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The Good Wicked Witch

Former improv queen Ana Gasteyer casts a spell on Chicago theater audiences as Oz's enchantress Elphaba.


by Anne Taubeneck

Ana Gasteyer, tucked into the back booth at an Italian coffee shop in Chicago, is complaining that she can't shake her stage persona — er, tint — even on days off.

For her starring role as Elphaba in the current Chicago production of Stephen Schwartz's mega-hit Wicked, the former Saturday Night Live cast member wears her emerald-green pancake makeup "down my chest and up my wrists." Getting it on is no problem, but getting it off — "that's harder," she says. "I take a shower and have to use four products. I'm always a little green. And it's giving me hives."

Though Gasteyer (C89) may feel vaguely verdant, her future is rosier than ever in the wake of stellar reviews for her portrayal of young Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West and whose numbers call for a 2 1/2-octave range. The Chicago Sun-Times called her performance "a triumph, better than the Elphabas in both the original Broadway cast and the touring company." (Another Northwestern graduate in the Chicago production, Heidi Kettenring [C95], plays Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, and also received great reviews.)

Like its long-running Broadway predecessor, Chicago's Wicked has broken box-office records since opening in June at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, many weeks earning more than $1.2 million, according to producer David Stone.

"Elphaba does have some very funny lines, and Ana can nail those with her eyes closed, but we didn't cast her for her comic abilities. We cast her because we thought she was a terrific actress and we knew how well she could sing," says Stone, also a producer for Broadway's Tony Award–winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the upcoming Three Days of Rain, the Broadway debut for film star Julia Roberts.

How did Gasteyer make the leap from big-time comedy to big-time musical theater? Known during her six years (1996–2002) on SNL for her canny impersonations of Martha Stewart (at one point, topless, with breasts goofily blacked out), Celine Dion and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gasteyer entered Northwestern as a music major but later switched her emphasis to theater and performance studies.

"I played violin from the age of 5, and I had an ear from a really early age," says Gasteyer, who grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family of musicians. Through junior high and high school, she landed leads in musicals and plays with no notion she was destined for comic stardom.

"I did the Waa-Mu Show my freshman year then did the Mee-Ow Show thereafter. I'd never even understood what improvisation was, and it was like a whole new world opened up.

"That was the first time I identified myself as a person who created characters that were unique or identifiable. A lot of improvisation can be very masculine and competitive and smart oriented, much more than acting oriented, and I felt like that was the first time I understood that there is a kind of female character sensibility that was more about slice-of-life — more about your funny aunt that people might find interesting.

"One night my friend Jill Cargerman [C90] and I were dissatisfied with the amount of content we had for the [Mee-Ow Show], and we pulled an all-nighter. We cranked out seven sketches, and many were character-driven. We showed up with those at rehearsal the next day, and it was a revelation. I remember thinking, 'This is my thing. I'm good at this.'" (Cargerman later became a prolific television writer.)

Performance studies professor Mary Zimmerman (C82, GC85, 94), then a graduate student, saw Gasteyer perform and cast her in fledgling productions of The Odyssey and The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which later evolved into major successes for Zimmerman.

"You're not going to believe this, but I remember sort of saying to myself, even when Ana was a student, that she was going to be on Saturday Night Live because her gift was improv," says Zimmerman. "But I always loved hearing her sing. She kind of makes fun of that big belting voice, but she actually has it."

Gasteyer says being at Northwestern was "one of the most joyful periods in my life. I was in these little productions four times a year the whole time I was there. I had opportunities to audition all the time and meet other collaborative creative thinkers."

Besides Zimmerman, another professor who gave her a boost was Rives Collins, now associate professor of theater. "He taught me in a number of storytelling classes and you'd think, 'Oh, that sounds like underwater basket weaving,' but it actually had a direct impact on what I do. He helped me learn how to structure a piece of comedy in a very basic way. I've had to write for a lot of my career, especially at SNL, and if I didn't know how to do that, I'd be flopping around in the waves."

After graduating Gasteyer headed to Los Angeles, where "everything I needed I got through the Northwestern community, including my temp job and my apartment." She was in "8,000 little black box productions done by people from Northwestern writing plays," did voice-overs to make money and took classes with the Groundlings, an improvisational comedy troupe where she eventually became a cast member. SNL found her there (along with Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Maya Rudolph and others).

While on SNL, she made her way into theatrical venues, doing workshops for Hairspray and other shows. She performed in The Vagina Monologues and did a 3 1/2-month replacement stint on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show. Gradually, she says, she became "braver" and "more willing to take the time to apply myself to the harder disciplines of theater and singing."

After leaving SNL in 2002, she did Funny Girl at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Roulette and Kimberly Akimbo at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Cinderella at the New York City Opera, plus Actors' Fund concerts. She spent three weeks preparing for a big-deal Wicked audition last December (to find a replacement for departing Broadway star Idina Menzel) and got "a very long-awaited 'no.' I was crushed."

But when Wicked producers decided to mount a $10 million open-run production of Wicked in Chicago (after advance sales for the spring touring engagement there went through the roof), Gasteyer got the call.

She was both thrilled and terrified. "In improv, you're always kind of pulling it off, always kind of seat-of-the-pants lucky, and if you fail, who cares? It's improv. It's temporal. You're not messing up somebody else's words. But rehearsal is really frightening because you could be bad and you have to fail a lot in the traditional process."

To what does this improv queen owe her success in Wicked? "I have a great voice teacher [Liz Caplan in New York], and I live like a nun. I don't drink coffee. I don't eat dairy. I don't drink alcohol. I have elaborate vitamin rituals. I do warm-ups. I do yoga."

Singing one of Elphaba's showstoppers, like "Defying Gravity," makes all that worthwhile, she says. "It's just like your soul opens every night."

Though her husband, Charlie McKittrick (on a leave of absence from Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency), and 3-year-old daughter, Frances, have been transplanted from their home in Brooklyn for her seven-month Chicago run as Elphaba (her last day in the show is Jan. 22), the 38-year-old Gasteyer can't believe how smooth life is.

"We have all of Monday together, and I hang out afternoons with Frances," she says. Now on her third pair of ruby slippers, Frances is a backstage kid on matinee days. "She knows everybody," says her mom. "But she hasn't seen the show all the way through. It's too scary."

Anne Taubeneck is a freelance journalist who writes about the arts for the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Wilmette.

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Ana Gasteyer
Ana Gasteyer
Ana Gasteyer as Elphaba
Photo by Joan Marcus