“Which is which?” That’s what the Wizard of Oz asks when he comes upon the two witches, Elphaba and Glinda, in the Broadway show Wicked. That simple question is at the core of the popular musical. The spirited, thought-provoking show, based on the Gregory Maguire novel, Wicked, explores the famous adage: “It’s what’s inside that counts.” And the premise is rooted in one simple effect: The head-to-toe green skin of Elphaba.
The young witch’s differently-colored skin is a powerful metaphor throughout Wicked: What initially appears bizarre eventually becomes beautiful, both for the characters on stage – and for the audience. We went backstage to observe actress Jackie Burns’ transformation into Elphaba, under the supremely talented hands of the lead Wicked makeup artist Craig Jessup – and what we discovered may surprise you.
Sing in the Shower
For most of us, singing in the shower is the closest we’ll get to performing live; for Jackie Burns, it’s the warm-up for starring in Broadway’s largest theater. Burns explains that she preps at home – doing stretching and yoga, steaming her face and “vocally warming up” in the shower – before arriving at the Gershwin Theatre. The curtain rises at 8 pm; Burns arrives with little more than 30 minutes to spare – and that’s when her transformation begins.
The Green Team
“Are You Green Yet?” This quote hangs on the wall of the Wicked makeup room. The answer? Yes – in just 30 minutes. The chief Wicked makeup artist, Craig Jessup, can transform Elphaba in a half hour. He’s had practice: Jessup, who has been with the show since 2006, estimates he has worked on up to 15 Elphabas, including understudies. What are his tools? Mac Cosmetics Chromacake in Landscape Green, up to ten brushes and a very deft pair of hands. As Jessup explains, as he’s applying the green makeup, he allows certain points of light to show through on Burns’ face. The goal, he says, is to create the legitimate illusion that Elphaba’s skin is a different color. He succeeds.
Elphaba’s green skin isn’t just painted on. She also wriggles into it. After her face makeup has been applied, Burns slips into a sheer green leotard that covers her arms. The last step? Jessup coats Burns’ hands with green – and the illusion is complete. Talk about having a green thumb.
And in case she needs to answer nature’s call, Burns grins widely and says she always keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready since hand washing is a no-no.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
To quote one of the country’s most famous green stars: It’s not easy being green. Or is it? As Burns says, because the makeup is fairly light, it feels no different than her regular skin, and she’ll often forget that she’s green until she looks in the mirror. But on stage, of course, she’s reminded of it at every turn. From the moment that Elphaba makes her entrance, where everyone on stage gasps in shock, the young witch is ostracized. And that, says Burns, is something that many in the audience, no matter what age, can probably relate to. Burns herself went through a gawky teenage stage where she didn’t feel like she fit in and she channels that experience into the role. And, performing as Elphaba is cathartic: As Burns says, if she’s had a tough day, she connects to the powerful song “No Good Deed”; and when she’s feeling great, she gets a lift from belting out “The Wizard and I.”
A Witch Grows Up
Intermission is the time for the audience to buy snacks. For Elphaba, it’s the time to “become a woman.” Act 1 culminates with Elphaba soaring to the heavens while singing Wicked’s signature song, “Defying Gravity.” The curtain falls, and moments later, Burns is back in her dressing room, where Jessup immediately begins to work on “maturing” her face, because Elphaba is older in the second act. Jessup creates “smoky eyes” and adds dark contours to her eyebrows and lips. Of course, when the show ends, Burns can wipe away the aged skin. Ah, if only it were that easy for the rest of us.
Green is Beautiful
In Act 2, it’s Glinda who is green – with envy.
As the act unfolds, Elphaba and the handsome Fiyero passionately kiss. And this is where Elphaba delivers one of our favorite lines: As they’re smooching, Fiyero senses a change in Elphaba. “What is it?” he asks. “It’s just that,” says Elphaba, “for the first time… I feel wicked.”
As for Elphaba’s green sheen: It may take an intense half-hour makeup session to go green, but to take it off? Ten minutes. Of course, as Burns explains, when you’re playing the role of Elphaba, night after night, you never fully get rid of the color. Even away on vacation, she’s still swabbing green from her ears.