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She left the stage years ago. Then 'Wicked' needed an understudy

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN SCHWARTZ'S "OVERTURE/NO ONE MOURNS THE WICKED")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We've got a real Broadway story for you. Carla Stickler, a software engineer in Chicago - on a bike ride, she got a phone call. Could she come to New York immediately and sing the role of Elphaba, the green-skinned witch, in Stephen Schwartz's huge Broadway hit "Wicked"? What do you think? COVID had taken a lot of people out of the cast, and Carla Stickler joins us now from a Midtown hotel room in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CARLA STICKLER: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: How long had it been since you'd played the role, you know, in a touring company in Broadway?

STICKLER: I had not performed the role of Elphaba since 2015 here in the New York company.

SIMON: Oh, mercy.

STICKLER: (Laughter).

SIMON: And I mean - and this is just not learning a speech or two. This is songs, dances, blocking, a whole show, right?

STICKLER: Yes, it is. It is the whole show. It is, some might say, one of the biggest roles in the Broadway canon. And you know, I've been doing it for over a decade, and it was just - it magically was there. It came back (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. That's wonderful. And you had to - of course, you had to tinge your skin green all over again, didn't you?

STICKLER: Yes, they had to paint me green.

SIMON: What was it like to be on that stage? I've seen video.

STICKLER: You know, it - for me, having kind of stepped away from performing and thinking that I would never have this opportunity to perform Elphaba again, it was really magical, and there was so much joy in it. I think she's such a wonderful, wonderful role. Honestly, if I never did it again, I'd be fine. I'd feel complete. It was just such a wonderful moment.

SIMON: Yeah. I gather when you decided to go on to something else a few years ago, you had a lot of problems besetting your life.

STICKLER: You know, I love performing. I think any performer will tell you that it can be a grueling business. When I left the show the first time, I was dealing with some health issues. And I needed to kind of get some space. And I went, and I got a master's degree in education, and I taught a little bit. And I was still trying to find something that gave me a little bit more stability. And finding software engineering was kind of one of these brilliant things where I was like, oh, this is creative, and this is interesting, and I get health insurance (laughter). And my feet didn't hurt.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Does the show seem different to you? I mean, there's a - forgive me - a message at the heart of "Wicked."

STICKLER: The thing I love about the role of Elphaba is she is such a strong character, and she overcomes so many things in the journey in that show. I've been kind of playing her on and off since 2010, and I have changed so much myself. You know, I think maybe this is the first time I could really connect with her strength, having had to find some of it in myself over the past few years. And that's been really powerful for me.

SIMON: Your co-workers must be very proud.

STICKLER: They are. They've been very supportive. They're - they've been very sweet through this whole thing.

SIMON: And I bet increasing numbers of the audience kind of know the story now, too, don't they?

STICKLER: Yeah, I - you know, one of the really interesting things about all of this is the way this whole thing has brought to light more about what understudies and standbys and swings are doing.

SIMON: Yeah.

STICKLER: And I think it's really nice to see those people who work so hard in this business get some recognition, to bring awareness to how hard these people work and what those roles entail and how much everybody really wants to save Broadway - we really want it to keep going - and how important that is.

SIMON: Carla Stickler, software engineer and always a Broadway star, thanks so much for being with us.

STICKLER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS THIS FEELING?")

IDINA MENZEL AND KRISTIN CHENOWETH: (As Elphaba and Glinda, singing) My whole life long.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Loathing, unadulterated loathing.

IDINA MENZEL: (As Elphaba) Boo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.