Back in 2003, theatre reviewer Richard Zoglin of Time Magazine once wrote, “If every musical had a brain, a heart and the courage of Wicked, Broadway really would be a magical place.” From August 26 to October 4, that magical place of which Mr. Zoglin referred will be right here in the valley, on stage at ASU Gammage, Tempe.
Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz returns to Arizona for a full six week run, only this time the hugely popular Stephen Schwartz musical features among its cast a home grown valley native.
Beka Burnham was born and raised in Apache Junction, Arizona and is currently touring with the show all over the country. While preparing for a performance at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Washington, Beka took a few moments to talk not only about the musical but also of her time with local valley theatres.
We’ll get to Wicked in just a moment, but first, growing up here in the valley, at what local community theatre groups did you perform?
Let me think. I did a lot of work at Mesa Community College in their theatre program. I did a lot of my shows with them. I did some work at Greasepaint. There was A Christmas Carol with Actors Theatre, and I did a stage reading with Phoenix Theatre. I think I was either twelve or thirteen, but, yeah, that was fun.
No, I didn’t. I went to see all of their shows, though. Hale Theatre, that was another one.
And was your mind always focused on acting?
Pretty much. I started acting with my church. The church had an acting troupe, so I started acting classes there. And then eventually I started taking voice lessons, and then I discovered musical theatre and I fell in love with that. Then the ball kept rolling and I kept going with it. Acting is still my primary focus though, and I love it.
How did that leap from community player to professional come about?
Well, this is pretty much my first professional big job. I went to college for musical theatre so that gave me the training I needed, and then I graduated last year and somehow I got this job.
Is it true that you were a season ticket holder for ASU Gammage?
Yes, me and my family.
So, is it also true the first time you saw Wicked, it was just a few years ago right here on the Gammge stage as a season ticket holder?
Yes, it was. I saw it there first and it has been since then my favorite show, ever.
From an audience perspective, not as a performer, what was your initial reaction to the show?
Oh, gosh, I think I was just blown away by the spectacle of it. I had never seen anything that was so powerful and moving and beautiful at the same time. I feel the show has everything. It has the story line, it has the spectacle, it has the singing and dancing. It has the full package. I’ve seen it a few times since, but that first time, I’ll never forget it.
When you auditioned for Wicked what were the requirements? Were you asked to a sing something specific from the show or did you go in with something else prepared?
I sang from the show. My agent sent me to the audition. I understudy for Glinda and Nessarose, and the first audition was just Glinda material. The call back was Glinda and Nessa material, and then a dance routine.
How many call backs did you eventually have to go through?
Just one and the dance callback.
Can you remember the first thing you did when you were told you were in?
When I was told I got the job? I fell to the floor of my apartment and I started crying. I really did. I know that sounds dramatic but I did. And then I called my mom.
And how did she react?
She couldn’t believe it. I think she was in shock. It was all really sudden and I had just moved to New York and it was, like, well, I guess I’m leaving now. Very strange.
How long have you been on the road touring?
Almost a year.
Now that you’re away from home, what’s the biggest thing that has surprised you about life on the road in a national tour?
Hmm. That’s a good question. I would have to say I didn’t know how much of a family it would be out here. The tour is very much a little family, and everyone takes care of each other and looks out for each other. I wasn’t expecting that. I guess I was kind of expecting it to be pretty cut throat and you’re on your own, that kind of thing, but it’s not like that. I feel taken care of. I’m one of the younger people in the show so, you know, I feel very lucky to be here with these seasoned actors and performers who have been doing this for a long time. That’s probably been the most surprising thing to me. How great everyone has been.
Are you constantly in a state of rehearsal as you go from city to city?
Pretty much. I think that just from being an understudy you end up having a little more rehearsal, and I cover two roles, so it’s… yeah, it’s a lot of rehearsal, but I like it. It keeps it fresh and it keeps me busy. I love the understudy work. That’s my favorite part of the job, I think.
Those ensemble costumes look surprisingly elaborate and cumbersome. Did wearing them take some getting used to?
Yes! Indeed. I have a hat in the show in the Emerald City numbers. It comes across my face. We call it the Saturn Hat because it’s like a ring around my face. The first week or so it kept getting in my eyes and I would, like, run into things. I didn’t know how to manage it. Now it’s no problem because I’m used to it, but for the first couple of weeks it was pretty interesting.
As you’ve said, in addition to the ensemble, you also understudy for both Glinda and Nessarose. Has the opportunity to play either occurred very often?
There’s definitely been long gaps in-between, but I feel I’ve gone on somewhat a lot. I’ve gone on for Glinda maybe ten times and for Nessaroase, seven, so it happens every once in awhile, and when it does happen it’s always fun; it’s exciting, it’s… it’s just a blast.
What’s the shortest time you were given the nod that you were going on as either Glinda or Nessarose?
I found out about Nessarose once just thirty minutes before the show. I got to the theatre and I started getting ready for my Ensemble Check and I then I heard, well, Beka will be on for Nessarose because something happened just before the show. I kind of like that better because you have less time to panic. and you just do it, and it ends up being a little, I think, more fun for me. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. You have no time and you’ve gotta go.
When substituting for Glinda, how daunting is that moment when you make your entrance from way above connected to that bubble? Are you afraid of heights?
I’m not. I love heights. So, that helps. Entering like that is an amazing feeling, being up in that bubble like that. The curtain goes up and you come down. You see bubbles everywhere, floating about. It’s amazing to start a show like that. It’s one of the most exciting entrances in musical theatre, ever.
Do you ever sneak a peak at the audience when you’re up there, floating down?
I never really have looked at the audience while playing Glinda. I think it’s kind of distracting and the lights are so bright. It works for me to always be in the show and never to look out at the audience.
Your run in the valley at ASU Gammage is for six weeks. Will you have a chance to catch up with family and friends?
It’ll be a lot of work but I plan on living back at home while I’m there and I’ll commute everyday, so I think that’ll help. I’ll get to spend some time with my family that way. We get one day off a week. I have a lot of nieces and nephews in the valley and I can’t wait to see them all.
And finally, knowing that an actor’s life is constantly looking for that next audition, what are your future plans? Are you with Wicked for some time or is there something else on the horizon, waiting in the wings?
Nothing right now. I’m really happy right now. I feel lucky to have this job and to be here, but I’m looking forward to the time when I go back to New York and do the audition grind again. I know it’ll happen eventually.
For times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official ASU Gammage website.
To find out more about Wicked and the current Munchkinland Tour, including its full cast, CLICK HERE for the official WICKED website.