I got to experience Brittany Johnson’s first performance as Glinda on Broadway. I absolutely love seeing understudies shine whenever possible, so this was an exciting enough experience without factoring in the fact that she is also the first black woman to play this role ever, and the first woman of color in any sense to play the role in any of the English-speaking productions of the show across the world. With that fact being as it was… it was absolutely thrilling to be in the audience.
The current company of Wicked on Broadway is absolutely phenomenal anyway. Jessica Vosk is a personal favorite of mine to begin with, but she has really found further footing and (if possible) even more consistency in the role of Elphaba. Her vocals are unmatched, she’s really come into her own as an actress, and she owns the role with grace and power.
BUT the purpose of this is to talk about Brittney Johnson. I am not a person of color so writing this without coming off as one of those white people who tries really hard to be woke is difficult. Because that’s all I can do is grin ear to ear and scream my support. On a deeper, more human level, anyone from a marginalized community of people can look at her and see themselves. I had the same reaction to her as I did when I found out my first Alexander Hamilton (Javier Muñoz) is gay, leading the hottest and most sought after show on Broadway, in a role that all the straight men in the world would kill to play. I have a huge thing about watching people own their power. It energizes and inspires me to no end.
OK so back to Wicked. I think it goes without saying that if you assume understudies are in any way inferior to the lead performer, you need your head checked. But Lindsay K. Northen, the “first understudy” for Glinda in the Broadway company since 2007, is a rock and quite a spectacular Glinda herself. The chain of command has not gone past her since 2008, which is the last time that former “second understudy” for Glinda, Heather Spore, played the role. So, truth be told, I thought the chances of the new “second understudy” getting a chance to perform were very very slim. And now that it had come, I wondered how much she rehearsed and how well she was prepared. Despite the already certified historical night, I had no idea what to expect from the performance itself.
The moment she came down in the bubble, the house erupted. And it didn’t stop for a very long time. The orchestra vamped and vamped, while people hollered, screamed, cheered, and applauded. Brittney stood there as the first black woman to make her entrance on Broadway by bubble, and beamed. She took in this warm welcome with an enormous smile on her face that seemed to radiate throughout her body. And from that moment onward, I was sold.
She sang through the opening number with an ease, polish, and fullness of voice that not even some of the better full-time actresses to have played Glinda posses. The smile never left her face as she descended upon the celebration, looking completely natural and comfortable, singing her face off, and watching citizens of Oz bow before her. An oddly fitting and triumphant image.
The polish and grace only grew though the show as she transformed from Glinda back to Galinda, in a slightly darker white Shiz costume with a darker blonde wig with dark roots. Effortlessly slipping into Galinda’s ditzy, quirky college persona, she held the audience in the palm of her hand as she let off zinger after zinger. She held her own vocally with Jessica Vosk, and the two blended beautifully throughout ‘What Is This Feeling.’
The rest of her act one was solid, with Popular being a standout number for her in particular, but her act two was on a whole new level of excellence. She brought a new command to the act two opener ‘Thank Goodness’ effortlessly transitioning from belt to soprano and back, as she closed out the song with pitch-perfect and powerful high notes. Her interactions with Jake Boyd’s Fiyero as she watched him slipping away were subtle and beautifully performed, as was his betrayal of her. Fallen house scene was another standout moment for Brittney, where she invoked a vocal reaction on the uniquely-delivered: “Well it seems a lot of us are taking things that don’t belong to us, aren’t we?”
Vosk and Johnson handed in one of the best sung and acted performances of ‘For Good’ that I’ve witnessed, with Johnson actually commanding the scene.
I feel lucky to have witnessed such a spectacular Broadway moment. I hope that Johnson is the first of many witches of color from here on out. I hope young women of color last night felt inspired, seen, and determined that they will be next. I hope that Wicked continues to branch out and cast more diverse performers (with 100% respect to all of the white women who have played these roles and been amazing!) As we go forward in the world as it is now, making sure all kinds of people are represented on a level like this has never been more crucial. And I hope this is just the beginning.