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Fellow Ozians

Adam L. Brinklow | February 8, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

Wicked dropped anchor in San Francisco again Jan. 23, almost ten years after its original, pre-Broadway run at the Curran Theatre. After so long as America's most inescapable Broadway phenomenon, what could possibly be left to say about it?

For the ensemble of the original San Francisco production, quite a lot. What happens when struggling extras land a prized spot in what turns out to be the musical of the decade? And more importantly, what happens to them after?

SFMAG: How did you come onto Wicked?

Melissa Fahn: In the fall of 2000 I was contacted by Stephen Schwartz to do an initial reading of his new musical, and then three reads after that. I'm one of only three cast members, including Kristin Chenoweth, who saw every read of the show.

Kristoffer Cusick: I got offers for three shows on the same day: Aida, Mama Mia, and Wicked. But I thought, one of these is a new show, I want to be in on the ground floor.

Andrew Palermo: I'd just finished Annie Get Your Gun and part of me didn't want to go back to the chorus, but it was already high profile from the beginning. There was a buzz about it. I took a chance.

Lorna Ventura: I already had a job as an associate choreographer, but I wanted to work with Wayne Cilento and Stephen, so that attracted me enough to go back to chorus work.

SFMAG: When did you realize that the show would be a hit?

Ben Cameron: The table read the very first day. I remember running out of the room and calling my mother saying, "I just got into something huge."

Ventura: In San Francisco I came out the stage door and saw people dressed up as witches waiting in line. I thought, this thing is going to land. I’m glad we opened there. It might not have been such a hit anywhere else.

Gorski: I think the first sign was the line people around the corner from the Curran.

Palermo: We didn’t get rave reviews; they were very mixed. What’s amazing is what everybody did to rise above that and make it the juggernaut it is. It bucked tradition that way.

SFMAG: What was that pre-Broadway San Francisco production like?

Fahn: We had twelve hours days. We'd have rehearsal in the afternoon and by the evening we would have all new lines. We would have new songs! There was one song, "Which Way is the Party," that changed almost every night. Now it's a completely different song ["Dancing Through Life"].

Cusick: Every day was a big experiment.

Cameron: It was four hours long the first time. It used to be darker. The show is pretty Disneyfied now.

Fahn: The very first script reading they had me play Dorothy. Dorothy's part got smaller and smaller until she was just a silhouette onstage. I played the Dorothy silhouette.

SFMAG: What made you eventually leave the Broadway production?

Cameron: You've got to leave sometime. It was gut-wrenching. A show that successful is a permanent job, which is something you just don't get in show business.

Cusick: I moved up to play Fiyero on Broadway, and then I opened the Chicago company, then opened LA. After six years I felt like there's lots of understudies who deserved to move up, and I had my chance already.

Ventura: Wicked was my last hurrah. It was a hit and I thought that could be a good one to end on.

SFMAG: Wicked was a huge boost to your careers, so what are you doing now?

Palermo: Taye Diggs and I founded dre.Dance in 2005. I’m in pre production choreographing a new musical called Allegiance with George Takei.

Cameron: When I left Wicked I went on tour with Sweet Charity. I got to make out with Molly Ringwald, so cross that off the bucket list.

Cusick: I did RENT and finally got to play Roger, then I booked Tales of the City in San Francisco. I'm doing this new show, Hands on a Hardbody. It sounds seedier than what it is.

Fahn: I just did a movie, Tick Tock Boom Clap, in the Bay Area. And I’ve done voice work; I was Gaz on Invader Zim and Edward on Cowboy Bebop.

Ventura: I’m working on Frog Kiss at the Wells Theatre. It’s a new musical and I got to choreograph that.

And one San Francisco dancer, Kristen Gorski-Wergeles, is the only original cast member still doing Wicked on Broadway. “The daily challenges keep my performance fresh,” she says. But she's taking time off now to play a brand new role: mom. She had her first child last June, a baby girl. (She was a perfectly normal color.)

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