Not so wicked witch looks to the future
Two years is enough for anyone to spend as a singing witch in a West End musical, and now Belfast singer Rachel Tucker is looking for new challenges
SHORTLY BEFORE 5pm, high in the Apollo Theatre near London’s Victoria Station, Rachel Tucker opens her dressing-room door, munching salad, with a bottle of water in hand.
In two years, Rachel Tucker has appeared before hundreds of thousands of fans in Wicked, now in its sixth year on the London stage, with £125m (€155m) taken at the box-office.
“I have to drink two of these every day,” she says, pointing to a 1.5-litre bottle of water. “I am on my second one. It is more or less athletic standard without the physical training.” Tucker pushes cushions aside on the couch to make room, and points happily to the pile of toys, chocolates and other gifts left by adoring fans.
And the fans do adore. Every night, scores of young girls hang outside the stage door to chat with the show’s cast, while regulars queue from dawn to get tickets.
Now in its eight year since its first performance on Broadway, the musical’s plot begins before Dorothy’s arrival from Kansas to the land of the Wizard of Oz and continues after she goes back.
In the original Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West eventually gets her comeuppance, but in Wicked, the witch, known here as Elphaba, is a misunderstood victim.
For many in the audience, the green-skinned Elphaba is not just a musical character on a fantasy stage; instead, she is a guide through turbulent teenage years.
“I have had so many people who are ill with eating disorders, like anorexia; or who are lesbian, gay, who have just come out,” she says, forking potato around her bowl as she speaks.
“By watching me and Elphaba it has given them the courage to stand up and be what they are and not be shy about what makes them what they are and just accept it.
“School kids absolutely adore it; teachers bring them in their droves because it touches on bullying, being picked on, on singling people out. It is about strength of character, it is about justice and believing in what you say,” she says.
Looking towards letters from fans on her mirrored counter-top, the Belfast-born Tucker says enthusiastically: “They always identify with Elphaba. They see Glinda [the show’s other main character] as the popular girl, the girl who has everything, the girl who could be the bully, the ringleader.
“But actually the person who comes out on top is Elphaba. They don’t need parents, or teachers to tell them, they have got it front of them and they weep, they absolutely weep.
“You can see where the tears have hit the letter from the smudges in the ink. And it kills me. I can’t read fan letters before the show because I get too emotional.”
Eight shows a week takes its toll. “I can’t do anything during the day. I really have to rest for the show that evening. I can’t meet friends, or talk too much because of the voice.”
Tucker got the role after her performance on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV talent competition I’d Do Anything, which sought a new Nancy for a West End revival of Oliver Twist.
Unlike the majority of contestants on such shows, Tucker was already a seasoned performer, having begun singing with her father, Tommy “Tucker” Kelly, on the circuit in Belfast.
Not everyone thought Lloyd Webber’s TV creation a good idea: “My mum put me off it; she thought I was taking a step backwards. I had been to drama school. I had done my training.”
Although she was eliminated, Tucker does not regret the experience. “That show was a fantastic showcase and I am so glad that I did it. Before it I was just another girl at open-calls, or auditions, trying to get a foot in the door. Don’t get me wrong, I got very close at a number of points. It was just that people who actually had profiles were getting the job over me.”
Talent shows are nothing new to the family. “The funny thing is my dad appeared on Opportunity Knocks when he was 26, so his generation had it. It is new to us to now. From the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, they didn’t have it, so it was seen as old hat, old fashioned.” Her father came second in the Hughie Green-presented programme.
Today, her father is still working in Belfast: “Yes, he still is at 65. He did it with his father since the age of six, and he’s still working.” Tucker is one of four children. “I am the youngest, the baby. Dad brought us up singing on his knee, banjo, guitar, everything. We were always singing, watching musicals.
“We were always taken to musical theatre, pantos and then one night I saw dad singing when I was old enough to be at a family party.”
A light sparked: “I thought, ‘Why haven’t you done this to me before?’ Why haven’t you made me go on stage before now?’ I was nine and I wanted to be on stage.”
A year later, she was a member of Equity, the actors’ union. The name Rachel Kelly was gone; so, too, was her second choice, her mother’s maiden name of Docherty. “So I ended up as Rachel Tucker, whether I wanted it, or not, so I am really glad that I have stuck with it. It is a ‘rememberable’ name in many ways. If you don’t like me, you can change the first letter.”
Most nights, Tucker will say hello to fans at the stage door, which can take half an hour during holidays, before heading home to her husband, theatre director Guy Retallack.
On a quiet night, Tucker gets off stage at 10.25pm. “I get into a car for 10.40pm and I am home for 11. My husband is in the theatre, so he understands, which is great.
“So we’ll have something to eat and, maybe, a glass of wine and a chat. We are into Mad Men at the moment, so we are watching an episode every night.
“I’ll have a steam and a cup of herbal tea and I’ll get into bed for 12.30 or one, so it is like that every night unless it is a Saturday night when I get a takeaway and maybe stay up a bit later.
“Otherwise I am here six days a week, two matinees, Wednesday, and Saturdays. It is exhausting. It is just so vital that you listen to the advice, the no-talking rule.”
Two years on, Tucker is unlikely to commit to another contract once her current one expires: “No, I don’t think so, only because . . .” she says, before halting. “The role is immense, it is amazing, but actually, no matter how much effort and respect that you have for a character, there is a sell-by date, I believe and I have witnessed it too often on stage. I started my third contract in December and I finish it in October.
“It is a whole lot of things that amalgamate – the repetition, the muscles, the fact that it is a lot of ‘big sings’. The fact is that it takes so much out of your life, your whole life comes into play. You know yourself whenever it is taking a toll on you.”
Television and film beckons, along with a solo album: “It is too early yet before we can sit down and say where we are going, but TV is very hard to get into when you are in theatre, especially musical theatre.
“Singing is what I have based my training on, so therefore when they see your CV full of soft musicals they are not keen to get you in. They’ll want to get someone in who is a straight actor,” she says.
By now, the clock is moving on. Make-up looms, while the empty, dark, 2,500-seat theatre floor below is readying for a new audience.