“It’s evil seeping out,” says actor Rondi Reed with a laugh. She’s talking about her signature rust eye makeup in her final look as Wicked’s Madame Morrible. And Morrible’s full makeup kickstarts the process of Reed transforming into her character.
But it’s more than makeup that allows Reed to change from her warm, candid self into the villainous mastermind in Oz. “The first thing I did when I got cast was I went out and bought the book Wicked,” she says. “And there’s a lot of backstory in there about Morrible that is not in the show, but it informs a lot.”
A member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago (with over 50 of their productions under her belt) and a Tony winner for her work in the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, Reed’s career has been dominated by intense straight plays—and she approaches the text of Wicked just as she approached The Grapes of Wrath (her Broadway debut) or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Reed first played the role of the diabolical headmistress of Shiz in the Chicago production and alternated playing in the Steppenwolf premiere of August: Osage County. When August went to Broadway, producer David Stone allowed his Morrible to go. After she won her Tony Award for August, she returned to Wicked in Chicago. But then, she was asked to reprise her Tony-winning role in London. “I said, ‘David… Please can I go? Please, please.’ And he said, ‘Okay, but you’re gonna have to make up your time.’” Reed offered to go on the road. Stone responded: “Or, I could have you come to Broadway.” Booked for 12 weeks, Reed stayed a year-and-a-half before departing the production in 2011. This past summer, she returned again to the role.
But composer Stephen Schwartz relishes having an actor of Reed’s caliber in the role of Morrible. ‘He said, ‘We have the two lead girls to sing their faces off, but we need to have almost a speak-sing for [The Wizard and Morrible]—it’s a little bit more of the storytelling that I originally wanted,’” Reed recalls.
And Reed has been all too happy to step into the world of musicals and fill those shoes. “My big dreamy dream, as I said to my agent in Chicago who laughed at me in the face, was being in a big Broadway musical,” she says. “And it doesn’t get any bigger than this, really.”
Embracing the largeness of the musical is another piece of Reed’s transformation puzzle. “I get into this face, I get into these clothes,” she says. “I love to sit backstage in the opening, in the prologue. I know you don’t have to be there. I want to be there because it’s a part of being in the experience and, to me, it’s your responsibility as a member to do that.” Reed is Morrible from the downbeat.
Her preparation for the role is one of her greatest strengths, though Reed distinctly considers Wicked an ensemble piece. “Six of us [leads in the current cast] came in together and I think it was kind of genius that they did that,” she says. “We’re a great combo plate.”
For a classic actor like Reed, the fantasy of Wicked may seem out of her element, but not true. “It’s not unlike Shakespeare,” says Reed. “[Director] Joe [Mantello] said something that really resonated with me when we were doing that early work with him in Chicago. He said, ‘When you say goodbye to someone, it may be the last time you ever see them.’ It’s a fantastical world. They don’t even have phones. So it’s not unlike something where the stakes are much higher. The fact that letters are important, that what you say is important, what you have to communicate is important, that you have to journey to travel to get somewhere, to get to the Emerald City.” And Reed has done her work to get there.