Exclusive: Wicked star Jacqueline Hughes on flying the musical of acceptance around the globe

© Matt Crockett

In September this year, the London production of Wicked will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Telling the tale of two famous witches from Oz, the musical has taught many about the true meaning of acceptance.

But it’s not just the London production that’s celebrating a first. A British cast of performers are about to take the show to new audiences all around the world as part of a new international tour — led by Wicked veteran, Jacqueline Hughes.

And so, naturally, we just had to find out what life’s like flying high as the much-loved green girl, Elphaba.

Join us as we journey to the Emerald City for One Short Day with Wicked’s new international star, Jacqueline Hughes.

Jackie, welcome to GT: Hiya…

Many congratulations on your role as Elphaba on the International Tour of Wicked. Where did your journey with the show begin? Thank you so, so much! My journey with Wicked started in 2011, and I just couldn’t believe my luck. I auditioned for quite a few years before I got cast and was offered the role of swing. I hung up the phone from my agent and literally burst into tears — I simply didn’t believe it!

Why’s that? Joining a show like Wicked, especially as as a swing, meant I knew I had a challenge ahead. I’d never been a swing before on a show so it was the start of an exciting adventure. I didn’t really know what to expect so trying to grasp that was pretty mind-blowing. I had to learn all the singing, learn the choreography for everyone and the music as well. It was a really tough job, yet, I still loved it so darn much.

© Helen Maybanks

© Helen Maybanks

Can you explain what a swing is? Oh my God, they’re the saviour of musical theatre! A swing will cover the entire show so you learn everything, so if someone is sick or on holiday, you go on and cover their role for that night. You have to know all those parts and be like it’s really your part to the audience.

How do you learn 10 different parts? Watch, watch, watch! Like, everyday. [Laughs] You write everything down from where they move to what they do. Wicked is based on numbers on a line at the front of the stage, so you almost learn by numbers in a way.  It’s such a huge machine that once it’s set out and you know the numbers, it works perfectly.

Being a swing meant you got to really see the show from every angle, then? Oh, totally. Getting to see the show from different angles and and play loads of different characters was amazing and was totally the best five contracts with the show!

I progressed through four different contacts, was lucky enough to understudy Madame Morrible and actually go on for her, and then in my final contract in the West End, I got the role of understudy Elphaba. 

What experience did you have of Wicked before you’d joined the show? I saw it about the second or third night when it first opened here in London. I was at drama school at the time and a whole group of us went to watch. Idina Menzel ran out and the audience clapped for about five minutes and I just could’ve believe what I was watching. I mean, just incredible.

© Matt Crockett

© Matt Crockett

Had you listened to the show before seeing it? On a cast recording, say? I remember listening to the CD from Broadway for the first time. I was in my friends house in Guilford and I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, “This is so different and cool. It’s edgy music and it works so well.”

I always used to ask, “How do those girls sing that?” Then all of a sudden, I was singing it. [Gasps and chuckles]

So, you’ve spent years in the show, and then the day finally comes. Do you remember what date you first went on as the much-loved green girl, Elphaba? The very first time was either in August or September — I’ve a bad memory. [Laughs]

Did you know the day was coming? Was it a planned show? Yeah, so I had like a planned show which I don’t know if that was a good or a bad thing because I knew it was going to happen. It meant, of course, that I could be prepared for it, but I don’t think my nervous system was.

What was is like knowing that that day might come? Terrifying but beyond exciting! [Laughs hysterically]

Really? It was probably the best moment, ever. Seriously, all my dreams came true that day. Everything I’ve ever worked towards was happening to me all together. 

Talk us through what happened on your first green day… I remember walking the dog and going through the show in my head before I left for work. I wanted to leave early to ensure I had enough time to get in. I’d started going through the motions of the role and I went from excited to nervous to terrified.

As this point, I did actually know I was going off to join the UK Tour as standby Elphaba so I wanted to prove myself, I guess.

When I was getting ready for the show, everyone kept coming in and visiting me in the dressing room. They, I think, made me evening more nervous! [Laughs] My family all came down to watch from Scotland. My mum and dad, my brother, my sister-in-law and my nieces. I had lots of friends there, as well.

Did you ever get the opportunity to sit in the audience and watch some of the other girls take on Elphaba before you? As a swing, you get to sit out in the audience and watch if there’s seats free. If not, you watch from the back of the theatre, so I used to watch them, yeah.

Sitting with the audience, you’d feel the excitement of a show about to begin. And then, it was your turn to be that star… I knew how much playing this role and being on a West End stage as the lead meant to my mum and dad. They were there so it meant so, so, so darn much!

Why so much? As performers, we work our whole lives to get our dreams: “I want to be on a West End stage one day.” I’ve said it, we all have. It was my dream, so I was very emotional about the day itself inside. And then, add on the fact my family could be there and enjoy it was perfect.

How was it after? My dad couldn’t actually speak to me about it afterwards as he was crying. My dad, my brother and my mum — they all were. Everyone was bloody crying! [Laughs] It was a really, really, really special moment for me and I’ll never quite forget that feeling.

Elphaba show complete. Tick! BIG TICK! [Giggles]

© Matt Crockett

© Matt Crockett

You depart the London cast and move to the UK Tour as Standby Elphaba. What’s a standby compared to an understudy, swing or lead? A standby for Elphaba means you’re basically waiting in the wings ready to go on when the leading lady can’t. You’re not green, but you have to make sure you’re physically and vocally ready if needed. There’s a lot of waiting around so show standard is a must every night.

That sounds tough… Often you’d go days, even weeks, without going on but you still live like a lead. Like, I’d go weeks without a show, then I’d get a couple here or maybe a week of holiday cover, but it was never really like a row of shows, say. So for that, it was hard in terms of stamina, but I learnt about my body a lot from it.

So why the heck would you want to continue with the show for a few more years, this time in an even bigger role on tour? With my time at Wicked, I was always doing something different. I was never bored. The company and team there as wonderful and it was literally working with some of my best friends. I don’t know what it is about it, but I just love it. [Pauses and she smiles] Yeah, I just love it.

© Helen Maybanks

© Helen Maybanks

How much of yourself as a performer do you think you’ve learnt from being a swing, cover and Standby Elphaba to now lead? Has that helped you? Absolutely! You learn your craft and you I used to watch all these wonderful, wonderful women playing these roles and learning from them made me understand. Y’know Rachel Tucker, Louise Dearman, Kerry Ellis — I wanted to be them, to be like them and their way backstage and just how they carry themselves. It was so admirable and you build your stamina and you build your path and your career and that’s where I wanted to go with it. You never know, you never know what’s round the corner.

It was a brave decision to have two productions of the show running simultaneously here in the UK — both in London and on tour. And yet, the success of them both just seems to grow and grow. Why do you think that is? The fact we had two productions here in the UK I think shows that it’s truly a phenomenal show and it resonates with so many people still all these years after.

How so? Being different within society. The notion of being different and society seeing you as different I think connects with a lot of people in ways that maybe we don’t all realise. But who defines different? Wicked tells the story that it’s OK to not be the same as everyone else. Being different is seen as a negative thing almost in society, but it makes you unique. And actually, you can be accepted, but it sadly often takes other people to open their eyes first to see the real you before that happens. Wicked champions that and tells us all to accept you for who they are.

© Helen Maybanks

© Helen Maybanks

And now we get to today. Elphaba on the International Tour of Wicked. [Gasps]

Why is it important to take the message of Wicked to international audiences? For today and this world, especially with what’s sadly going on everywhere, I think it tells a story of love, friendship and acceptance that people need to hear. It’s important for us to go across the world and tell people about it and hopefully change their mind. Yes, there’s other ways of accessing the show with the cast recording, but this is live and people want to see and feel it.

How do you shift your performance from a standby to full time lead? I’m aware that now I have to deliver eight shows every week without fail. I mean, the idea of that is hard for any show, but especially with this. As Elphaba or Glinda, they’re such huge roles that you end up not thinking about it and just doing it. With this role, I need to empty my head and just go on and get carried away with the journey. That’s what I’ll do and deliver my Elphaba every night.

Wicked has some recognisable voices and names that have played this role before. How do you live up to those expectations? Errr… it’s a very nerve-wracking thing. I still can’t quite believe it to be honest. Oh, God! I don’t really know how to answer that. I mean, it’s truly terrifying but to even be part of those woman is a compliment. Once again, I’m pretty speechless.

Do you have a favourite song to sing in the show? Good question! My favourite song to sing vocally I think is No Good Deed.

Why? That’s her peak. She’s had enough and it’s the meatiest point where everyone has let her down, ridiculed her, and this is it. She’s got nothing left and I love that.

© Helen Maybanks

© Helen Maybanks

We can’t not talk about a certain other song in the show… With Defying Gravity, it makes sense and if you’re telling the story, I don’t really tend to think about quite how huge the song is. I mean, it’s massive! It’s the storytelling and when she’s off to tell the Wizard exactly how she’s feeling, she gives him what’s what and I end up getting so into it.

