With monster hit musical Wicked now in its sixteenth year on Broadway, the merry old land of Oz recently welcomed a new citizen, trailblazing trans actress Alexandra Billings as Madame Morrible.
Most widely known for her role as Davina on the groundbreaking Golden Globe, SAG and Emmy award winning series Transparent, Billings grew up immersed in musical theatre, with her father working as a teacher and the musical director of the L.A. Civic Light Opera House. She went on to become a regular fixture of the 1980s Chicago drag scene as Shanté, before landing her first professional play in 1987, Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Since then she’s regularly appeared on stage across the US, including playing Nancy Regan in Larry Kramer’s Just Say No and Rose in Gypsy at Chicago’s Bailiwick Theatre. Her screen credits include the 2005 made for TV prequel Romy and Michelle: In The Beginning, a GLAAD Award winning episode of Grey’s Anatomy, playing opposite Lynn Redgrave in Nurses, the movie Socket and the pilot of Pretty/Handsome with Joseph Fiennes and Blythe Danner, directed by Ryan Murphy.
Alexandra has also forged a successful teaching career including leading classes at the renowned Steppenwolf School in Chicago as well at various theatres and universities.
Although a lifelong devotee of MGM classic movie The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s novels and a fan of Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked, on which the musical is based, Billings had been reluctant to see the show for fear it would disappoint, as its source material meant so much to her. That was until she got the call inviting her to follow the yellow brick road to Broadway. When she finally watched the show she was about to star in, she was so deeply moved by the experience that the stranger sitting next to her asked if she needed an usher.
Now performing in Wicked eight shows a week, Alexandra Billings took some time on her day off to talk exclusively with a close friend of Dorothy, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann. During the in-depth conversation, Alexandra discusses her own history with The Wizard Oz, the future of trans representation on Broadway, ending Transparent with the “healing” Musicale Finale and the impact that Tony Kushner’s Angels in America had on her as an HIV postive trans woman in early 1990s USA.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I love the way that Wicked cleverly ties into The Wizard of Oz, it’s such a thrill as it all pieces together towards the end. What’s your own relationship been to The Wizard of Oz over the years, was is a film or a book you grew up with? And what’s it like to now be living in the merry old land of Oz?
Alexandra Billings: “Ah! You just said ‘the merry old land of Oz’. Oh boy, OK, listen, I hope you’re sitting down! Let me start by saying this, I am 57, I’ll be 58 in three weeks by the way…”
Happy birthday for then!
“Thank you! And the reason I say that is because I come from a generation where when I was a little kid when you watched a movie on television, or you missed it, and that was it, you couldn’t watch it again; you couldn’t tape it, there was no such thing then, it didn’t exist. So when The Wizard of Oz first started to be shown on television it would happen once a year and it was an event. This film was a talisman for me. It was a magical myth that was very, in my twisted brain, true and plausible, this place. You have to remember I was transgender at a time when that word didn’t exist, so being ostracised and “other-ised” was all I really knew, that was the only life I had because everything around me told me in no uncertain terms that I was wrong and deserved to be punished. People like me were getting arrested in our country, for walking down the street, I mean for existing, I don’t mean for doing anything illegal, I mean for literally walking down the street. So here comes this movie that was just all about what does good and what does evil mean and what is chosen family and how do you find your own power; you know you don’t have to search outside of yourself for your own divine sense of self, everybody comes with that. And this movie was shared between myself and my mother every year. And my mother was a very emotionally detached woman, so one of the only times in our lives when we were actually together in an emotionally available way was through this movie. And because we didn’t have the machines to tape the movie, I had the bright idea, this is absolutely true and this is how inventive I was, to record the sound of the movie on four separate little cassettes!”
I did that with some movies as a child too on a tape recorder just so I could listen to them at bedtime.
“You see a lot of our generation did that because we couldn’t do it any other way. This was one of those little itty-bitty teeny cassette things that you used to have back in the 1960s, reel to reel cassette that you would put in the machine, that don’t even exist anymore. And I still have those cassettes let me go on record as saying!”
