Q&A: Emily Behny, Indiana’s Own ‘Wicked’ Star

The small-town Hoosier girl grew up singing in church, and her touring Broadway roles—from the Beast’s Belle to her new gig as Nessarose, already reveal her acting range.

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She previously took a turn in the Broadway tour of Beauty and the Beast, inhabiting the title role of that bright, hopeful lass and performing at Clowes Hall in the production. Now Emily Behny—a native of Silver Lake, Ind., and a Ball State theater grad—is back in town as Nessarose, sister to lead witch Elphaba, in the ubiquitous smash musical Wicked, which flies into Indianapolis on a broomstick again for a Nov. 13–Dec. 1 run. She joined the touring company last month, with her first performance on Sept. 20, and she phoned in to IM last week from Kansas City, Mo., to talk about obsessed Wicked fans, happy homecomings, and more.

It’s been two years since Indy audiences saw you on stage. What have you been up to?

I did a three-week contract at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. I was an emergency understudy replacement, there to fill in for three weeks. It’s a top regional house. And then I was working, as a nanny and a dog walker, and auditioning. The show at Goodspeed was Something’s Afoot. I learned the show in two days and was ready to go on if needed.

Any funny stories as a nanny or dog walker?

Definitely. I was supposed to walk two dogs for a very high-maintenance New Yorker, but that happened to be the day I was auditioning for Nessarose. So I was an hour and a half late walking this high-profile client’s dogs. And I was afraid I was going to be fired, and that she’d write a really bad Yelp review of the company I was working for. So I thought I’d lose my job that day—but then I got the role and it didn’t matter anymore.

You’re going from that that well-known “tale as old as time” in Beauty and the Beast to the biggest Broadway hit of this young century. How has that been a changeup for you?

Beauty and the Beast people love, and it was a very sought-after show to see, but people are practically obsessed with Wicked. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. You get audience members who have seen it both on Broadway and in all the touring productions, five times or more, and they’re still coming back. It’s obviously quite a different story than Beauty and the Beast, and my role is different, and a challenge to play, a harder character.

Ahead of joining this cast, did you first read Gregory Maguire’s novel version of Wicked?

I did. I read that a few years ago and then I actually re-read it in preparation for this character.

How have you adapted to the role and also to the company you’re working with, your colleagues and friends?

I’m still relatively new, but it seems there’s a new person in the show every day. People are out for vacation days or something. We have six swings in the show, so at any time you could see a new face on the stage, even midshow. So that creates sort of a different work environment. You’re not always on with the same people.

Also, I think, I’m not on stage as much. I have a lot of free time backstage. So I am learning how to be focused and stay in the show; that’s been a challenge. I revisit my script quite often and stay sure that I’m in the world of Wicked.

Perhaps Nessarose, younger sister to Elphaba, isn’t entirely unlike Belle from Beauty. What do you think are the similarities and differences between the two?

I think that they both are hopeful characters, or people, even in their current circumstances. I think they both are smart and well-read. The difference would be that Nessarose is quite selfish, whereas Belle is selfless. I think they both love fiercely. Within that, when Nessarose is mistreated, or doesn’t agree with something, she lashes out. Belle was more cool headed.

So have you stomped around a la Nessarose while on this tour?

Oh yes, I’m very method. I might put a spell on you if you mess with me. We’ll see.

But I think she’s very complex, Nessarose, and has a lot of range. She starts out as this kind of sad but hopeful figure and sister who is plagued by her disability and her sister’s disability, and then you see her just deal with life circumstances and with the cards she’s been dealt. And she’s trapped. There are a lot of psychological and emotional aspects ot this role that make it challenging and appealing once I got into the character.

How long are you to be on tour with the show, and do you have plans after that?

I have an eight-month contract. Most principals are out eight months to a year, so until June 2014. And no, I do not have plans after that.

Will you audition from afar or return to New York to do so while on tour?

Quite possibly. I’m not really available until mid-June. There’s also a chance they may extend my contract.

What’s most rewarding about being on the road?

I really enjoy traveling, and I enjoy exploring the cities and finding the local fun spots. I also find the audiences in each city quite rewarding, and the different ways we get to be involved with them, through question-and-answer or Broadway fundraisers for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I just did a benefit for that. Things with high school students. Things like that make my job more fun and rewarding.

Though it seems like something of a glorious time, a sexy gig, what about touring with a Broadway show could you do without?

What’s great about this tour is that they really do take care of you. Everything you need is provided for you. The thing that’s hard about touring the most is that you don’t see your family as often.

You get really good at communicating electronically, eh?

Yes. And finding very odd times to Skype.

Do you have a favorite actress from all the Wicked casts on stage to date, those who went before you?

When I saw Wicked, it was actually the first Broadway show I’d ever seen, Shoshana Bean was playing Elphaba. I thought she was fantastic. And Megan Hilty was Glinda. I love following her career.

Do you have a favorite song from the show? A favorite line?

I think my favorite song is “Defying Gravity,” as with so many people. But I will not forget that moment on Broadway, and just the staging and the lighting with that are just so powerful, coupled with the great acting. It’s just one of the best moments in the show. A lot of the quippy lines harking back to The Wizard of Oz are so great. As when I ask my sister, What are you doing here? And she says, “There’s no place like home.” A lot of clever lines in the show.

Looking to do anything particularly at some of Indy’s best haunts?

I haven’t really checked out the Indy nightlife before. Maybe some entertainment, some music joints. I look forward to being entertained instead of being the entertainment sometimes. Relaxing. I look forward to downtown and Broad Ripple. I’m also going to visit Ball State and speak to students there. I haven’t been able to spend much time there in a while.

Inspiring students at your former theater department, eh? Giving them a Hoosiers pep talk?

Yes! Trying to inspire them and encourage about this crazy biz.

BONUS: See our by-the-numbers read on Wicked here.

Wicked runs Nov. 13–Dec. 1 at Old National Centre’s Murat Theatre. More info here.

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