You know that feeling of seeing a Broadway show with its original cast and dreaming of someday becoming part of it?
Well, actress Hannah Corneau has truly lived that dream. At 13 years old, she was sitting in the audience of the Gershwin Theatre, watching, mesmerized, Idina Menzel and the original Broadway cast perform Wicked, which then was “only” a new musical by legendary composer Stephen Schwartz.
In 2019, Wicked marked its 16th anniversary at the Gershwin, and Hannah finally took her first bow on Broadway as Elphaba on that very stage.
“At the beginning it was a very, very challenging task, to be like: ‘what you’re doing is enough.'”
Talk about coming full circle.
After traveling around the US with the first national tour of Hedwig and The Angry Inch, and starring in the critically acclaimed off-Broadway musical Renascence, Hannah faced her Broadway debut in Wicked in the brightest (or phosphorescent, as someone would say) of ways.
We had the pleasure to see Hannah on the Gershwin stage last December and were so stunned by the incredible performance that we reached out to her for an exclusive interview for The Tempest.
Hannah enthusiastically told us about her creative approach to the character; how she took inspiration from the women who have played Elphaba in the past, and how she had to adjust to the expectations that came with such an iconic and complex role.
“I tried to portray a journey for a woman,” Hannah told us during our interview. “I really wanted to hone in on her vulnerability, her openness, yet her transparency as far as where her walls are, and why they’re there, and so I wanted to hone in on that, and then just through her journey I was hoping to exemplify her growth as a unique individual.”
Hannah confessed that a lot changed in her performance from her first show to her last; the way she approached the musical numbers and the characterization of Elphaba was a “complete evolution,” a chance for her to sharpen some edges of her character, exploring Elphaba’s vulnerability and her anger.
“There are caverns and caves of an actor’s spirit that one can tap into. So I think I’ve been able to access those parts of my spirit, over the years, and realize what anger is, and frustration, and power as a result of anger, which Elphaba certainly has all in her spirit during No Good Deed, for instance, which was my favorite song of the show.”
“There are caverns and caves of an actor’s spirit that one can tap into. So I think I’ve been able to access those parts.”
But just as she has explored harsh emotions, Hannah has spaced through more delicate sides of Elphaba, such as her relationship with motherly figures: “I think Elphaba holds that want to have a mother figure so dear to her heart,” and so she “finds one in Madame Morrible”, until she too turns on her, leaving the girl alone once again.
For Hannah, portraying Elphaba was “such a layered experience, and it was for all Elphaba’s, that’s why there’s an Elphaba Sisterhood,” between all the actresses who have played the role.
As for the current cast, Hannah told us about her special bond with Ginna Claire Mason, who plays Glinda, and how her version of Thank Goodness is her favorite non-Elphaba number on the show, and how Ginna Claire is “a sister for absolute life. I mean, she’s just—– she was so professional, and kind, and cool, and open from day one on stage and off.”
Hannah Corneau’s Elphaba, however, would not be so layered and authentic, had she not been influenced by all the strong and complex roles she has played before. “Things layer on top of the spirit… I mean, how can these roles not enable me to learn, and therefore access different parts of my brain and heart?”
The experience Hannah gained from the eponymous character of Evita, fragile personality of Hedwig’s Yitzhak, and Renascence’s Edna St. Vincent Millay’s tenacity and wonder at the world, each contributed to her Elphaba, allowing Hannah to shape a fully fleshed-out personality.
It was one that made the character look more and more real and raw after every performance.
Vincent, in particular, is a character that Hannah considers “the pinnacle for me as a true creative artist within the theatre community”, as she resuscitated the brilliant poet’s spirit and honored her in the most authentic and respectful way; the part certainly came with its own struggles – as every part does – but Hannah believes that her experience at Wicked has been the most challenging yet.
For Hannah, her experience at ‘Wicked’ has been the most challenging yet.
If in Renascence she had ownership of Vincent from day one, having originated the role, there were so many and so high expectations for her Elphaba. “At the beginning it was a very, very challenging task, to be like: ‘what you’re doing is enough’, because I didn’t feel like I had ownership over it, for a while.”
Right now, having ended her run at Wicked, Hannah is definitely keeping herself busy and trying to stay creative.
She’s just released a new music video in support of the healthcare workers who are fighting against COVID-19, and she recently auditioned for a new musical, but she’s also taking time to rest and recover her body and spirit and to connect with her friends and loved ones.
When she’s not performing musicals on stage, Hannah also works in RANGE, an a cappella group she co-founded with her fellow university colleagues Ross Baum and Ben Holtzman, the managers and arrangers. With RANGE, Hannah has worked with great household names like Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, E! Network, and Billboard.
During our conversation, Hannah told us about her experience on the first national tour of Hedwig, where she had taken over Tony winner Lena Hall’s character, Yitzhak. She described the journey as incredibly formative and interesting, as she’s had the chance to work closely with the original Broadway cast, and to travel all around the US “with a rock band.”
Though she has thoroughly enjoyed touring, Hannah is planning to stay in New York City, and as soon as the pandemic is over, work more on and off-Broadway. Considering just how well she’s done so far, we can only see her flying higher and higher.
Let us slide into your DMs. Sign up for The Tempest weekly email.