“I know! So every night after I had that brilliant idea, I would go to sleep playing The Wizard of Oz, so by the time I was teenager I could recite, and I still can by the way, every single line of the movie from beginning to end. So this movie lives in me, these characters live in me, in a way that is bizarre and I think probably unique! And so the L. Frank Baum books then came into my life when I was a teenager, and then Gregory Maguire’s Wicked I think came into my life when I was in my thirties. When Wicked the musical happened years later I didn’t go see it because the movie meant too much to me. These characters meant too much to me, and I thought they’re making a musical out of this and they are going to destroy it, they’re going to ruin it, I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it! And all kinds of wonderful friends of mine who had seen Wicked kept saying, ‘Alex, you have to go see this thing, you really do’ and I was like ‘no, forget it! How dare this Stephen Schwartz person take my myth! Who does he think he is?!’ And so I never saw it.”
“One day, four or five months ago, my manager, who’s also my very dear friend of twenty something years, calls me and says, ‘they want you…’ “they” in big quotes! ‘They want you to do Wicked’ And I was thinking, when he said ‘they’, ‘oh, he means some little teeny tiny theatre wants me to do Wicked’, you know like in Idaho or somewhere, and I said ‘Billy, I can’t, that’s ridiculous!’ Because I’d never seen it I had no idea what the characters were, the only thing I knew was the two witches and Idina Menzel because I’d heard the music of course, so I said ‘I can’t sing those roles, I can’t even think that high, you’re crazy, I can’t do that!’And he said, ‘no, Alex, Broadway wants you to do Wicked!’ And I said ‘Billy, that’s even more ridiculous I can’t do that, you’d have to change the keys’ and he goes, ‘no, there’s an old lady role in it’ and I said ‘I’ll do it!’”
“I even went into rehearsals for this thing and still hadn’t seen the show. Lisa Leguillou, the associate director was saying every time I was in rehearsal ‘Alex, you’ve got to see the see the show’ and I was like ‘I know, but I’m so tired’ and she was like ‘I don’t care, you have got to see the show, you have to see the world.’ So six weeks ago, I’m sitting in the theatre, and now this is after half a century of me living with this movie, me living with this story, it infiltrating my teaching, and I’ve been teaching for forty plus years, it infiltrating my methodology, my morality, over fifty years of living with this. So I’m sitting in the fifth row and I’m experiencing this show and I was weeping so hard and so loud that the woman next to me grabbed my arm at one point and said to me ‘do you need an usher?’ So that was my experience, that’s how huge it is. So every day I go into this thing I am overwhelmed with gratefulness, truly every day.”
Maybe after Wicked, because you know every word to The Wizard of Oz, would you consider doing it as a one woman show, where you perform the entire film?!
“OK, here’s what’s really hilarious. When I was about 15 years-old my father was a musical director and a conductor, so I was brought up in musical theatre since I was about seven years old. And every summer his college, Harbor College in Califronia, would do their summer musical and you know they would have an orchestra and all the college kids would come and they would open it up to the community. It was really fun and they did Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar, The King and I, big, big musicals for lots of people to be involved in. And one year they were doing Once Upon A Mattress and my father was the conductor. The first time he got the orchestra together, and the whole cast was there, I was a teenager at the time, my dad says to me ‘I want you to help build the morale of this ensemble because I’m having problems getting everyone together. I want to do something interesting, something special for everybody.’ So the next day I brought in my four cassettes and I told my dad, if you play these four cassettes I will do the entire movie of The Wizard of Oz and I’ll play every single character. So the orchestra and all fifty ensemble humans, as well as the principals sat in that theatre captive – because my dad was the musical director, what are you going to do, there was no escape – and blared this movie over the speakers while I played all the Munchkins, Dorothy, Glinda, the Wicked Witch… it was insane, and I did the entire movie for the cast! So I actually have done that, I have done a one woman show, it’s just that I was fifteen at the time!”
I hadn’t seen Wicked since 2006 and because it’s been running since October 2003, one thing I was surprised by is that it still feels really fresh, and in my mind like a new show, although in fact it’s now one of the longest running shows on Broadway. What’s it like joining something that’s been running for so many years?
