Q&A: This Misunderstood Witch of “Wicked”

Actress Mariand Torres Takes Us Under the (Emerald) Skin of the Wicked Witch of the West
Cover: Paco Rojas Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Premiering on June 10, 2003, “Wicked” became a Broadway sensation that took an alternate view of a character from the Land of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West, and changed her perception in the cultural zeitgeist from then forth.

Her actual name, Elphaba, strips away some of that evil associated with her from the L. Frank Baum book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, and the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”. In those versions, Elphaba is the perennial villain, who is only vanquished when Dorothy splashes her with a bucket of water, as she shrinks down into the floor she cries out, “I’m melting! Oh, what a world, what a world.”

In the show “Wicked” the world of Oz is seen years before the girl from Kansas lands, with Elphaba being a young, smart and extraordinary girl who is misunderstood by the world. Her story is one of unlikely friendship, social commentary and a journey which leads to her eventual moniker of being the “wicked” one in Oz.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Elphaba herself, or rather the actor playing the role. Actress Mariand Torres plays the emerald-skinned witch on the North American tour of the show, which arrives in San Jose August 14. After pursuing musical theater in college, Torres moved to New York City and although her dream role of Elphaba eluded her over the years, she was eventually offered a standby role for the New York City production, and in time was offered the main role on the touring production.

So, without further ado, in her own words Torres talks about her experience with acting, the ins and outs of “Wicked”, and of course the role of Elphaba, a witch who was misunderstood.

Thank you for taking time to talk about “Wicked” Mariand.

Of course. My pleasure.

To start off I wanted to know a little bit more about you. Could you tell me about how you began your journey into acting, and what your inspiration for getting into the arts was?

Well I started in high school. Honestly, I was a really shy kid, so I didn’t really know that I was particularly good at singing. I knew I liked music and I liked singing along to the radio, and my family would always be like, “You have a really good voice!” And I kind of ignored it. Then in high school I was at this private Catholic school, I grew up in Miami Florida, and I didn’t really fit in. [So] I wanted a way to make friends and I thought getting involved in some sort of extracurricular activity would be helpful. So I tried out for the choir in high school and got into the choir and basically my choir teacher started giving me a little extra attention and giving me solos and kind of helped me develop this like very raw talent that I had, that I didn’t really know I had.

From there I started learning more about musical theater and stuff like that, and then when it came time to apply for colleges one of my friends in the choir, it’s actually like ridiculous how little thought I put into it, was like, “I’m auditioning for a musical theater program at the University of Miami,” and my words were, “What is that?”

And she said, “You know like ‘RENT’.” I was like, “Well that sounds cool!” So, I auditioned for a musical theater program at the University of Miami and got in, and somehow my mother was supportive of this even though I had never shown an interest in musical theater. And I went to college for it and moved to New York. And here we are.

Awesome. So, in terms of your experience living and working in New York where does “Wicked” take place chronologically in your career?

I moved to New York almost 14 years ago and I had seen “Wicked” towards the end of my time in college, I saw the original cast. I saw it with one of my friends and he was like, “You can do that,” and I was like, “I don’t know, that seems so hard.” But then I moved to New York and you know it did sort of become this dream, like a dream role. I auditioned for “Wicked” for five years in New York on and off. Every time there was an opening in one of the companies, the team would bring me in, and I would audition, and then I wouldn’t get it and I don’t think I was ready.

So, then I did end up getting it in 2010. I joined the first national tour actually for two years. So, I did it then for two years and then had a five-year break. I left the first national tour and you know sort of was like, “OK you know I did it, I played Elphaba. Bucket list, checked.” I did a bunch of other things and had a lot of other experiences and five years later, it just sort of came up again and I was asked if I’d be interested in being the standby for Elphaba on Broadway. I joined the Broadway company and I did that for a year and a half. And then the opportunity to play the role full time came up on the tour. And here we are.

Thank you. Going back a little bit, you mentioned you had seen “Wicked” in college. What was your previous history with the lore of “Wizard of Oz”, and anything related to it?

I hadn’t read the book when I saw the musical for the first time, but I did read the book before I joined the first company of “Wicked”. So, I read the book a while ago and I had definitely seen “The Wizard of Oz” and was a fan. I saw it as a kid and was also a little scared of it. So, I definitely knew the movie and I saw the musical [with] the original cast.

I saw it a few months into it opening, so it was kind of amazing because I really didn’t know what to expect, it was a brand-new show. It hadn’t been running for 15 years. There weren’t YouTube videos of the show out there. It was jaw dropping when I first saw it, just completely astounded by it.

