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Loose Lips

Megan Hilty gets ready to say goodbye to Wicked and hello to Dolly; Michele Federer turns up the Glass; and hunky Jesse Williams dives into The Sandbox. Plus: Where to see Idina, Tommy, and Liza!

Megan Hilty
The most shocking thing to Megan Hilty about playing Glinda in Wicked is not so much that she's spent the past three-and-half-years doing the role in New York, on tour, and now in Los Angeles, but that she was cast as the bubbly good witch at all. "I know a lot of people now think of me as a dumb blonde, but that so wasn't my image before I got cast," she says. "At Carnegie Mellon, where I went to college, I was known as the outspoken girl who would always speak up about not being treated fairly. When people would go see Wicked on Broadway, they'd always come back and tell me I'd be in it someday, and then add 'it's too bad you'll be painted green every day.'"

While Hilty still finds something new to do in the show every day -- and gains freshness from an ever-changing rotation of Elphabas (15 and counting) -- she has decided to leave Wicked on May 11. But no worries, Hilty already has some other gigs coming up. "On May 5, Shoshana Bean and I are doing this cabaret/variety show at the Fonda Theater. I loved working with her in Wicked, so we decided we had to do something to make sure we would work together again," she says.

"Then, this summer, I'm shooting an independent film called 21 and Wake Up about a nurses' ward in Vietnam. I play this girl from Texas -- a lot of people think I'm southern even though I'm from Seattle -- who takes care of the children. She's a little boy crazy, but she is the heart of the film. Most of my work is going to be done in the studio, but I might get a chance to shoot some scenes in Vietnam. It's the first film about the war the government is allowing to be filmed there."

Then, in September, she bows as Doralee in the new Broadway-bound musical 9 to 5 at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A., which pairs her with her Wicked director Joe Mantello. "Actually, I was doing Wicked in Toronto when my boyfriend heard about the show, and he asked me why I wasn't being seen for it," she recalls. "Then the next day, my agent called and said Joe wanted me to do the reading, which was the same time we were rehearsing the L.A. Wicked."

Is she feeling the pressure of doing the part created by Dolly Parton, who is writing the musical's score? "I was a little bit, but Dolly is one of the most kind and down-to-earth people I've ever met -- even if she is a living legend. And yes, my big song now is 'Backwoods Barbie,' which is her new single, but I am really not doing an impression of Dolly. I do it very differently. And she's fine with that; we were working on it one day, and she just started singing harmonies. Like following Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked, it's a little daunting to do a part that's been created by someone else, but I can make it my own."

Mare Winningham, Michele Federer,
and Michael Simpson
in The Glass Menagerie
(© The Old Globe)
Michele Federer got an unusual reaction from her mother when she found out her daughter was playing Laura in the Old Globe Theatre's production of The Glass Menagerie, which begins previews on April 12 . "She was like, "what, you're playing another cripple," laughs Federer, who first came to many people's attention as the wheelchair-bound Nessarose in Wicked. "But I'm really playing Laura with more of a barely noticeable limp. I think her biggest obstacle in life is that she has an extreme social phobia, but she's trying to find out if she can make it in the outside world."

Federer had no familiarity with the work when she was approached to do the part about a year ago, and quickly did research on Williams' sister Rose, on whom the character is based, and even read Williams' short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" to help create her own interpretation. "At first, I kept seeing Laura as merely pathetic, and I had to get past that. I couldn't play the role until I found her strength," she says. "But then I realized she's brave enough to spend hours outside exploring the city while she's supposed to be in school, and I think she's determined to prove to her mother Amanda (played by Mare Winningham) that she's not as odd as she thinks. I am obsessed with the idea that Laura was the kind of kid who always looks to her parents to see if she's okay."

The actress says the play marks her first time working in regional theater in about seven years, and she's loving the experience. "All you're doing is the play -- there's nothing else to draw your focus -- and it's all about being creative and imaginative. And the weather here is great; it's almost a mini-vacation. Of course, I miss my husband, Norbert Leo Butz, but I think this may be harder on him, because he's the one who's left home with the cats and the kids."


Jesse Williams in The Sandbox
(© Jason Crockett)
Jesse Williams isn't embarrassed to admit he wasn't fully aware of who Edward Albee was when he auditioned for him to play the scantily-clad Angel of Death in the revival of The Sandbox that the 80-year-old playwright is now directing (in tandem with The American Dream) at The Cherry Lane. "Actually, I think it helped me, not being so intimidated," says Williams. "He was so funny, cracking jokes with me even from the beginning. And I didn't even fully process that he had offered me the job. But it's all been an amazing experience, getting this immediate response from the audience, and working with this cast. And honestly, I don't even really know what I look like on stage. I said I was going to go to the gym more often, but I end up just doing push-ups in the basement of the theater and trying to keep quiet."

Williams' enthusiasm is understandable, since he has only been acting professionally for a couple of years. While studying filmmaking at Philadelphia's Temple University, he did some commercial and modeling work, with the occasional acting audition -- even turning down a prime soap opera role. "I am a biracial man, and I was supposed to play this tragic mulatto character lusting after a white girl, and I didn't want to leave school to do that kind of part." Instead, after graduation, he took a job as a public school teacher in Philadelphia, and then a high-level law firm job in New York -- "I was supervising 60 attorneys, even though I'm not a lawyer" -- before deciding to focus on acting.

Hollywood, not surprisingly, has already come calling. Williams was scheduled to be part of the hit NBC series Heroes before the WGA strike and has yet to learn if he will be included when shooting resumes. Meanwhile, he'll definitely appear on the big screen this summer in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 as the love interest of Alexis Biedel. "I play this hotshot artist named Leo, and Alexis' character is in my class at RISD -- where I'm also a nude model -- and I become her boyfriend and sort of her big brother. Our characters are very different; she's much more conservative," he says. "Alexis was really wonderful to work with. Not only was she very helpful, but she really talked to me about our roles and our relationship and included me with the process of working with the writers."

Idina Menzel
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Wallace Shawn will read from Five Years of My Life, the memoir of former Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz, at the New York Public Library on April 4; Tony Award winner Idina Menzel will perform in concert at Mamaroneck's Emelin Theatre on April 5; Tommy Tune will be the special guest star at the Museum of the City of New York's Come to the Cabaret gala on April 7; the same night Spamalot star Hannah Waddingham will join dozens of performers and fashion expert Leon Hall at Cabaret Cares at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.

Moving on, Tony winner Cynthia Nixon will join comedy group Creation Nation at The Zipper Factory on April 8. Christine Pedi will sing up at storm as part of Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle's Any Wednesday series on April 9; Liza Minnelli will be named Woman of the Year at the Boys Town of Italy Gala in White Plains on April 12; and Ann Hampton Callaway, Liz McCartney, and Sharon McKnight will be the guest performers at With A Song in Our Heart, a benefit gala for the New York City Gay Men's Chorus at the Warwick Hotel on April 14.

Meanwhile, Sunday night's closing performance of Juno at City Center Encores! -- starring a triumphant Victoria Clark in the title role -- brought out a who's who of the theater world: Kelli O'Hara, James Naughton, Laura Benanti, Steven Pasquale, Patricia Ellliott, Dee Hoty, Sheldon Harnick, Bartlett Sher, Ted Sperling, Daniel Evans, Jenna Russell, Mary Beth Peil, Chandler Williams, Geraldine Hughes, Michael Winther, David Lewis, Milo O'Shea, and John Ellison Conlee.