“Well, that’s really funny, because I weirdly just got off the phone with Rondi Reed who was also a Madame Morrible and we were talking about this very thing that you just said, and I found the same thing to be fascinating. Like I said I’d never seen the musical before, so I saw it not only for the vey first time in my life, but also this particular production for the very first time six weeks ago and I’m telling you it looks brand new, just like you said. I think that’s a testament first of all to the actual book of this musical because it is extraordinary, there are tie-ins to the movie, to the book of Wicked and L. Frank Baum’s books. It is masterfully written and that’s not always true in musical theatre. So I think the foundation, meaning if you took all of the music away and just looked at the text, it stands on its own. Then you add the fact that these people in this show are incredible, look, nobody phones this in, nobody! I’m backstage with these people, they go on full force every minute they are on stage, so there’s no such thing as ‘oh, today let’s lay back’, that doesn’t exist. And then I think it’s the dedication and responsibility of not only the actors but the crew as well. This crew is just extraordinary. And then I think the last piece of what we’re talking about is the fact that we still have rehearsals; we get notes, we have a director and an assistant director that care, we have stage managers that care, we have a design team that cares. I got a brand new wig! I mean, I know this must sound ridiculous to some people, but building a wig is a whole thing that is truly extraordinary, and I got a brand new one about a week ago. These are people are so invested in this show and they are still working and I think that’s why it still looks new, because it is.”
I’ve seen long-running shows in the West End and on Broadway that have sadly become very tired.
“Yeah, they can get creaky! It’s happened to me too on Broadway with some shows, I’ve gone along and sat in the audience and thought ‘oh, these actors don’t want to be here!’ Then you think, ‘oh , well in that case I’m gonna go’. And that’s not true with our show, every single human being in Wicked loves this myth, loves it!”
Actually the night I came along it was Kids Night on Broadway and at the curtain Riley Costello who plays Boq spoke afterwards and it was very sweet. He was talking about what the show had meant to him as a child and performing the whole show in his garage. It made me feel old though, with him talking about how he and fellow cast members loved the show when they were kids, and it only opened in 2003, oh jeez!
“I know, honey, I know. Yes, bless his heart. Riley is a dear, and he and I talk a lot about, not only our obsession with Judy Garland, but our obsession with this particular musical and this story. I thought to myself, don’t tell everybody in the cast your weird relationship with this story because people will run from you and they won’t want to be around you, but pretty much everyone in the cast has some kind of spiritual connection to this story, everyone.”
And you mentioned Winne Holzman’s book for the musical, and something I felt seeing it this time around, unfortunately, is that the themes seem more relevant now than ever; there’s propaganda, and I hate the term, but the idea of “fake news” being weaponised, the wizard is not dissimilar to a certain president and then the common enemy that he’s trying to make the animals. I could go on, but essentially it’s a show that really has something to say isn’t it? Which people might not expect if they haven’t seen it.
“Well, it’s funny that you should say that, I think that’s really smart what you’re talking about because people have asked me, they’ve actually said as they’re leaving ‘are you guys changing the dialogue, are you rewriting stuff? This isn’t the same show!’ There are people who have been adamant about it and of course we haven’t changed anything. I think you’re absolutely right, it’s timeless. Again, we go back to this book of the musical which is absolutely extraordinary, the way it’s written surpasses time. Sadly, it has no timeframe.”
Yes, I found it particularly resonant and it took me by surprise actually, even though I’d seen it before. And there are people who have seen Wicked countless times aren’t there, real hardcore fans, have you encountered any of them yet or got a sense of what their reaction has been to you joining it?
“I’ll tell you what’s been extraordinary, there are of course the Wicked-philes who are all over the place and who know the show better than anybody, and that do these incredible fan art pieces, there are those groups of humans and they are fantastic! But I’ll tell you what’s shifting something in me, I’m getting messages from all over the world, from trans kids, and by kids I mean seven, eight, ten years old, from Saudi Arabia, from China, from North Korea, from Australia, from Germany, from Iceland, from Alaska, I mean all over the world. And these messages say things like ‘now you’re in the show I can tell my mom that I can play Elphaba.’ Or the trans boys say, ‘now I know there’s a chance for me to some day play Fiyero.’ I want to say this in a way that isn’t about me because right now it’s about me and it’s not, because the people who created the opportunity are the producers and the director of the show. They are the ones, Joe Mantello and Stephen Schwartz, everyone who works on this show are the ones to thank for opening up this dialogue and for allowing this. I don’t know if I can stress hard enough how truly remarkable this is, to have this kind of opportunity to present itself at a time where we live in danger and fear of our lives and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, the trans community is being hunted and systematically murdered at an alarming rate and ratio right now that’s higher than at any other time in history. And I firmly believe it’s because of the kind of rhetoric that we are getting form our government, and the people that support it. And certainly one role in one play isn’t going to change the world, I’m under no illusion, however I’ve been in hundreds of things in my life, I’ve done television and I’ve done movies, and I have never received the kind of messages that I have been receiving just in the last six weeks doing this show. So there’s some kind of kismet at work, some other force at work. Maybe it’s the combination of the kind of show that this is and the time that we’re living in, I don’t know, more than the Wicked-philes, and God bless them, the Wicked humans who are obsessed with this show and love this show, is the opportunity that it’s creating for both the trans youth and their families.”
