Who says the wizard always hides behind the curtain? Centerstage got a chance to chat with Gene Weygandt, currently playing the Wizard of Oz in Chicago's sit-down production of "Wicked." The show, which tells the backstory of the witches of Oz, has run to sold-out houses since its opening in early summer of 2005.
A longtime veteran of the Chicago stage (and multiple winner of Chicago's Jeff Award), Weygandt has taken the stage in venues as diverse as Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Apple Tree Theatre. He's also gone east, creating the Broadway role of Paul in the original production of the Maltby and Shire musical "Big." More recently, he switched places with Ben Vereen, the Wizard of Oz in the Broadway production, for a brief engagement.
Weygandt was cast as the Wizard after a standard audition process, but the timing was less than ideal; the casting director wanted to see him while he was in the middle of tech rehearsals for "The Music Man" out at Drury Lane Oakbrook. He was playing Professor Harold Hill (the lead) and was still trying to finish learning the wordy song "Trouble" at the time. When his agent called, he remembers saying, "I can't audition: This is tech week. Are you nuts?!"
He eventually relented. Things went well. So well, in fact, that he was flown to New York to audition for the director, composer and the rest of the artistic staff. He sang one of the Wizard's songs, read one of the scenes and danced. Everyone was quite nice. But Weygandt certainly wasn't certain that he nailed it. "Mostly I try not to watch them when I'm auditioning; I try not to see them. I've met Stephen Schwartz a couple of times. He's a really happy person so it's hard to gauge." But his agent called with the magic words (which he saved until the end of the call): "Oh yeah, by the way, Gene, you got it."
So he bowed out of "The Music Man" earlier than originally planned to head to New York for rehearsals for the blockbuster show. For Weygandt, the crucial element of his character is encapsulated in a quote from the film version of "The Wizard of Oz:" "I'm not a bad man; I'm just not a very good wizard."
"That's the meat of the character right there," says Weygandt. "He's like so many Wizards, or at least one other 'Wizard' I can think of, he's a wizard without any job skills."
Since the Wizard of Oz actually doesn't appear in the show until near the end of the first act, Weygandt has a substantial amount of time to kill backstage. He fills it productively; he's been studying guitar, doing yoga and "applying my makeup very meticulously." He also catches the performances of his fellow cast members. One of his favorite moments is when the green witch Elphaba and Glinda (played by Ana Gasteyer and Kate Reinders, respectively) sing their final duet "Because I Knew You, I Have Been Changed for Good."
"If I listen to them and watch them play the scene, it just brings tears to my eyes," confesses Weygandt. "It's such a beautiful song and such a beautiful sentiment. Rondi [Reed, playing Madame Morrible] and I have laughed at ourselves. We just get so weepy."
Oddly enough, the bows of the show are another favorite moment. "The Wizard takes his bow and then steps over to the side and gestures to the two girls, and the reaction to them hits you in the chest. People just absolutely leap out of their seats, and the cheer has a concussion to it; you can feel it when they jump up. That just knocks me out every night that people are so into the show, and so into our two girls. They're just awesome, the way they sing it."
As the conversation comes to a close, Weygandt concludes in a similar vein. "I've certainly been in plays that people have liked before. But the response at the end, with people coming back again and again and wanting autographs, and cheers and screams after the numbers...it's just remarkable. The people at the stage door give me gift and hugs. They just want to express that they really liked the show and were moved and touched by it."
To see this smash hit (and be sure to give an extra cheer for Gene when you see him), call (312) 977-1700 or Ticketmaster. Tickets run up to $85; a $25 lottery for the two front rows of the theater (Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre at 24 W. Randolph) takes place at Border's next door. In an open run, shows are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.