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Chicago by John Olson

Interview with Kristoffer Cusick
of Chicago's Wicked

Kristoffer Cusick
Kate Reinders as Galinda and Kristoffer Cusick as Fiyero in the Chicago production of Wicked
Though just thirty-one, Kristoffer Cusick is one of the "elders" of Wicked's three companies (Broadway, Chicago and on tour), having been with the show since its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco. He's now playing Fiyero in Chicago's sit-down production at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre. He's the only member of the Chicago cast to have performed in Wicked on Broadway, where he understudied Fiyero for Norbert Leo Butz, Taye Diggs and Joey McIntyre. Cusick went on in the part many times, including one month early in the run while Butz was out with an illness.

A third-generation southern Californian who started dancing at age 12, Cusick cut his teeth in musical theater doing shows at Disneyland before joining the first national touring of Rent. His first job on Broadway was playing Kenny and understudying Gus in the original cast of Saturday Night Fever. He's moved to America's "third coast" for a year's stay in Chicago and has settled into a fashionable apartment with a Lake Michigan view, where he talked with me about the process of creating a new Wicked and a new Fiyero for this production.

JO:  It seems that you and the Chicago cast were able to give your characters your own takes, distinct from those of the original cast.

KC:  I have to credit the creative team for that of course, but it was for me not the most enjoyable experience in doing that. I'm thankful now, but at the time when I came into the show ... I was the first cover in New York. I did the first of the three months when Norbert was out with an injury, so I had a long extended run in the part right from the get-go. Joe Mantello came in and gave me some direction and gave me some notes, as did Stephen Schwartz, and what I was expected to do and was seemingly doing a great job of doing was being an understudy, having the essence of what Norbert brought to the part, so that I didn't throw Idina and Kristin's performance and it stayed in the same vein. I felt like I had a pretty great grasp on who the character was.

When they cast me, when we started the rehearsal process, I was the only person who had done the show before. Some of them had never even seen Wicked at this point, so I felt like I could be an anchor ... a grounding performance, and help us that we were putting together the show much quicker than before. It was actually the opposite! I was completely, completely screwed up. On Broadway I had been the guy always covering (for other actors playing Fiyero), so what I was doing wasn't making any sense, it wasn't a whole character. It wasn't my own. It was a shadowed version of what Norbert used to be, and Joey McIntyre and Taye all of these people mixed in one. What Lisa Leguillou and Joe Mantello told me was that I wasn't really relating to anybody else. I wasn't really allowing Ana and Kate to find their own characters. They were finding them, but then my reaction to what they were doing was from an already-established point of view, so they (Lisa and Joe) were really hard on me and it was really discouraging, because I felt like "I suck, I can't do this, I'm not finding my own person" but they wanted me to find Kristoffer's Fiyero. I wanted to as well, but it's like walking your whole life and then being told you don't walk correctly, you need to re-learn how to walk. It was this whole crazy process of trying to find out who Fiyero was for me. I'm grateful they were so hard on me, because it paid off. I'm definitely not the same as Norbert was, I don't think I'm better or worse, it's just my own thing and it works with Ana and Kate and that's what's great. We found our thing.

JO:  I remember Norbert as Fiyero being cocky but goofy.

KC:  Cocky but goofy is a good way to describe it. As an actor, I feel he's brilliant. Something I find he brings to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, something he brought to Wicked is this ability to laugh at himself. It worked for Fiyero. [Norbert]'s a giant dork, he's just a regular guy. He brought a lot of himself to the character and didn't try to take it too seriously. I think there's a serious nature to the show, but I think it belongs to the girls. I think that Fiyero has to bring some sort humor to the situation.

JO:  Part of it is physical type, too, I think. You've got more of the matinee idol look.

KC:  Oh thanks (smiling).

JO:  Your interpretation probably wouldn't have been believable for him. He's a good-looking guy, but he is kind of dorky so he had to play that. You're playing it differently. You're the good-looking rich kid.

KC:  Even in the films where you have the gorgeous rich guy, like in Legally Blonde where she falls in love with the rich lawyer - even those guys have to have some comic relief ... you can't laugh at how absurd it is to really think of yourself as so cool and so hot and so perfect and so everything ... that's in the writing, too, with Elphaba and she refers to him as being shallow and boring and it's such a put-on. Playing it the way Norbert did often didn't work for me, because I'm not Norbert ... but I have a fun time doing what I do. I don't ever think of it that way, either.

JO:  I think we're all just theater geeks at heart. We never really get over that. But I think it's really cool that the creative team took the time to work with you to create your own characters. I think Ana Gasteyer finds a lot of new things in the character of Elphaba.

KC:  Idina is a little more introverted, a little quieter. I saw a similarity between her and Elphaba in that ... even though she's stunningly beautiful, almost more beautiful in green makeup ... it highlights her cheek bones ... hence married to a beautiful movie star (Taye Diggs) but she's another person who ... I don't think she walks around like she knows that ....I don't even know that she does know that ... she's so humble and kind of dorky in herself. She doesn't walk around with that air like, "I'm beautiful," and that helped her with Elphaba because Elphaba's not supposed to be the beautiful one, she's the one that everyone makes fun of. I think Ana, in the same respect, had things in her life when she was growing up that she was able to bring to the role ... wearing glasses, her family was a little bit more "hippy"-ish and a little "off." It's like when she's onstage she's a kid, an awkward, gangly uncomfortable kid and it totally works. I think Ana's take is brilliant.

JO:  A concern that's so often stated now is that hit shows like Wicked can become just a product that can be recreated as if by a machine. It's encouraging to hear that you had a process that allowed you to shape your performances more individually.

KC:  It's so nice that they even had a process like that for us (the Chicago cast) because truthfully, they really could have made it much more like a machine. It is a little bit like a machine now in that they know what works, how they have to do it, it works like a machine now. They hired a cast, they know the time period it's going to take to do put it up, how much it's going to cost; but where it's not, is that there are other shows that may have a cookie cutter cast, performers with a similar look, they haven't done that with Wicked. The touring company has an African-American Fiyero, we have an African-American standby in New York for Elphaba ...

JO:  An Asian-American Boq (Telly Leung) in Chicago

KC:  And clearly in the fact they didn't just come in and have the assistant director or the creative team saying, this is A, B, C, you have to say it like this and do it like that, they allowed us to find our characters. I think if you watch Carol Kane do Madame Morrible, she's so different from Carole Shelley and so different from Rondi Reed. But for theatre-going audiences, it's good to know, if you really support theatre and you support the process, it good to see performers who have been given this opportunity. It's fun for us to be a part of it, too.


Also see John's review of Wicked, an open-ended run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are available at the any Broadway in Chicago box office, by phone (312-902-1400), or online at ticketmaster.com. More information at www.wickedthemusical.com/chicago.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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