'This is the top' _ Dutch singer on Broadway debut

AP News
Posted: Mar 04, 2013 7:45 AM
'This is the top' _ Dutch singer on Broadway debut

NEW YORK (AP) — There's a little bottle of champagne in Willemijn Verkaik's dressing room. It sits unopened — she's already plenty giddy.

Verkaik, a Dutch actress who has played the role of Elphaba in versions of "Wicked" in Germany and Holland, last month made her debut on Broadway as the green-skinned witch for a 15-week stint.

"This is the top. This is what little girls dream of," the actress says backstage before a recent performance at the Gershwin Theatre. "You never dare to dream of the possibility to be here. It's great."

It's been a long road for the singer who has played Elphaba for more than 1,000 shows since 2007. She started with a two-year stint in Stuttgart in southern Germany, before jumping to the western German city of Oberhausen for a year, then made a triumphant homecoming in the Dutch city of The Hague, where she played Elphaba for four years.

That run ended in mid-January and the creative team from the Broadway show, which had cast each European production, tapped Verkaik to come to New York. She is now the only actress to have performed the role of Elphaba in three languages — Dutch, German and English.

"It's a tremendous feat. It's her third language. Who else can do that?" asks Lisa Leguillou, the show's associate director, who helped prepare Verkaik in every city beginning in Stuttgart. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. I'm seeing a whole other performance here. It's taking her out of her comfort zone and it's allowing her to find new things in her Elphaba."

Leguillou is soon off to cast and direct a South Korean version of "Wicked." If she has trouble finding a suitable Elphaba, might we suggest one who speaks Dutch, German and English?

"I know!" Leguillou laughs. "I told the creative team, 'I don't know. She's so good, maybe she can learn Korean. You know Willemijn — she'll learn it in four weeks.'"

"Wicked," based on Gregory Maguire's cult novel, tells the story of two young witches-to-be, one a green brooder who will be the Wicked Witch of the West and the other blond and bubbly, who will be Glinda the Good Witch.

With a score by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, "Wicked" has been one of Broadway's biggest success stories since it arrived in 2003 starring Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and Idina Menzel as Elphaba. The newest Broadway Elphaba thinks she knows why it's so unstoppable.

"It tells you a lesson that people can recognize from their own lives, even if it's in the Land of Oz — to believe in yourself and to stay true to yourself," says Verkaik. "I think a lot of people in the audience get that and that's why they keep coming back. And that's why it works in Holland and Germany and Singapore and here."

Verkaik, 37, was born and raised in The Netherlands outside the city of Eindhoven. In school she was taught both German and English; she brushed up on each before tackling Elphaba in Germany and now on Broadway.

"Of course, people will always hear a little bit of Dutch maybe in it but I always try to be as accent-free as possible," she says. "For me, it's nice. I love to work on those kinds of things."

She grew up playing the flute, sang in school and suspects she got some of her musical talent from her father, semi-professional classical singer. She studied at the Rotterdam Conservatory and had the hope of one day becoming a pop singer.

Life took her to musical theater and now she's found herself singing one of musical theater's best anthems — "Defying Gravity." (Or "Ik Lach Om Zwaartekracht" in Dutch and "Frei und Schwerelos" in German.)

Which is the most beautiful version? "It flows so well in the English language because that's the original language," she says. "So I would say the songs flow at their best in English."

Verkaik has been to New York before but only as a tourist. In 2011, she sang "Defying Gravity" in all three languages at the legendary Birdland Jazz Club with Schwartz on piano. This time, she hopes to visit the American Museum of Natural History and the ground zero memorial.

She says the cast of the Broadway mothership have been warm since she made her debut Feb. 12, hosting a small party in her honor and handing over that champagne, which she plans to open after her run concludes. "They are wonderful. I felt so welcome and everyone has said whenever I need something I can just reach out," she says.

On her debut, her husband — a saxophone player who plays in the orchestra pit of a show in Germany — was there, as were her parents. "It's been a journey. A great one," she says.

Despite knowing the role inside and out, there have been some things she still had to get used to. The Broadway set has a new flight of stairs and the fervent fans of all things Oz are special.

"Everyone here knows the story of 'The Wizard of Oz' so well. In Holland and Germany that's a story that people maybe know but it's not that every child in every school gets it read to them," she says. "That's the biggest difference."

She heads back to Holland in May without a job lined up but with the hope of finishing her second dream: A debut solo pop album, which will likely be in English.

She credits "Wicked" with teaching her to believe in her heart.

"It told me to trust it," she says, smiling.



Wicked: http://www.wickedthemusical.com/

Verkaik's site: http://willemijnverkaik.nl

Verkaik singing in three languages: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5b08qLLa7bk


Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits