Between 2008 and 2015, Jemma Rix became a favourite with Australian musical theatre fans, playing the misunderstood heroine of Wicked who ultimately becomes The Wizard of Oz’s villainous Wicked Witch of The West.
Originally cast as the standby for Elphaba, Rix took on the role full time in 2010 and has since won fans across the country, as well as in Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and The Philippines. By the time she had completed the Australian Tour of Wicked in 2015, she had chalked up more than 1,200 shows in the challenging leading role.
But since November, Rix has again been donning the green makeup for eight shows a week. This time, however, it’s to recreate one of cinema’s most iconic villains in The Wizard of Oz, a new musical staging based on MGM’s 1939 film and created by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Speaking to Theatre People hours before the Sydney season’s official opening night, Rix talked about preparing to take on The Wicked Witch of The West in The Wizard of Oz.
“I did my research on Margaret Hamilton from the film,” she says. “So, a lot of the rhythms and how I spoke was in that Margaret Hamilton way because I thought that that’s what they [the creative team] wanted.
“I went into rehearsal and they said, ‘No, absolutely not. We want you to create your own witch’. And so, I had to go back to the drawing board; I had to throw out all the research that I’d done and create something.”
She says being given that instruction was “wonderful”.
“It was liberating,” she says.
In order to present The Wizard of Oz as a full stage musical, Lloyd Webber worked with long-time collaborator, Tim Rice, to compose several new songs for this adaptation, including ‘Red Shoes Blues’, a number performed by The Wicked Witch at the top of Act Two.
“The Wizard of Oz is a classic, and [if] you want to change a classic, it’s a really frightening pressure,” Rix says. “But they took it on, and they chose very carefully those little extra bits that they wanted. The beginning of the show has some more music flow through with the characters, it sets up Kansas, and then the witches get a song each, and Professor Marvel – who’s played by the amazing Anthony Warlow – gets a song as well.
“They didn’t alter it too much, but they heightened the little bits that did need a bit of a tweak possibly, because the witches need a song, come on!”
But Rix also emphasises the deference the new production of The Wizard of Oz shows to the film that has been loved by several generations for almost 80 years.
“It’s still so respectful of the film, and that’s what I think the audience really loves,” Rix says. “But then they’re also getting all these extra songs, and bells and whistles with costumes.”
The new Australian tour of The Wizard of Oz reunites Rix with Lucy Durack, her co-star in Wicked for a sizeable number of her 1,200 performances at Elphaba. Rix is excited to have that opportunity.
“You never know when you’re going to get to work with someone again,” she says. “So, when we got the call, we were so excited … We’re great friends … but then we also have this awesome respect and chemistry on stage together.
“Lucy and I are very similar in that we always keep things very fresh,” she says. “Yes, we say the same lines every time, but we actually deliver them differently every show. And that’s why we absolutely sparked off each other in Wicked … We kept it fresh because we kept doing it differently, even though we were saying the same thing. That doesn’t always happen with actors.
“So, even [for] those tiny little snippets that we get on stage together – it’s obviously not the same as [in] Wicked – straight off the bat, we are feeding off each other, which is just fantastic.”
And while it’s facilitated an on-stage reunion with Durack, The Wizard of Oz has also afforded Rix an opportunity to work with Anthony Warlow, one of Australia’s most internationally-renowned leading men of the stage.
“I was very nervous when I first met him because he’s iconic,” Rix says. “And, of course, as it is when you meet all the people that you put on a pedestal, he’s just a lovely human being.
“It’s been great to see him work in the rehearsal period as well, just to see someone who’s so established and respected and … watching his process of developing a character, the research he does … He does a lot of heavy research before he starts. I just watch him and respect him, and seeing him on stage every night is amazing. It’s been a dream come true in that sense, for sure, although we don’t actually get to work on stage together, unfortunately … But maybe next time!”
THE WIZARD OF OZ – AUSTRALIAN TOUR DETAILS
Venue: Capitol Theatre, Campbell Street, Haymarket
Season: Playing now until 4 February
Performance Times: Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Tues & Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm*
Prices: From $49.90**
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 795 267, Groups 12+ call 1300 889 278
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: From 3 April 2018
Performance Times: Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm*
Prices: From $59.90**
Bookings: bass.net.au or 131 246, Groups 12+ 08 8205 2220
Venue: Regent Theatre
Season: From 15 May 2018
Performance Times: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm*
Prices: From $59.90**
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100, Groups 12+ 1300 889 278
* Performance times vary weekly
** Transaction fees apply