And are you scared heights? I don’t think so… [Giggles] #Spoiler

We think most people know what happens there now… You think so? [Laughs]

What’s it like up there? It’s amazing! Yeah, you feel so in control and really powerful. It’s almost indescribable.

© Matt Crockett

© Matt Crockett

Wicked celebrates a phenomenal 10th milestone in London this September. Do you have a favourite moment from your time with the show in London? Being honest, I never thought I’d work on a show I love quite so much. The WHOLE experience so far has been incredible and I’ve made some friends for live in the building. The people have the message made it so special to me.

Let’s talk about the fans of the show. They come back time and time again to see it. Why do you think that is? There’s so much going on I think that every day with the show is creatively different. Yes, the staging and show itself is the same, but every time you can find something new there with it. I think it has so many underlying themes that bring people back again and again. The fans are so dedicated to a point where it’s mind-blowing. The support is another part that I truly love.

And the costumes. You get the iconic second act black dress. What’s it like putting that on? The costume itself is actually very heavy, but I tend to find that helps me with my character. It helps me find her because I’m exhausted as an actor and so is she. Y’know, she’s always got so much left and that helps me feel grounded and powerful but also totally in control. The costumes themselves, across the entire show, are phenomenal and the care and attention taken to make every detail right is the best of any show. It’s mind-blowing.

Are you ready to spend life as green witch again? Oh, the lovely makeup.

How does the happen? So, it’s a 20-30 minute process with the wig team. They hit you with a big brush full of green — obviously not literally. I get painted green and then my lovely eye makeup is done and then I’m here. She’s back and I’m Miss Elphaba Thropp.

It’s not easy being green, no? Oh, everyone should be green. It really brings out your eyes and I honestly haven’t really ever felt as beautiful.

© Matt Crockett

© Matt Crockett

In the show, you get rather a few moments with the dashing love interest of Fiyero. It’s a tough job but… It’s a really tough job. Like, really tough, but the guys I’ve worked with so far have been such wonderful actors that we’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a really important part of the story. [Laughs]

Is it nice getting that love story in there as well? It shows an almost human side to her… It’s nice because she’s never had that before. Like, she’s never had any relationship with anyone. Not with her father, her mother or anyone. No one has ever loved her and to have that story in the show is really special. With act two, I get to sing As Long As You’re Mine. That’s a really tender song and it’s when she’s exploring. That’s what makes it beautiful because it’s a first. You get to experience her first and that’s special.

For the three people in the world that don’t know, Wicked is based on The Wizard of Oz. Can you watch it and see the story the same again? I mean, this might be bad, but I haven’t watch it in a while. [Pauses] No, I’m right. I actually haven’t watched it in so long. Wicked is the only way forward for me, but then again The Wizard of Oz is one of the most iconic childhood films and I don’t think anything could spoil that. Wicked puts a twist a might twist on it…

How much of playing this role have given you the chance to experience what life is like for those that feel different? That maybe don’t fit into ‘normal’ society? Playing Elphaba can be really lonely. When I’m on stage, for a lot of the show, she’s misunderstood so people aren’t friendly. Plus, when the cast are on stage, often I’m not, and then flip it around.

For me, I urge anyone who feels alone, or feels that they might be an outcast, to know they’re not! You’re so not. There’s always someone who is there, who can help you or you can confide in. It’s just finding those people to help you, but I promise they’re there.

Does that ever surprise you as Jackie and not just as the character? Although I maybe won’t fully understand, because I think it’s a very personal feeling to feel different, I have and many others throughout our lives know what it’s like to not fit in, and I can begin to understand what it feels like for people who are going through that. That’s the brilliance of this writing and why I feel so touched nightly with the role. 

© Matt Crockett

© Matt Crockett

Once you’ve completed the run in Bradford, you’re off around the world. Do you think every country will interpret it slightly differently? I have no idea, really, but I can’t wait to find out. It’s going to be special going to all these different countries and seeing the reaction and what the different cultures take from the show.

And finally, what are you most excited about getting to experience now Elphaba belongs to you? I can’t wait to go see these incredible countries and get to play Elphaba just for them. I want to know about their cultures and communities, their way of life and learn that there’s always more to life than what meets the eye.

Everyday, everyone gets so confined and so contained in their own lives, when actually there’s a whole world out there to see and full of different and exciting people to learn from. For me, I can’t wait to explore that, them, and explore more of this girl, and do it in the most incredible show in the world…. all over the world. 

Good luck and happy flying… Thank you so much!

Tickets for the Wicked International Tour, that begins 20 July in Bradford UK, can be found here

Tickets for the 10th anniversary of Wicked London can be found here

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