Today (Tuesday 27 September 2016) Wicked will celebrate an extraordinary 10 years in London. It is now the eighth longest-running show in the West End and already the 19th longest-running show in West End theatre history.
As part of the celebrations, actress KATIE ROWLEY JONES will be continuing her role as Nessarose; the unique part she also created in the original London production.
Katie’s theatre credits include Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act (London Palladium, original cast), Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (UK tour) and Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (Queen’s and UK tour).
Musical Theatre Review contributor Aliya Al-Hassan caught up with Katie during rehearsals.
When did you start performing?
I suppose my first performance was singing in the local church choir. I’ve got three sisters and we used to have choir practice on a Friday night and then rush home to watch Dynasty!
I heard one of the choral pieces we used to sing recently and it took me right back. That’s where I learnt to love singing and also where I learnt to read music.
At 12 I joined an am dram group that I loved. I knew I wanted to perform, but I was quite awkward and shy at that time.
You studied law at university, what led you to make such a dramatic change?
I was always quite academic and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I’d like to go to uni and continue my education, so I thought I would do something universally recognised.
I bought a house with my husband recently and I said to him, thank God I didn’t become a lawyer, I would have gone mad in an office. I loved the human side of it, that fascinated me, but I was lucky as I have parents who always said we should do what we love.
Who was your inspiration?
My dad. He always encouraged me and gave me the best advice to do what I loved at a crucial time in my life. Both my parents never put pressure on us to do or not to do anything.
It’s interesting as three out of the four of us have gone into music, even though my parents both worked in medicine.
As part of the original cast of Wicked, did you have any idea the show would be so successful?
In the world I work in, when a show creates a big buzz, you hear about it. Wicked was making a huge noise in the US and we were actually the fourth worldwide production.
This was before iTunes and YouTube and someone gave me a mini-disc of the show about a year before I auditioned and I was hooked. I listened to it incessantly.
When I got the role I was beside myself. I didn’t think how long it would last, I was just thrilled to be part of it. I didn’t think further than getting the job.
You created the role of Nessarose, did you base her on anyone?
No. I based her on experiences I’ve had that resonated with me. She goes on a very clear journey that’s really satisfying for an actress.
I drew on my own experiences; she’s very personal to me. It’s all about being on the outside, not feeling like you fit in, being betrayed. That was the only way to go; as an actress you have to find a personal truth.
What do you like best and least about her?
That’s a really hard question. There’s lots I don’t like about her. I don’t like that she loses her way and her sight of what’s important, that she’s seduced by power and loses sight of the truth and loyalty to her sister.
I like that in Act I she is accepting of her lot. She accepts who she is and her disability.
What do you think about Wicked having a disabled character?
It’s a gift and an honour to play, as it’s not portrayed nearly enough. My character is different as she does learn to walk, but there aren’t enough actors with disabilities portraying characters with disabilities.
What are the challenges of being on stage in a wheelchair?
It really infuriates me when people lean on the wheelchair or move it without asking me. Because of the rake of the stage, people think they need to hold the wheelchair so I don’t roll off. People want to second-guess in a way they wouldn’t if I was playing someone able-bodied. It’s frustrating as people think they can control the chair better than me.
What’s your favourite song in the show?
I think ‘No Good Deed’ is an amazing song. I love that it plays into the idea that the leading female characters are strong but they are all flawed. It shows that she is making a conscious decision not to be good anymore. At 11 o’clock she is going to stop fighting and allow herself to become wicked and evil, which sums up the flawed nature of the leading females. I love that; it’s real and powerful.
When you left the show to pursue other projects, what was the reason for that?
It was time to move on. I had the option to stay but decided to move on. It takes so much energy and concentration to make the same performance fresh every night. It was the right decision at the time, but I always hoped I would go back at some point.
Which was the best show you worked on while you were away?
Sister Act, hands down. It was a world premiere, I created a role from scratch, I worked with Alan Menken and an amazing cast of women. Sometimes the stars align and you find yourself with the best bunch of people.
It was feelgood, fun and at the Palladium! It was a time in my life I will never forget.
You worked with the likes of Idina Menzel and Whoopi Goldberg. What was that like?
Quite surreal. Idina has continued to soar but I met her when she was on a steep upward curve. You go from the outside looking in to the inside looking out and it’s a completely different experience. Whoopi is just the most delightful person I have ever met; warm and funny.
Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?
Definitely Whoopi. She’s insanely talented, but always has a political and ethical conscience. She has always kept her feet on the ground and is generous, humble and just lovely.
Which part would you love to play?
I’d love to play the part of Sylvia in Gary Barlow’s Finding Neverland, which is coming over from Broadway next year.
As one of the longest-serving cast members, how do you keep your performance fresh?
You have to be really present, leave everything at the door, go on stage and react truthfully. If you are not present, it doesn’t work. And you have to listen, really listen to what’s going on around you.
Why do you think Wicked has been so successful?
It’s hard to predict a successful formula. It’s increasingly hard for musicals to break though. Tribute musicals are a dead cert and safe.
With Wicked taking a twist on The Wizard of Oz, it caught the imagination of especially the American audience. Plus, with all the political corruption going on at the time it launched, it was very pertinent to 9/11 and how people in power are not always what they appear to be.
It is a really well-crafted show with a great script; it’s witty, yet poignant, with an amazing score.
You’re working on the show until January 2017, what are your plans after that?
As an actor you can’t look that far ahead. Who knows, we will have to wait and see!
* Wicked has music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and is based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire and adapted for the stage by Winnie Holzman.
* Wicked is currently booking at the Apollo Victoria Theatre until Saturday 29 April 2017. Tickets for Wicked are available HERE.