‘Wicked’ wizard is worthily wonderful – and Jewish
By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
Stuart Zagnit is bathed in the brightest light on stage at the Saenger Theater with the Emerald City boldly beaming behind him. As the beloved Wizard of Oz , he is the essence of charm, oiling his way across the stage in a grand and gregarious manner while the sycophants of his domain sing his praises. Donning a tall top hat with a long, gray overcoat, he plays his role with delight, dancing across the stage and weaving a web of treachery and fear in his wake as he warbles his signature tune “Wonderful.”
But this is not the benignly benificent wizard of L. Frank Baum’s creation. No, this is the darker and dastardly foe of the witches of Oz first re-imagined in Gregory Maguire’s novel and now retold in the wildly successful Wicked, featuring Winnie Holzman’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics. The production, a part of the East Jefferson Broadway Across New Orleans series is currently playing at the Saenger Theater through June 19.
For eight performances a week the New Jersey-born Zagnit has the privilege of playing what has proven to be one of his favorite roles to date. His original nine-month contract was recently extended another six months and he has already portrayed the Wizard for more than 300 performances.
While this is the fourth time Zagnit has been to the Crescent City, he still cannot forget his very first time over 30 years right after he graduated from college.
“I got hired to do a children’s theatre that toured the state of Louisiana. We’d go out to various cities during the day, but we’d always come back to the French Quarter. We kinda made that our headquarters,” he recalled in a CCJN telephone interview ” The first night that I was in New Orleans I took a stroll down Bourbon Street and saw a man in a business suit smoking a cigarette under a street light and he kinda looked like an illustration and… (dramatic pause) it was Tennessee Williams.”
The arc of his story rises as does the tenor of his voice. “So my first night in New Orleans I met Tennessee Williams on Bourbon Street and I thought ‘It doesn’t get much better than that.’”
He came through New Orleans some years later on a four-city tour of Al Jolson Tonight, which starred the late Larry Kert in the title role. As happens quite often, however, the funding for the Broadway run fizzled before they made it to the Great White Way and, without sufficient backing, the promising show folded leaving him in its dust.
Zagnit came back to New Orleans once more as a cast member of the 1994 national tour of Crazy for You, billed as “the new George and Ira Gershwin musical.” Consisting of a new book by Ken Ludwig and with songs culled for the most part from Girl Crazy, it was named the Tony Award winner for Best Musical in 1992.
More recently he was associated with another big Broadway blockbuster, Alan Menken’s Newsies, based on the 1992 Walt Disney cult film flop that starred Christian Bale. Zagnit was eventually chosen to play the swing, which meant he was regularly called to fill five roles of all the major adult male characters with the exception of the role of Joseph Pulitzer. Zagnit remembered that he auditioned for the role of the Wizard in Wicked on the same day as when he had a callback audition from Newsies. When he accepted the contract for Newsies, neither he or the producers had any clue as to how much of a juggernaut it would become.
“Being with it from the beginning, there’s nothing that quite matched the excitement of being in that theater the night of our final invited dress rehearsal, before we started our previews, and the excitement of the audience seeing it for the first time on stage.” he recalled of Newsies. “Seize the Day,” one of the musical’s first big numbers, created such a stir with a standing ovation that the crowd had to be calmed down before the remainder of the first act could continue.
He stayed with the show for its entire two and a half year run and then cooled his heels taking short jobs while he angled for a bigger role.
Prior to his accepting the role in Wicked, he took time out to play another role on Broadway as Grandpa Who in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2014 and then took on the grueling role of Max Bialystock in a regional production of The Producers last summer. “It was a dream come true to play that role,” he confessed, but he acknowledged it was taxing on his voice.