That’s wonderful. I heard you mention recently that at one point in your career you decided that there were certain acting roles you didn’t want to take on, victim roles and anything to do with hospitals. Did that see you turning down work for a little while, but in hindsight are you happy that you did that?
“Oh, yes very. And listen, you know I don’t mean to paint myself as some kind of martyr, I’ll go to the opening of a letter, really I have no pride! However there was a point where I had just played so many people that were so sick for such a long time and I kept killing everybody on television; I was either killing somebody or getting killed. I remember turning to my manager and saying ‘listen, this is ridiculous, I don’t want to wear anymore hospital gowns and I don’t want to shoot any more guns’. And I didn’t work for a few years and that was a while ago. Things change quickly, especially for the LGBT community, our history tends to leap in decades, so I would think that now it’s not a conversation that needs to be had nearly as much because we now know that we can create more opportunities. So, I mean am I glad that I did it? Sure. It was partly selfish, but it was also that I didn’t want our LGBT youth to turn on the TV and constantly see us killing each other. I just got tired of it and didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
I remember when Transparent first started and how exciting that was and then the awards recognition came. Then Pose arrived, and you talk about Wicked’s producers creating this opportunity for you, and I think similarly Ryan Murphy has created some brilliant opportunities to broaden trans representation on screen through Pose. I think there has to be a balance between celebrating these shows, but then also not thinking that we’ve reached some kind of end point. I just wondered how you would like to see things move forward in terms of trans representation and the kind of opportunities there are for trans people in entertainment?
“You know, I’ll tell you, I was thinking about this not too long ago, because there seems to be a trend right now that has to do with starring straight men in drag and putting them in the centre of musical theatre. Which is great, and I am certainly not saying that everyone’s story doesn’t needs to be told, everyone’s story deserves to be told, so I am not saying stop doing anything, but I find it very interesting that we are very quick to have straight men put on dresses and shower them with awards and yet trying to get any kind of trans centred project made takes an enormous amount of time, energy and money. So my thing is this: I would like us all to just look, and we don’t have to do anything about it, but let’s just look for a minute. For every example we bring up of a straight man in a dress who is starring in a musical on Broadway, if we could just have it equal and have an actual trans person or non-binary person, starring, not co-starring not supporting, but starring in a musical on Broadway, if we have one and then have the other, that would make me really happy. So my hope is that we continue to have conversations on both sides of the coin.”
You’ve been writing your autobiography; what’s the process of that been like, going back over things and reflecting, it must be quite profound I imagine?
“Oh my God, here’s the thing, I think I have a publisher, so now I have to really do it! I have all these fabulous friends who kept telling me ‘it’s going to be so cathartic!’ and I’m writing through all my trauma and I’m like ‘when does the catharsis frickin happen, when does that occur?!’ So, I love doing it, but it’s dark, it’s difficult, it’s tough to do, it’s not easy. I love to write, but this is a very different thing, writing your life down and my reason for writing this book is that I wanted to document the trans experience through our queer history, because I’ve lived through a lot. I was born in 1962, so I was seven years old when Stonewall happened. I remember the beginning of ACT UP, I was there through the very beginning of the AIDS plague and all the way through it, so there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve witnessed that nobody really talks about. That was really my reason for writing the book, it’s to write what I remember, not what’s correct or not correct, but what I remember form somebody who actually lived it. So that’s what I’m trying to focus on.”
It will be fascinating. I don’t want to pry too much into your personal life but I heard you mention recently that your wife Chrisanne Blankenship helped get Ronald Reagan elected, and I don’t know her politics now, that’s not really the point, but I just think it’s interesting to witness the journeys that people in our lives go on. It’s worth keeping that in mind with all the division happening in the country right now, that people’s views can change.
