When Michele Lee did her show at 54 Below this past June, celebrating Cy Coleman just a stone's throw from Broadway, she was secretly planning to return to star in Wicked as Madame Morrible--a schoolmistress cum sorcerer. As the character's name suggests she's marvelous as she is horrible. With a look that channels Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games, she could be at home at Harry Potter's Hogwarts, but Madame Morrible has some wizardry all her own. I had an opportunity to chat with Michele Lee by phone after a recent performance of Wicked--stunned by her transformation, I just had to know how the former star of television's Knots Landing manages to grace this show with a Broadway veteran's poise, comic timing, a ton of makeup, and her own brand of "wicked."
Did you always want to play Madame Morrible?
I saw Wicked a long time ago. I was not used to doing character roles, but I love being frightened, and frightening. That's not giving it away. Those who see Wicked come back again and again. People know Madame Morrible is a villain.
What's the challenge of playing this role?
She's over the top--not that Michele Lee isn't. Her demeanor is not like anyone I have ever played before. She's a schoolmarm at the top of the show. The sound of her voice is different, her aura is different, and a challenge, for me.
Her dialogue is peculiar, her language hilarious; she's a Miss Malaprop of misuse. Is that a challenge as well?
She uses words new to the English language--she teaches law, logic, linguification. Why do you look so "despondiary," she asks the wizard. Why aren't you out "festivating," she asks Glinda. This is difficult to learn, words you would never use in sentences.
What goes into getting her look?
That's an hour and a half of makeup for me. Of course I love all this because my father was a makeup artist. First I'm covered in a white base--MAC makes this only for Wicked--white powder with purple undertone softens her appearance so it's liquid with white powder over it. The eyebrows are drawn much above my own. The shape is different. The lips are shaped over and under mine in different colors. Blond hair wigs accentuate where her character is at any time. At the end, she's in a tight wig with 2 buns in the back, with tight lips at the end, sloppy, smeared eye makeup, and a smaller cheek palette.
Those are new costumes made just for me, and they are HEAVY. The wigs are heavy--this is a balancing act on a raked stage. That means it is higher in the back. So walking in a heavy costume and heavy wig from one side to the other side of the stage with one side downhill is difficult. Think of those dancing monkeys! There's a physical therapist there all the time, if you need tweaking. The show is very physical. Audiences don't realize the work in this long running show: they are constantly calling rehearsal, to keep everything sharp, tight, and fresh.
What are you doing next?
I'm doing the Cy Coleman show at the Kennedy Center on November 6. They came to see me at 54 Below. I have to say, it's one of the best shows I've ever done.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.