It was during that first week when his voice was particularly challenged that his agent notified him that the producers of Wicked wanted him for an audition on his first rest day for the role of the Wizard. “I didn’t have any voice. I got there and spent the night before drinking tea and trying to rest, but I knew my top notes were gone. My chords were like raw,” he recounted. “‘I want you to know that before I do anything that I have all of these notes – they’re all in my range'” Zagnit told the associate assistant director. She encouraged him and eventually reassured him by saying that she knew he had the notes in him and “‘Besides,'” he remembered her saying, “‘the Wizard doesn’t have to sing that well.'”
With a nervous laugh in response, he relaxed and in short order a few weeks later, he was coached and finally given the approval for the casting he had hoped to snag five or six years ago. “I’m having a ball,” he boasted.
Zagnit points to the opening of the show, which sets up the action that follows. “It’s not only just musical, but it’s such great storytelling,” he said. “It’s such a kick to be part of that right now. My voice is there at the beginning and just to have that kind of impact and to move the story along, I feel it’s a great gift to us and it’s a responsibility I accept gladly.”
He credited the stage management team with allowing all of the actors to find their own truth in the characters and not force each other to emulate stellar performances such as those of the originator of the Wizard role, Joel Grey, or his replacement on the road, John Davidson. “They didn’t make us replicate anyone else’s performance and they smartly let me find my way,” he said. “Because of that it has a true line that makes sense to me and I can communicate to the audience. I like that.”
As the character of the Wizard, he is seen as more manipulative and plotting than the sympathetic lost charlatan Baum had described in his books. The witches Elphaba and Galinda, later renamed Glinda, at first believe him to be a magnificent, caring figure. Later, they learn of his ulterior plan to rid Oz of animals and consolidate his power.
Wicked recently became the tenth longest running show in Broadway history and cracked the one billion dollar box office record in a record 13 years compared to the number one show Phantom of the Opera, which took 28 years to do so, and Disney’s The Lion King that cracked the billion dollar barrier in 18 years. Worldwide, the show has taken in more than four billion dollars in box office sales.
The millennial generation might not readily recognize him on stage , but might recollect his voice when he speaks. That’s because for the first nine seasons of Pokémon, he was the voice of kindly Professor Oak. It’s a role that proved to be financially rewarding and got him notice among the younger generation.
Another role he said he was especially taken with was as Tevye in 2007 at a Syracuse production of Fiddler on the Roof in Syracuse. “That was life-changing, that role,” he boasted.
For a man who hailed from a traditional, but not overly observant family (“We did observe the High Holidays.”), Zagnit was very delighted to portray the titular role of Kuni Leml in a 1983 mounting of Abraham Goldfadn’s Yiddish musical by the now defunct Jewish Repertory Theatre. He credited that show and his role as critical to his professional success. “It was such a lovely little show, the perfect little jewel box show,” he said.
The character, who was half-blind and disabled in a variety of fashions had to be portrayed in such a way as to not be ridiculed. “I always called him a Jewish ‘Elephant Man,” Zagnit mused. In order to convincingly carry off the role, he borrowed a stammer from an uncle, copied a pronounced limp from a neighbor and created the physicality of a humpback. “I needed a chiropractor after that role,” he chuckled.
But something else came his way as a result. “I got a Hirschfeld out of it of myself in character that ran in the New York Times,” he beamed. Although it cost him dearly at the time, it is among his most precious of possessions.
Zagnit looked back at his Jewish upbringing. He still lives in Brooklyn with his wife and a 20-year-old son. “I grew up in a house that didn’t keep kosher, but we didn’t put milk on the table with meat,” he explained. But being observant is always compromised by having to perform on stage. “You can’t be a religious Jew and work in the theater,” he opined.
Then again, if it weren’t for his being exposed to theatre in his Jewish religious school, Zagnit might never have found his way to the stage. “My first performance, literally, was playing Haman and I so got off playing the villain,” Zagnit concluded.
Stuart Zagnit continues as the Wizard in “Wicked: The True Story of the Witches of Oz” at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street now through June 19. For ticket information call 504-525-1052.