It took just six years for musical theater powerhouse Lindsay Mendez to conquer Broadway. Mendez made her debut in 2007 as funny second banana Jan in Grease (opposite Laura Osnes), and now she takes center stage at the Gershwin Theatre as the 10th anniversary Elphaba in the blockbuster Wicked. In the meantime, of course, she's recorded the jazz album This Time with Marco Paguia, appeared in Everyday Rapture, Godspell and most notably a Drama Desk Award-nominated performance in Pasek and Paul’s off-Broadway gem Dogfight, co-starring Derek Klena, who joined Wicked the same night as Fiyero. Broadway.com caught up with the down-to-earth headliner about all things Wicked, Dogfight’s Main Stem dream and how Wicked and Dogfight director Joe Mantello changed her life.
Tell us about your debut performance as Elphaba! What was it like performing “Defying Gravity” for the first time on stage at the Gershwin Theatre?
Pretty exciting! I was full of nerves because it was such a huge night. When I actually said the words, "Close my eyes…and leap," and I closed my eyes, I couldn't believe it was happening. I had a bit of a flash of, "Wow…This is real." It was extremely cool and special.
Is there a moment from your first performance that you’ll treasure?
Singing "As Long As You're Mine" with Derek [Klena]. The whole show, we were both nervous and there is so much to think about and take in—so many technical things you have to make sure you do, besides just "being in the moment." And when Derek and I walked out and sat down together and started singing, it felt like we were both really there. I sat there, singing to him, thinking about how much we've been through together this year and how lucky I am to be sharing it all with him. What a special actor he is, and more than that, what an incredible friend. We were connected, and were able to breathe, and enjoy the moment of doing that show, on Broadway, together, for the first time. I'll never forget it.
Who was your first Elphaba? Do you remember the first time you saw the show?
I saw Idina [Menzel]. I had just gotten to the city after high school, I saw Idina do it and I thought it was amazing.
Was Elphaba a dream role for you? Did you watch Idina thinking, "Someday I’ll play this"?
No, never. I never even thought about it. I wasn’t sure it was exactly a role I could play. I didn’t see myself as an Elphaba. When they asked me to do it, I was like, “Oh, OK. I would love to take a crack at it.” At Wicked, they are really great about letting you make your own choices with the roles.
How would you describe your Elphaba?
She’s a tough cookie, but she’s super vulnerable. She wants so much to happen right, and somehow everything just happens wrong. I find her so moving. I love how hard she fights and how strong she is, and yet how much she wants someone to take care of her for a second. I respect her so much. I love this character.
Did you do anything special to prepare for this role?
I definitely started going to the gym—getting on my treadmill. I’m coming from Dogfight where I had to put on weight, so this is like, “OK, let’s get it wrapped tight.” I know it’s a marathon. I was singing on the treadmill; they told me Idina had done that to prepare, and it’s a great idea.
What was your first reaction seeing yourself Elphaba-green?
Oh my gosh, I loved it. I think it’s so beautiful and striking. You kind of can’t believe that that’s you. It’s really amazing and gorgeous. I think everyone looks beautiful green!
Do you feel that playing Rose in Dogfight prepared you for Elphaba?
Dogfight was everything wonderful and terrifying about a show, and I feel it 1,000% gave me the knowledge and the confidence that I could do this. I can step up and be present enough to command scenes with amazing actors. I had never gotten that opportunity until Joe [Mantello] gave it to me. I feel like I’ve learned everything about being an actor from Joe Mantello. I had the experience of my life working with him and Derek on [Dogfight]. And doing another one of his shows is a huge honor.
Were you disappointed that Dogfight didn't transfer to a small Broadway house?
Definitely, there was hope for that. Dogfight is my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on. It’s such a special piece, and I’m so close to the character of Rose. I loved doing it every night. I never say never [regarding a Broadway transfer]. I’m not going to give up on it yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
You seem really grounded and strong. Has that helped you in your career?
I love this business so much, and I’m really overwhelmed that people have accepted me. When I first moved here, I was told that I really wouldn’t work for a long time because of the way I look or what I have to bring. And New York has completely dissolved that notion. I’m always humbled and really proud. I can’t believe I’m actually here and doing it! I never want to take it for granted. I’m so lucky and I know it.
Elphaba was not a dream role. So, which roles are?
Rose in Dogfight on Broadway! [Laughs.] I also really want to play Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress. And I want to try my hand at a play. I feel like I’ve been pushed this year so much as an actress, I’d like to see what it would be like to 100% rely on what I bring as the actor and not use my voice.
Don’t miss Lindsay Mendez as Elphaba in Wicked at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre.