NEW YORK – While many people spent Valentine's Day with the traditional flowers and chocolates, Brittney Johnson was making theater history.
The young Broadway veteran was gently lowered onto the Gershwin Theatre stage to become the first Black actor to assume the role of Glinda full-time in “Wicked,” shattering a racial barrier on the day of love.
“One of the most rewarding parts of this is that it’s not just for me. I think it’s the least amount about me,” she says. “It’s about what it means for other people, for people that are going to see me do it or for people that just know that I’m here.”
Johnson is part of a sisterhood of women who have recently broken boundaries on American stages, including Emilie Kouatchou, who became the first Black woman to play Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, and Morgan Bullock who has become Riverdance's first Black female dancer.
“I do see things shifting, and I am very optimistic about the future,” Johnson says. “Because specific conversations are starting to happen now, people’s eyes are being opened in ways that they never had been before, either because they never needed to be, or because they just didn’t know what they didn’t know.”
“Wicked,” based on Gregory Maguire’s cult novel, tells the story of two young witches-to-be, one a green brooder who will be the Wicked Witch of the West and the other blond and bubbly, who will be Glinda the Good Witch.
Johnson has ended a 19-year run of white actors playing Glinda in any English-speaking professional “Wicked” company, a milestone made even more powerful since Glinda is the very essence of goodliness.
“I think it’s something that, especially for little Black kids that come and feel the energy that’s being given to Glinda — somebody that looks like them — it might not be something that they experience from the world in their real life,” she says. “Seeing someone that looks like you being loved is so important to see.”
On the night the role was finally hers, Johnson's life flashed in front of her — literally. As is the show's delightful custom, the previous actor playing Glinda arranged for a note of encouragement and love — usually packed with photos of the new star — to be pinned to the inside curtain on her first night. Each new Glinda sees it as she makes her entrance.
“It was the first time that it was me. Usually I’m seeing other people’s pictures and encouraging words, and it was the first time that note was left for me,” she says. “It’s really moving to have it be for you.”
Lindsay Pearce, her co-star as Elphaba, says Johnson is someone “obviously born for this” and says she's never seen anyone work harder. She describes Johnson as gracious, fun and goofy.
Pearce was backstage watching on a monitor when Johnson on Valentine's Day began singing the musical's hit “Popular” when she spotted a little Black girl in the front row with her family, clapping her hands in glee.
“That’s why it’s important because theater belongs to everyone. It’s not something that only belongs to someone who looks a certain way, sounds a certain way," she says. "Theater’s supposed to be the mirror of what the world looks like, and that’s what the world looks like.”
Johnson's other Broadway credits include “Les Misérables,” “Motown the Musical,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and opposite Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard” and as a guest in Kristin Chenoweth's Broadway concert show, teaming up with the original Glinda. She has been connected to “Wicked” since 2018, moving up from ensemble to Glinda understudy, to Glinda standby. She was onstage as Glinda when the pandemic shut down theater in 2020, but only temporarily.
Johnson saw out her contract and had moved to Los Angeles during the lull to pursue TV and film projects when “Wicked” lured her back to Oz with the promise of Glinda full time.
“It did feel like unfinished business,” she says. “I definitely felt like I had more to do in this show in particular. So getting that call really felt like the answer to internally what I thought I needed.”
Johnson grew up in Maryland close to Washington. Her mom said she was singing before she was talking. “She said that I was a drama queen from when I was a child," Johnson says, then laughing adds: "I don’t agree.”
She was bitten by the musical theater bug in high school. Performances in “Les Misérables” in 10th grade and “Sunday in the Park with George” in her senior year convinced her that musical theater was what she wanted to do.
“I was raised to believe and to know that I could do anything,” she says. “I am not a stranger to being the first of anything or the only Black person in a room or in a situation.”
What about being the first Black Glinda? Was it on her horizon? “It wasn’t out of my realm of possibilities for me that I could be if the world allowed it,” she answers. “But after five, 10 years of not seeing any movement in that direction, I think you do start to put aside that specific dream.”
Stepping out on Valentine's Day was a full-circle moment since Johnson had seen “Wicked” at age 15 with her mom, catching it at the Kennedy Center on tour: “I just really enjoyed it. I just loved the story. I loved the music.”
Now, the role of Glinda is hers and she can't wait to make it her own, giving the good witch her own spin. She says there's lots of flexibility in “Wicked” for actors to add their personality.
“They really encourage us in the rehearsal process to kind of play and find how the character fits on you. It’s not a stencil that you have to fit into,” she says. “There are things that I do discover every day about her or about about the role. There are things you can only really find when you have the opportunity to do it more than once.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits