Along her journey of becoming a hit Broadway star, one of the valuable lessons that Cynthia Erivo said she learned was accepting “no” as an answer.
“Sometimes noes are the best way to protect you from the thing that you’re not supposed to be doing because it creates the space for the yes that you’re supposed to have in the first place,” Erivo said on a Sunday afternoon during a storyteller conversation at the Tribeca Festival. “When the no comes, even though it stings in the beginning, sometimes you’ll know deep down it’s OK.”
For Erivo, that yes was accepting the role of the green-skinned Elphaba in Jon M. Chu’s upcoming two-part film adaptation of Wicked. Erivo will star alongside Ariana Grande, who will be playing Glinda the Good Witch. While the project isn’t set to start production until later this summer, Erivo revealed that she has been video chatting with her co-star to prepare for the highly-anticipated film.
“I saw her a couple of months ago; we’ve been FaceTiming and talking,” Erivo told Variety on the red carpet. “I get to speak to her a lot now. We’re gonna be in each other’s lives for a bit.”
Set before the events of The Wizard of Oz, Wicked tells the story of how Elphaba goes on to become the Wicked Witch of the West—the titular antagonist of the 1939 film.
“The most exciting thing about bringing [Elphaba] to the screen is getting to ground her out and seeing the reasons why she is the way she is,” Erivo said. “Finding the beginning stories where we know her and just trying something different and new. I’ve never played anything like that before.”
Accompanying Erivo during her Tribeca panel was Hadestown star Andre De Shields. The two Tony Award-winning actors discussed Broadway’s comeback and previewed a series of exclusive clips from Time Studios’ upcoming documentary Back to Broadway. Directed by Jamila Ephron, the film will explore “how issues of race, identity, and labor play out in the lives of the people responsible for making New York City the beacon for dreamers, artists and tourists around the world.”
One commonality shared between Erivo and De Shields revealed during their conversation was that neither of them dreamed of being on Broadway. Erivo, who grew up in the United Kingdom, said a lot of that had to do with the environment she was raised in.
“The reason I didn’t dream of it is because I didn’t know it was possible,” Erivo said. “The United Kingdom is a place where a lot of people are made to feel like they are not good enough and should not even consider being better than they are at any point. So people settle often.” She continued, “I was the shit starter that did not settle, ever.”
Erivo went on to reveal that she was initially attracted to acting because of the way it changed other people’s emotions.
“I knew when I was 5 that something I was doing was able to make people smile,” Erivo said. “I wanted to keep getting happiness from people. I knew that something I could give could change the state of a person, and I wanted to do that for as long as I could.”
De Shields, on the other hand, expressed that he wanted to become an entertainer to evoke social change.
“If you do the etymological research on the word entertainment, you will find out that it means to hold one’s attention until they are ready to hear what you have to say,” De Shields said. “If any of you are familiar with the W.E.B. Du Bois, he said the problem of the 20th century would be the crisis of the color line. Here we are in the 21st century and we have yet to resolve the crisis of the color line. That’s why I’m on Broadway: to resolve the crisis of the color line.”
One of the major shifts that the theater industry has seen in recent years is the element of streaming, which allows people from around the world to watch Broadway shows at home. De Shields pushed back against the idea that streaming has truly changed the industry.
“Only the plays that make money are going to be live-streamed. The capitalist bastard hasn’t changed,” De Shields told Variety. “There are a lot of plays that should be seen by people who choose, for whatever the reasons, not to leave their home.”
De Shields said he believes the experience of watching a live performance is unmatched.
“If you’re watching a film or television, it’s always going to be removed. Why? Because it never changes,” De Shields said. “Live theater changes all the time, which reflects what the universe is: constant change.”
Erivo echoed De Shields’ sentiment and said substantial change can happen once leaders begin to value the impact of Broadway over profit.
“I say this as someone who’s looked at the faces of most of the decision makers—we need other decision makers,” Erivo said. “Those decision makers aren’t making decisions from here [points to heart], they’re making it from here [makes money making gesture].”
Currently, Broadway tickets are even more expensive than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. The average price of a Broadway ticket has risen to $189 in 2022, according to SeatGeek data.
“It pains me to know that you have to pay over $100 for a ticket, there are kids who can’t see shows,” Erivo said. “When the show gets good, instead of going, ‘let’s get everyone in to see the show,’ they go, ‘let’s rack up the prices.’ That isn’t transformation. That isn’t making the door wide open for a little girl who looks like me and doesn’t even know that this can be something she wants to do. That’s where we have to change it.”
“I think it can happen,” she concluded. “We just have to be brave enough.”