If you’ve seen any of these ladies on stage—performed by Danson or not—they share a certain commonality, an intense, feverish, quality. They have a presence, like someone dancing at the edge of a cliff.
So it should come as little surprise that Danson should have commandeered the part of a woman named Madame Morrible in the blockbuster road company of Wicked, the witchy musical now at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
The white wigged Madame Morrible is boldly, even warmly, conniving. A press secretary to the Wizard of Oz—yes, she is. And, amid all the big voices defying gravity, the witches good and wicked, and talking animals and princes and flying monkeys, she gives us, as much as is possible, a human being in full.
“Well, you have to play her over the top. That’s what she does., She wants things, and power, but she has to be somebody who has big-time charm and some sophistication and charisma herself.
You suspect, remembering that list of splendid, harrowing and soulful women, that Madame Morrible would be right at home among them.
In other words, you gotta ask:
How did this happen?
“Well, I auditioned, like everyone else,” she said, and even now after two years, with some disruptions, she sounds a little surprised herself. “First, I thought if I was going to do this, I better see the show. And there was the fact that I had not really done any musicals. It’s not what I’m known for. And as a rule, I don’t go to a lot of Broadway musicals. I can’t afford them. And believe it or not, I had never done a national tour before, so I thought that would be a good thing on my resume. And I got the part, and here I am after all this time.
And here she is back in Washington, performing here for the first time since 1995.
At one time, she was a familiar face at Arena Stage. I’ll never forget her performance as Shen Tai Shu Ta in Brecht’s The Good Woman of Shetzuan, for which she won a Best Actress in a Resident Play award in 1986. She was practically translucent, vulnerable and strong all at once – it was as if you could see right through her.
“I haven’t found time yet to go out and see the new Arena Stage building,” she said. “We just got here and haven’t had time to settle in. But I will. I still have friends here. When I was at Arena, we had something remarkable, so many fine actors and artists and there was Zelda, and we did wonderful things, all of us. Halo Wines, Richard Bauer, Robert Prosky, Tana Hicken, Casey Biggs, Terence Currier. You know, regional theater wasn’t quite the force yet that it is today, but whenever people would talk about theater and actors, I would think there’s one of the finest actors in America right here at Arena, and that was Stanley Anderson and nobody knew about him at that level.”
Returning to Wicked:
“This has turned into an entirely different sort of experience in theater for me,” she said. “Two years or so in one role, for one thing. And doing it hundreds of times. The travel, living in hotel rooms, being part of a large cast like this. There’s always changes, of course, but it becomes like a family.
“You know, it’s funny. At first, you’re learning the part, you discover different things in the role, you’re wearing this big costume. It’s uncomfortable. There are all the usual things – the lines, the sheer spectacle and noise and then, there’s the challenge of keeping things fresh. Of course. But the part, the play, the show is in your head. It’s there and everything falls into place all of the time. But I never know that it will until I open my mouth. There it is. And you find things [in the role], because everywhere you go, every night the audience is a little or a lot different.
“I know people talk a lot about how popular the show is with tweeners, these young adolescent girls who show up in droves, it seems like. But I think there’s lots more there than just that. It has this roller coaster aspect, it’s full of adventure, and so I think boys like it too, and they’re not embarrassed to say that they went to see Wicked, and their parents love it too.
“I think, on some basic level, it’s also very moving.”
It’s interesting what happens up there and out there. Audiences inevitably, almost self-propelled, jump out of their seats as Dee Roscioli knocks “Defying Gravity” out of the house, but there’s also something integral with the presence of Madame Morrible. Sure, you have to have the Wizard—roundly played by Marc Jacoby—but Morrible is a new confection in this Oz. And Danson rounds her out. Later you remember her barely suppressed eagerness at discovering the green witch’s talent for magic. You remember the avidity she has for power and fame, for being at the center of the story.
Danson owes her last name to “that guy from “Cheers”. “Oh please,” she says on the phone. “It’s Ted Danson not just that guy from Cheers.” He’s also that guy she was married to when they were both students at Carnegie-Mellon Institute. “Long time ago. We’re friendly.”
Home for the past two years has been wherever Wicked lands, including Houston where her pet, a 17-year-old toy poodle named Beeper passed away. Home is New York where she lives—“I’m a New Yorker, no question”—where she also designs jewelry. Home is a life in the theater, it’s “what I thought when I began, that this is where you can have a life, being in the theater”.
And the theater is where she not only made a life—she’s won numerous awards including an Obie for sustained excellence—but a life of high achievement, bringing to life her bigger-than-life female characters.