, almost twisted celebration. Plus, the harmonies are so intricate and sound really cool when they gel together. It’s a rare joy in a show that one of the first things you do is sing a line like “She’s DEEEEEAAAAAAAAAD” at the top of your lungs. It’s a rush.
Have you witnessed – or perhaps been involved in – any onstage bloopers or mishaps that you’d like to share?
About two weeks into my run, I had quite an incident involving an undercooked cheeseburger and my almost throwing up my dinner in front of 2,000 people DURING a performance. Pretty awful, and pretty hilarious. I actually posted a detailed account of the whole mishap on our Elphaba Standby, Felicia Ricci’s blog. Here is the link, but I warn you all – it’s pretty heinous:
I called it “The Great De-Boq-le”
How does performing a principal role differ from performing in the ensemble?
Well, you’re definitely granted a certain degree of freedom and imagination in the ensemble – to create any character you choose, come up with a whole background and set of circumstances for your character, figure out how you feel about the other characters and the world around you. There’s a lot of fun in that! But of course, as an actor, a principal role is always juicier. You have to really dissect every scene and map out the character’s journey in the play, which can be tricky, but very rewarding.
All of that aside, I truly believe that there are no small parts, only small actors (and I’m not talking about shorties like me). Every single person, be they Elphaba or Ozian #5 is essential to telling the story. Theatre is a collaborative art form and no matter what part you play, you have a responsibility to the show, to the audience, and to your fellow company members. Sorry….kind of veered off into preachy territory there. OK – off my soapbox now.
Does the erratic weather in San Francisco (foggy one minute, sunny the next, rainy the next) present any challenges for you as a performer?
Weather-wise, I’ve learned that San Fran is pretty bi-polar, and that can definitely mess with my allergies a bit. More than that, though, it affects my mood. Who doesn’t feel kind of lame after sitting around doing nothing in their apartment during a cold, rainy, foggy day? I should probably get a better umbrella (don’t buy the cheap ones from Walgreens…they just don’t last). But I do find that I can usually let that go when I get to work…once we’re in the theatre, we can’t really tell what the weather’s like outside anyway…so joke’s on YOU, San Francisco!
What are some of your favorites things about San Francisco? Least favorite?
My favorite thing? No question about it: THE FOOD. This is the perfect town for a self-proclaimed foodie such as myself. Between burritos at El Farolito, sushi at Naked Fish, breakfast at Boogaloo’s, spring rolls and pho at Sunflower, and any other number of places, I’m a very happy camper.
Least favorite: I’d have to say the Tenderloin, which unfortunately, is where I go to work every day. I mean, sure, it’s got plenty of character (and plenty of characters hanging around there), but I think after you see your fourth or fifth crazy person peeing on the sidewalk, it gets kind of old.
What is your favorite role (other than in “Wicked”) that you’ve performed thus far?
It’s hard to name a favorite, but Tobias in SWEENEY TODD is definitely up there. I played the role at Stagedoor Manor (a theatre camp I attended while in high school). To me, SWEENEY TODD is the greatest musical of all time (Sondheim can do no wrong in my book), and even though the role of Tobias isn’t massive, there’s a lot of depth to it, and you get to go insane at the end…what could be better?
Are there any dream roles that you’d like to perform one day?
I’d love to play Tobias professionally. Also, playing Konstantin in THE SEAGULL is kind of a dream of mine. And then there’s Finch in HOW TO SUCCEED…
Some dream roles when I’m a bit older: Leo Frank in PARADE, Leo Bloom in THE PRODUCERS, The Baker in INTO THE WOODS.
What advice would you give to aspiring performers?
To me, it’s all about positivity. Negative energy is poison for theatre, and it can be contagious, so stay away from it if you can. It’s important never to become bitter or jaded, and to keep your distance from those who are. This is a tough business, so maintaining a good outlook, positive energy, and healthy perspective is your best bet. The more passionate, friendly, and fun you are to be around, the more people will want to work with you.
Also, be a sponge and take in as much as you can. I know it sounds lame, but listen to cast albums. Read plays. Watch films. Go to the opera. Etc. etc. etc. You can learn just as much on your own as you can in a classroom. The more you know, the more you can use in your own work.
And lastly, if performing is truly your passion, GO FOR IT! Don’t let anyone talk you out of your dreams!