Thursday, 3 July 2014

THEATRE INTERVIEW - Nikki Davis-Jones (Wicked)

Part One - Nikki Davis-Jones (Elphaba)

Wicked flies on in to the Birmingham Hippodrome next week as part of it's first ever UK and Ireland tour, and we are celebrating the occasion with a pair of interviews with the two of the show's leads.

In this first part, Kyle sits down with actress Nikki-Davis Jones, who plays Elphaba in the show, and discusses how Wicked is proving to be the gift that keeps on giving...

By Kyle Pedley.
Interview Conducted Thursday 24th April 2014.

Nikki Davis-Jones as Elphaba
in Wicked
“I’m clearly not very good in auditions!”

It’s a modest dash of self-deprecation from the lady who has bagged one of musical theatre’s most coveted leading roles, and further indicative of a warm, humble personality that likewise may initially seem at odds with the role she has been drafted in to play. But such humility is not without context and reasoning, with a string of standby and cover roles in shows such as Blood Brothers and Mamma Mia that led to eventual promotions being the career pattern for actress Nikki Davis-Jones thus far.

That was before a certain green-skinned opportunity came flying in on a golden broomstick and looks set to change her career ‘For Good’.

It’s a glorious, welcoming day in Cardiff, and we are upstairs at the city’s stunning Milllenium Centre talking with Nikki about her starring turn in musical phenomenon Wicked as it continues it’s first ever tour of the UK and Ireland. She’s portraying spirited protagonist Elphaba, the show’s re-interpretation of the Wicked Witch of the West in it’s inventive take on the tale of The Wizard of Oz.

“Wicked is what happens before, during and after Dorothy arrives in Oz” Davis-Jones explains, “So a really nice anecdote is like taking The Wizard of Oz and moving the camera and seeing what happens around it.”

“Elphaba is the Wicked Witch of the West we know from the film, so it’s her backstory and we find out what she was like growing up and the journey she goes through and the sacrifices she makes.”

The idea of sacrifice is something the actress herself toiled with when she grew weary of understudying or covering roles in London’s West End:

“Before Wicked, I’d played a few parts and said to myself ‘I’m not covering any more, this is it now, I’m just going for roles and I’ll put myself out of work and money for quite a while”

“And then standby Elphaba came along and I was torn... it’s Elphaba!”

Nikki Davis-Jones in Wicked
It isn’t difficult to see the appeal of being involved in one of the world’s most successful and beloved musicals of recent times. Billed as a ‘global musical phenomenon’, and rightly so, it is the kind of production which bleeds into the cultural psyche in a way few others can dream of, with an extraordinarily successful soundtrack, legions of fans across the globe, ticket sales that show no sign of dwindling and having recently been voted the 2nd Greatest Musical of all time behind only Les Miserables. And it’s a show which does terrific things for it’s leading ladies, catapulting previous Elphabas such as Idina Menzel (who originated the role and scooped a Tony Award for her efforts), Stephanie J. Block, Kerry Ellis and Shoshana Bean straight into the musical theatre elite. 

But for Davis-Jones, her initial experience as standby Elphaba in London was still not quite the idyll it would eventually turn out to become:

“It’s actually harder being a standby because you never build a stamina, you never get rid of the nerves. It’s frightening... I take my hat off to all Elphaba standby’s.”

“So I kind of got to a place at the end of my 2 and a half years in the West End standing by and still didn’t feel comfortable with it. I still felt nervous every time I went on, and it was such a shame because that was the thing I wanted to leave having done - a week or something where I wasn’t nervous.”

“And I didn’t ever do that, so I left kind of unfulfilled.”

Fortunately, her accomplished standby turns had been spotted by the show’s producers and bigwigs, who went on to offer her the full-time lead role as Elphaba on the show’s first ever tour across the tour in the UK. It was a chance for the actress to finally banish those nerves and achieve that level of comfort with the role and material:

“With the whole rehearsal process, I’m at that place now. It’s taken months, and there’s still some days when I come in and I’m nervous and there are still parts of the show that make me nervous, but generally I’m so comfortably with it, it’s in my body and it’s in my voice and it’s kind of safe now.”

