There’s a little more magic in the air on Broadway this week. On Monday, history was made as Brittney Johnson starred as the first Black actor to play Glinda in the treasured Broadway musical, Wicked. Accompanying her on stage was Lindsay Pearce (Elphaba), Sharon Sachs (Madame Morrible), Michael McCormick (The Wizard) and Jordan Barrow – who made his own history as the first Black actor to play the role of Boq on Broadway. Ahead of her historic debut, we caught up with Johnson, who was beaming with excitement. And while she was over the moon, she didn’t let the nerves get the best of her.
“Being the first Black woman to ever play this role – and person of color in America – it often can feel like there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot riding on this,” Brittney shares over Zoom. “I’m trying not to think about it that way.”
Johnson has previously appeared as the understudy for this role (barrier-breaking in itself) along with other musicals such as Les Misérables, Motown, Sunset Boulevard, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Kristin Chenoweth: For the Girls. Beaming with happiness and gratitude, Johnson shared the announcement on Instagram, writing: “If this is a dream, don’t wake me. I cannot WAIT to be your Glinda. I’m honored, grateful, and speechless. I simply couldn’t be happier.” Following the good news, the OG Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth, gave her blessing, congratulating Johnson on this placement in a video message. The two Good Witches initially connected in 2019 when Johnson performed as Glinda’s understudy. After the show, Chenoweth gifted Johnson a Glinda-inspired necklace that said, ‘Toss Toss.”
After facing numerous cancellations and COVID-19 restrictions, Wicked serves as a testament to the strength of Broadway and the cast and crew that embody it. This year marks Wicked as the fifth-longest running Broadway show ever. As the show first opened in 2003 it has since been performed in 16 countries, translated into six languages and seen by more than 60 million people worldwide. Not to mention, the Broadway classic has won more than 100 international awards (among them three Tonys and one Grammy).
And as she descends from her crystal ball out onto the Gershwin Theatre stage, she has one very important mission to impart on the audience: a lesson of authenticity. “I’m trying to bring myself genuinely to this character, who is so beloved, and infuse her with things about me,” she elaborates. “Because now, a lot of the audience will be able to see themselves in this character a lot better than they have before. I really am just hoping to bring genuineness and authenticity.”
We caught up with Brittney to ask her about this iconic role, pre-show rituals and what it’s like to be friends with Kristin Chenoweth.
V MAGAZINE: First of all, congrats on starring as Glinda in Wicked! When you first heard the news that you were going to take over this iconic role, what were some emotions that were running through you?
BRITTNEY JOHNSON: This is something that I was hoping would happen, but you can never assume anything. So I found out when we were all still quarantined during the pandemic. I was home alone with my cats in LA and my producer called to offer me a role. I remember I had to call him back to let him know that I was excited because I was just in such a state of just like, stunned, excited numbness because we were all still in the middle of this thing that we still didn’t really understand. We didn’t know what the future held. It felt scary to get excited about this future that I couldn’t really see. You know what I mean? I call him back to be like, “I’m really excited about this. Thank you.” I was just shocked.
V: What number are you most excited to perform?
BJ: I’m excited about all of it. There are so many layers to it. I came back to the show in August to finish my contract as the standby, but I actually never went on. So I still haven’t made my Broadway re-debut post-pandemic. So I’m excited to get to be on stage again, just in general. And then I’m excited about taking over this role. So I’m excited about the entrance. I’m excited about every single number and then I’m excited for it to be over. So then I can get to building some kind of normalcy for myself.
V: What do you hope to bring to this role?
BJ: I think authenticity. Being the first Black woman to ever play this role – and person of color in America – it often can feel like there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot riding on this. I’m trying not to think about it that way. I’m trying to bring myself genuinely to this character, who is so beloved, and infuse her with things about me. Hopefully, things that people in the audience can recognize. Because now, a lot of the audience will be able to see themselves in this character a lot better than they have before. I really am just hoping to bring genuineness and authenticity. Especially because of what happens when you step into an iconic role like this, and especially when you’re the first of anything, you get this kind of attention. People want to know you and they want to figure out who you are. I really want to be genuine because I want to be able to inspire people more than just as this unattainable thing. I want to be a human being so that other people feel like they can be a human being? It seems like it should be a simple concept. But it’s not. It’s hard.
V: That’s beautiful. I read that Kristin Chenoweth rang you when she heard that you first got the role? Can you elaborate on that interaction with her? Did she impart any advice?
BJ: She is the sweetest. Now, I’ve known Kristen for a few years. Because of my debut when I was still the understudy, she sent me this necklace. It just showed up at the stage door. I was like, “Who’s sending me presents? What is this?” And I opened it and it was this necklace that says, ‘Toss Toss.’ From someone like Kristin Chenoweth to be like, “I’m so proud of you.” I was like, “Oh my God, she knows who I am.” I was freaking out. We actually met and I was in her concert on Broadway. She sent me a little video message, she likes to communicate with video messages. The bubbly person that you see on TV, that’s who she is in real life. She’s been so supportive, and just so encouraging and it’s nice to have her on my side, on my team.
V: Did she give you any advice to take with you on opening night?
BJ: Not really. She’s really cool in that, she doesn’t feel ownership over the role. It’s something that she created and that she birthed and now it’s like, all of the Glinda’s are her children. They’re taking it and they’re making it their own and she wants that. She encourages it. She, I think, loves to see it. So she didn’t have any specific advice, she was just encouraging and supportive.
V: And to bring it back – when did you first fall in love with theater?
BJ: I first fell in love with theater in high school. I did a production of Les Miserables in high school and I played Fantine. Growing up, I was a singer. I liked to act, but I knew I was going to be Mariah Carey. That was my path. When you get older, and you realize that there is a Mariah Carey already, you can’t major in that. I had to figure out what I wanted to go to school for. After doing that production of Les Miserables, I was like, “Oh! This is something people will pay me to do?” That’s where the passion started. Then I did a pre-college program at NYU and I saw all these Broadway shows. I’d never spent time in New York. I’d never seen that many shows. I’d seen one show on Broadway before then. In that program, I saw like 20 and it really just solidified it for me.
V: Did you see Wicked during this time?
BJ: I saw the touring production – I’m gonna date myself. Probably like 2004 or 2005. It was the first national tour I saw it when it came to DC. I didn’t really know that much about it. I didn’t really know that much about Broadway. So seeing it was just like, “Wow.” It was such a spectacle. You just felt immersed in the entire story and I loved the Wizard of Oz growing up. So I was like, “Oh, she wasn’t bad.” I was so captivated by the story and the music. But at the time, I don’t think there was anything in my mind like, “I’m going to do that one day,” because I hadn’t really decided that’s what I was going to be doing. I mean, maybe somewhere in my mind, I was like, “This would be really cool to do.” I think I was getting my feet wet. Still to this day, anytime I go to see something I’m just enjoying it. Looking at it as a spectator, what I can learn, how I relate to these characters. That’s how I approach acting. I’m always trying to think of how is this going to be perceived by an audience member? How am I going to encourage empathy from people to my character?
V: What do you love most about Glinda?
BJ: I love how positive she is. There isn’t anything, I don’t think, intentionally malicious about Glinda. I really feel like she believes that everything that she does, is for the greater good. I don’t think that she can really distinguish, at least in the beginning, the greater good for her from the greater good of everyone. That’s something that she learns. I love that too about her, she grows so much over the course of the show, that the Glinda that we meet in school is not the person that she is at the end. That’s something that I think is so relatable. You go through stuff and you lose things that you have to grow and move on and hopefully help other people.
V: How are you going to prepare yourself for opening night?
BJ: I think the biggest thing for me is remaining calm, and not making too big a deal out of it. Because the minute that I start being like, “Oh, tomorrow, I’m making history,” then it becomes something that’s out of my control. I’m just telling this story. I’m telling the story in my skin. And what are other people going to take from it? I’m not going to think too much about it. There’s a pre-show ritual that I do, right before I descend that just gets me from the end to the beginning. It reminds me of where I am starting the show. Once I do that, and that bubble starts moving, I’m Glinda, I’m not Brittany anymore. So I take applause differently. I interact with people differently because it’s not me anymore.
V: Where do you see yourself in five, 10 years? What are some goals that you hope to achieve?
BJ: Good question. I think I have learned over the last decade that I’ve been in this industry that you shouldn’t plan too hard. Most things are completely out of your control and the best that you can do is your best. So my biggest goal in everything that I do is to inspire people. I’m also a life coach so if I’m doing it through life coaching – however it is that I’m able to touch people and help them be a better version of themselves, that’s my goal. So I’m going to keep doing my best, I’m going to keep putting my best foot forward. I do have things that I would love, love to do and be. But I mean, I think we all learned during this pandemic that life’s going to happen. So, try to have a good time and be kind to people.
V: That’s good advice. Do you have any advice or any words of wisdom for aspiring actors?
BJ: I do. First of all, train. Training is very important. It’s hard to do. Singing is hard. Even just standing on stage, giving that kind of energy for three hours is hard. We’re athletes, so train so that you have the technique to do it properly without hurting yourself so you can have longevity. Also, live life. Have a full life, see people. If you’re in school, study other things besides theater, figure out what your other passions are. Develop yourself as a full human. Because the best actors are people who have lived life. How can you create a three-dimensional character if you haven’t lived any? So live. Think about who you are.
V: Those are all the questions for me. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
BJ: No, I’ve never prepared for that question [laughs]. I don’t know. Eat your vegetables. I think we covered it.
Buy your tickets to see Johnson star as Wicked’s Glinda here.