Divas can be good witches or bad witches — or not witches at all.
“That’s kind of a funny thing we joke about in the beginning of the show,” said Emily Rozek, one of two Broadway actresses teaming up with Orchestra Iowa this weekend for a pair of pops concerts dubbed “Wicked Divas.”
She and Julia Murney have shared the stage as Glinda the good and Elphaba the green in the wildly popular musical “Wicked.” It spins the story of the witches of Oz in their youth, before they fly their separate ways. Perennially perky Glinda is much more diva than shy, nerdy Elphaba.
But “Diva” is a title that can stand for good — or bad.
“Divas are usually difficult to work with, and wanting their way, so we pretend to be that. But it’s obvious neither of us are that, so we make a joke about that in the show,” Rozek said during a break between classes at the charter school in Newark, N.J., where she teaches performing arts.
“It’s a tribute to all kinds of divas who write and sing and make our lives fun,” said Murney, a “Manhattan girl” viewers of “Sex and the City” will recognize. She was the diner at Raw vying for the attention of the handsome waiter, who became Samantha’s love interest, Smith Jerrod.
A veteran of “Madam Secretary,” “Elementary,” “30 Rock” and other television shows and films, Murney considers herself a stage actor first and foremost. She played Elphaba in “Wicked” on the first national tour in 2006 and on Broadway in 2007. She helped develop “Wicked Divas” to continue the magic of that musical, and highlight other showstoppers from Broadway, pop and opera realms.
“It’s just something that came out of the brain of a conductor that I worked with, based on a concert that we had done together, and suddenly he said, ‘Wait, that’s a good idea, to have two women in (the “Divas” concert),’ because ‘Wicked’ continues to prove such a popular title and piece,” 13 years after it premiered on Broadway, Murney said.
“It’s still selling like hot cakes. That’s very uncanny. It’s a very rarefied trio of shows that sell like that. It’s remarkable,” she said. “Just last night, I saw Winnie Holzman, who wrote the libretto for the musical ‘Wicked.’ I said to her, ‘I’ve gotta make sure that you understand that what you did, what you wrote, has changed innumerable lives.’ It’s changed the lives of all of us who’ve gotten to be in the show, and then get to do other things afterward. ...
“Those of us who are in the show get to be the recipient of people coming up to us after they’ve seen it, and saying how much they love ‘Wicked’ and what it means to them. It’s a pleasure to get to continue to spread the gospel,” Murney said.
The “Divas” concert won’t be entirely “Wicked,” however. Hits like “Defying Gravity,” “Popular” and “For Good” will be there, alongside leading lyrics from “My Fair Lady,” “Ragtime,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Spamalot,” as well as selections from the fiery, divalicious opera “Carmen.”
The Cedar Rapids show is happening over Halloween weekend, and while audiences are invited to come in costume, the divas won’t be sporting any “Wicked” wear.
“We talk a lot, we tell stories, and we change gowns — we each wear about four gowns,” Murney said. “So that part’s fun. But what’s fun for the show and for Emily and I, is that we get to be ourselves. We’re goofy people and have known each for years and years. And then ... the conductors and orchestras we’re with have always been so supportive and game and fun. It’s not a stuffy show — it’s definitely a loosey goosey, let’s-have-a-good-time show.”
That suits Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich to a T, and will spill over into the audience.
“This area is so supportive of the theater scene,” he said, adding that he’s excited “to have a little bit of celebrity onstage with us.”
Reviving the orchestra’s pops concert series helps distinguish this symphony season from the others since the Floods of 2008 knocked the orchestra out of its Paramount home for four years.
The pops series was “one of the first victims of the flood,” Hankewich said, because its popularity had been waning. He hopes that adding more diversity to this year’s offerings will help it rebound.
The ever-popular Brucemorchestra concert on the front lawn at Brucemore mansion launched the 2016-17 pops series, which continues with “Wicked Divas” on Saturday and Sunday; three Holiday Spectacular concerts Dec. 17 and 18; a live-action video game multimedia extravaganza Feb. 4; a symphonic tribute to pop-rock band Journey on Feb. 25 and 26; and the movie music of John Williams — composer for “Star Wars,” “Jaws, “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park” — on May 20 and 21.
Soprano Rozek has been part of the “Wicked Divas” for six years. Several actresses are schooled in the show and its music, so that whenever a symphony wants to book the Divas, two people will be available to step into the repertoire.
The show also offers enough flexibility that Rozek can sing “Gimme Gimme” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a musical in which she starred on Broadway.
“It’s really quite special for a Broadway performer to sing with symphonies,” she said, noting that shows in New York and on tour have orchestras of maybe 10 people in the pit. The “Wicked Divas” Yellow Brick Road has wound from Dallas and Memphis to Maui and Anchorage, with many other stops along the way.
“It’s magical,” she said, “because you have 40, 50, 60 amazing musicians playing, and it really is an overwhelming feeling to be backed up by that much talent. If you just do Broadway shows, you’re not getting that experience, so it’s really, really special.”
WHAT: Orchestra Iowa Pops: “Wicked Divas,” featuring Emily Rozek and Julia Murney
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (10/29) and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (10/30)
TICKETS: $10 to $54, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/wickeddivas
EXTRA: Audiences invited to wear Halloween costumes; contest follows Saturday night, in the adjoining Opus Concert Cafe