As for the role that you play of Elphaba, how was that experience of playing it as a standby role and then transitioning over to doing it full time? Was it easier because you were already familiar with it, or was it still a lot of work for you? I’m sure it’s still a lot of work either way.

It’s definitely still a lot of work but I do think everybody should understudy at some point in their career. I think it’s just a great learning experience. Being a standby is a whole other challenge in itself because you’re not in the show every night. You’re literally ‘standing by’. You’re just there every night in case you’re needed, and it I learned, what was amazing is being a standby you’re just always observing. I always took the time to observe all the women that I stood by for, so I learned a lot and I asked a lot of questions.

It’s [also] different – in a way it’s easier to do the show eight times a week full time because you build the stamina for it. It’s a muscle that you’re exercising every day. It doesn’t feel like such a big deal every time you do it because as a standby you can go weeks, months without doing the role and it’s a huge undertaking. So then suddenly, you haven’t done it, you haven’t stepped on a stage in a while and then there you are in front of 3000 people taking on this gigantic responsibility.

So, you know they both bring their own challenges. I’m more tired physically than I was when I was a standby, and there’s a certain level of discipline that I have. I don’t really have the energy to really like go out with the cast very often after the show or do a lot of social things and I just have to really take care of my body and my voice. And I was doing that as a standby.

But you know it didn’t feel as big because even if I was a little tired and I had to do the show maybe once or twice, I was fine. But there is something about knowing I have eight shows ahead of me for the week. So, I have to really take care of myself. But I think that having been a standby made this job a lot easier. I knew what the pacing entailed, there was a lot about the role that I already knew.

Now could you talk about the story itself and how your character, Elphaba, fits into it?

Yes. So Wicked is the story of the two witches of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, as she’s known as the Wicked Witch, and their relationship. I like to say it offers a different perspective from the story you think you know of “The Wizard of Oz”. It’s about these two women who seem a certain way to us and we sort of learn about how they became who we know them as. And it explores the idea of what is good and what is wicked and how we perceive that.

It touches a lot on politics and what it takes to become the popular and well-liked social figure, and the [other] one might not be so [popular] but is the one that’s actually fighting for good and fighting for what’s right. Elphaba is the wicked witch, but she really isn’t. She’s just a misunderstood girl who is judged based on what she looks like.

People see her as different and she’s strong and she fights for what she believes in. And I think people [fear] that in the show, but also in real life; people are intimidated by strong people who don’t care what other people think about them. So, I think there are a lot of really great messages in the show. For kids and for adults.

To add on, it’s a social commentary then.

Oh absolutely. It absolutely is a social commentary. It’s crazy that the show’s been running for 15 years and it’s still relevant. And I would say it’s more relevant than ever right now.

What would you say is one thing that you love about the show, whether it be the process involved, or your character?

I mean I just really love this character. She’s complicated and she’s strong. I think playing as a strong woman on stage, it’s empowering. I think the character is a great role model for little girls and for women. The show is also just magical. It’s the quintessential Broadway spectacle. It has all of the elements you want when you want to see a big Broadway musical.

But I think the most important thing about it is that it has heart, and it has a story that you really care about, it’s not just fluff. There are characters you really, really care about. And like I said before there are messages that are important, and I think the show has a very strong message and there’s a reason why we tell the story and I think it’s important.

Is there any particular scene that you like to be part of, or one point that is your favorite in “Wicked”?

You know that changes often. I really like all my scenes with Glinda, our Glinda is Erin Mackey and she’s actually a friend of mine in real life and we were friends before we did this together. Just being on stage with her is great. We have a really good give and take relationship and I really enjoy acting with her but I also love the song “No Good Deed” in Act 2, it’s Elphaba’s big Act 2 number, and it’s the moment you sort of see her switch and decide, “OK you know you want to call me ‘wicked’ then fine. I’m the Wicked Witch of the West.” It’s a really cool moment.

Well thank you so much Mariand. Is there anything that you’d like to add in terms of how you feel about the show, what you hope people get out of it, or anything else?

I mean I think we touched on this but I think the biggest thing I hope people get out of it is the lesson [to] never to judge a book by its cover, and you know people are always going through their own thing and I think being kind and understanding towards one another despite our differences is a really big thing that I think the show teaches. Not to be fooled by appearances. It’s not so black and white. There’s always a lot of gray area and a lot to learn about people, if we just dig a little deeper.

“Wicked” comes to The San Jose Center for the Performing Arts from August 14 – September 8, 2019. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com.

Arts & CultureFeaturedLocal Events