SHERYL LEE RALPH
A D.I.V.A. who fights AIDS, loves Hamilton... and controls the weather. Read on to see what Sheryl Lee Ralph does to prepare for Madame Morrible in Wicked.
Sheryl is a legend.
She has experienced the fads of the business since the 70's. She's been subject to prejudice in the business, literally being left in another US state because of the color of her skin. She has also experienced the opposite: hit musicals, tv shows, and movies.
I was so excited to photograph Sheryl because of after 13 years of being open, Wicked casts her first black Madame Morrible. It's herstory, not to mention an iconic performance. I know Wicked very well. It opened when I was in middle school, so I became obsessed. It was my escape from the tortures of teenager life. As corny as it sounds, I related to Elphaba with every fiber of my being. It helped me survive.
This wasn't my first time backstage of Wicked, but each time I revert back to my 13 year old self... uncontrollably giddy and wide eyed. I am a proud fan girl of Wicked - and will openly say I used to doodle Elphaba's witch hat on my notebooks during math.
I walked through the Gershwin stage door, up the elevator, and met Hannah - Sheryl's dresser. An adorable redhead, I was immediately feeling welcome. We cut across the stage, where I paused and took a breath. I turned and headed through to stage right and into the dressing room area.
And there she was - in all her glory! Dame Sheryl sitting in her chair playing on her iPad. A glorious welcome, I began to shoot. Since it's a sacred space and these actors are actually prepping in real time, I try to be as non - invasive as possible. I would never want to detract from the actual preparation process.
As we jammed to Hamilton and she did her make up, I could tell she really loved being in Wicked.
"What's something that really brings you into the body of Madame Morrible?" I asked.
"This, honey!" She said. "Getting into her look, her clothes, this is what it's all about. She's about her presence and her appearance."
She was having fun. What's not to love about Madame Morrible? She's delicious with that eye, the lip, the hair, the bustle on the dress.
"So did you love Hamilton?" I asked.
"YES. That show is amazing. Those kids really know how to perform. And act," she said.
"I'm finding there to be such a disconnect, lately. No tea, no shade but I really don't find my generation putting acting first. It's more about vocals and riffing and all that stuff," I said.
"You can say that again!" She said.
When I saw Sheryl play Madame Morrible - it came from a place of absolute truth. She was powerful and honest, understanding the text to a point where I heard lines I had never paid attention to - as if they were new! And I know that book.
A quick costume change later, Sheryl was out of her Wicked robe and into her opening outfit. It's as beautiful as ever. Each costume, designed by Tony winner Susan Hilferty, is handmade and the detail is glorious.
"Did you ever watch Drag Race?" I asked.
"Honey," she put her lipstick down. "I was on it."
And then it all came back to me. She judged on Season 6 and had the iconic line, "put a cork in it... literally!" when talking to Trinity K Bonet about diction. I nearly fainted.
When it was my time to leave, Sheryl, Hannah, and I had a good thing going on. The energy was high and I simply didn't want to go! We hugged, she gave me a custom rhinestone SHIZ UNIVERSITY shirt, and we parted.
Hannah walked me past the stage, set with pre show lights and bubble ready to be inhabited by Glinda. The house was opening, the audience buzzing, and for a minute I was my 13 year old self again.