“It’s funny isn’t it and you know I joke all the time with Chrisannne about her Republican roots. Her story has always been much more interesting in my mind than mine has been because the people who love us are very rarely looked at, they take a back seat. I’m not only talking about spouses, I mean family members too, brothers, sisters, cousins, best friends, the people who love LGBT people, and especially trans people, the people who love us, especially now take their lives into their hands. I think it’s fascinating and I loved that you said about people’s journeys because I think that’s right. Everybody’s journey takes these twists and turns and in my opinion we make a choice and we either say to ourselves ‘OK, I’m gonna go this way, I’m just gonna take a left here and see what happens’ or we get the instinct to take a left here and we don’t and we miss out. And my wife has been one of those people because she’s basically curious and highly intelligent. She said ‘you know this goes against everything I was taught, this goes against everything people are telling me, but I think I need to take a left here.”
Transparent wrapped up last year with the Musicale Finale, I wondered what you felt about how the show finished and if you had much input?
“Oh, yes very much. Jill Soloway is such a great ensemble member and she really believes in the team. I was one of the producers, there were two or three trans producers. We all had a lot of input into what the story was and how the trans representation needed to be handled. And we had just come off you know Trace Lysette and Van Barnes’ heroic behaviour and Jeffrey Tambor’s abhorrent behaviour, and so all of us had a healing that we needed to do and really that’s what that movie is for us, it was a coming together, it was familial and I tell ya, we had a ball, we laughed all the time. And you know we filmed that thing in like 25 minutes! We had very little time to film it. Jill is so masterful and such a great storyteller that it made the healing and the coming back together really special and really beautiful, so it wrapped up really nicely I have to say. And throughout the series I was heard in a really big way by all of the writers, you know one of them, Our Lady J now writes for Pose and she was instrumental in getting those trans stories told throughout the five seasons of Transparent. In spite of what we dealt with occasionally, it really was a transformative experience, transformational in its core.”
I always ask everyone if they have a favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, book, artwork or piece of music…? Something that’s particularly resonated with you over the years, or it can be something current and tell us why you’ve picked it.
“Well, I would have to say Angels in America the play changed my trajectory and when it came out it spoke to a generation that had been really shoved in the closet. If you had AIDS you lived in a shame and a secrecy that was miles deep and what Angels did was, it brought us back to life and Tony Kushner was able to capture both the good and the evil, much like how Wicked does, the good and the evil in all of us. You know Prior is not pure and neither is Lewis. I think the movie is brilliant as well and that’s not always true when you film a play like that. The Mike Nichols version is absolutely extraordinary. But the play brought back to life a lost generation and thank God it will never be forgotten. In fact I have words from the play tattooed on my arm.”
What is the tattoo?
“The tattoo is part of Prior’s speech to Joe’s mother when they are in the hospital and she finally becomes his saviour if you will, his angel. He’s very, very ill and she says that she’s had enough and that she can’t deal with the hospital and the gay and she can’t sit there anymore and be with him. Then part of what he says to her is ‘you can’t leave, you are my skeleton, you are the skin that covers my bones, you can’t go, you’re not just my friend, you are a part of who I am.”
Have you got to see The Inheritance while it’s been on Broadway?
“You know my wife saw it and she saw the first part and then immediately called me and said that she was staying for part two because it was so brilliant that she literally couldn’t leave the theatre. When I saw her that night she was so shaken up, she was vibrating on such a high level, she said to me ‘you can’t go see this play it’s too true, it’s too actual, I think it’ll just ignite trauma in you, it’s that good.’ So she saw it and represented us both, that’s the way I look at it.”
Yes, that’s a good way to look at it. I’ve never wept in the theatre before to that degree, audibly wept.
“Yeah, it’s that good isn’t it from what she said and that’s what I’ve heard.”
And just being around so many other people who were also weeping was pretty incredible.
“Well, that was the other thing she said, ‘all of us, every single person in this theatre, all of us were having a similar experience.’ And you know that’s’ the heart of storytelling. You know I lived through it, I’m fine over here, I’m great.”
And speaking of the audience, the reaction on the night I came to see Wicked was incredible, and I’m sure it happens at every performance, but everyone was up on their feet and there was so much love from the audience to all of you guys on stage.
“It’s incredible! I’ve never heard a sound like that, it sounds like we’re at a football game for the love of Christ! I mean I’ve never heard that kind of sound before, every night they scream and it’s fantastic, I’ll never forget it as long as I live, not ever.”
This has been wonderful, I really appreciate you taking the time to do it because I know you’re very busy with the show. So thank you very much.
“I loved it! It was delightful my friend.”