Davis-Jones (right) with Wicked
co-star Emily Tierney (left)
I went on to ask if finding that comfort zone, and being elevated to principle Elphaba, had allowed Nikki the opportunity to explore the character for herself, get her teeth into the role and exact her own stamp on the performance more than what her opportunities in London allowed:

“Definitely, definitely. When we first went back to rehearsals for the tour, I stripped everything away. Emily [Tierney] was new to it and everyone around me was new to it so it was really refreshing to go back and find my own way. I’ve kind of gone back to basics a lot and really found new things.”

“I understand her a lot more now.”

Davis-Jones is quick to sing the praises and admiration of her co-stars Emily Tierney, who plays ‘good witch’ Glinda, and Liam Doyle, who portrays the shows dashing leading man Fiyero:

“That’s the beauty of working with people like Emily and Liam and everyone else, there’s nobody there that gives me the same beige performance everyday. Everyday there’s something new... so I know if I give Emily something, she’ll come back to me with something else, it’s never the same. It’s brilliant.”

It’s a sense of companionship and camaraderie which is, at it’s core, what Wicked is all about, and Davis-Jones believes such bonds and ideals are the core reason behind Wicked’s success, in addition to it’s celebration of individuality and finding oneself:

“I think the main story of friendship and the compassion we have for Elphaba are the reasons [for it’s success].”

“What she goes through with bullying and not being accepted and not fitting in. People that come and talk to me and the letters I get, it’s all the same kind of people, and I think a lot of actors are that person.

“A lot of creatives didn’t fit in in their upbringing or whatever, and then when they come together that’s where they feel at home. So I think that’s why people can relate to it, and there’s something for everyone.”

Davis-Jones performed a selection of hits from
the show at last year's Manchester Pride.
In addition to it’s story and such themes and ideas, Wicked boasts, as mentioned, a soundtrack of already iconic hits including the barnstorming Defying Gravity, which are also in no small way a key part of the shows lasting impact:

“The music is just genius”, Davis-Jones lovingly exclaims, “[Composer] Stephen Schwartz is so clever, and what he’s given us to sing every day is just unbelievable. It crosses all different genres of music - there’s pop songs and opera, there’s classical musical theatre.”

“It’s just brilliant.”

The 2.5 million fans who have gone on to purchase a copy of the soundtrack seem to agree, but what of such super-fans who will already be exceptionally familiar with the show? And similarly, those who will be fearful that the touring production may have to somehow sacrifice on scope or spectacle by dint of going on the road? We asked Nikki of the differences that the tour may have compared with it’s London sister show:

“With Wicked, they’ve never scrimped on anything and that’s kind of why it works. Every theatre we go to, the set fits in, so there’s nothing we can’t have in any theatre. That was part of the team that planned all that.”

“For a touring show we’ve got like 16 in our orchestra. Usually there’s keys and a piano and a drum, if you’re lucky. We’ve got strings and everything.”

“There’s a few little things like we can’t come up from the floor - in the West End there’s a couple of trapdoors - so we haven’t got any of that, but what they’ve changed it to is equally as good or better. So no missing out.”

The enthusiasm, passion and excitement for the show is evident in every detail Davis-Jones goes into, and it’s clear the show is in very capable, and indeed grateful, hands.

Nikki Davis-Jones
And with Wicked, it has become something of the gift that keeps on giving for Nikki, as just this week it was announced she will be returning to the London show this October, only as standby no more, but rather as full-time principle Elphaba. It's a re-assuring and heartwarming continuation of her journey with the show thus far, and a sure sign that those more uncertain days of standby work were both worth it but also seemingly behind her.

“People get to work with me, then my work ethic’s good, I think.... ermmm, and this is kind of why it’s happened like that.”

Effusive, charming, and Wicked-ly good in this dream role, it isn’t difficult to see it is perhaps a lot more than just her work ethic that has earnt Nikki Davis-Jones her hard-earned role of a lifetime, and, with Elphaba and Wicked, a spot amongst musical theatre’s best and brightest.

NEXT TIME: Kyle chats with with Coventry-born Liam Doyle, who shot to fame winning GMTV's search for a musical superstar and is now portraying romantic lead Fiyero in the UK tour of Wicked...

Stay tuned on FacebookTwitter and of course here on our blog for more exclusive WICKED content, including our coverage and review of the show itself!

WICKED will be running at the BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME from Wed 9 July to Saturday 6 September 2014.

For more information on the show's run at the Hippodrome and to book your tickets online, CLICK HERE.
Alternatively, call Ticket Sales directly on 0844 338 500 to book your tickets now!

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