“It is incredible!” Abel states emphatically, referring to the length of her tenure. “I was on the original Les Misérables, and I did 13 years on that show. I was fortunate enough to also be the production supervisor, so I handled all of the North American companies of Les Misérables. I've been here 15 years.” Abel laughs, looking around the backstage office that serves as the center of the show’s managerial nervous system. When she started at Wicked in 2008, she had intended to stay for one year. “And then I got here, and I just fell in love with it.”
Abel had an unusual journey to theatre management: while preparing to enter law school, her parents schemed to get her out of the legal profession and into the theatre. “My mother said to me one day, ‘Hey, there's an apprenticeship that they're offering in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, why don't you apply to that?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, OK’, and I kind of forgot about it. The day it was due, my mother made me write it, and my grandmother took it and dropped it off, and I ended up getting the directing apprenticeship.” In spite of herself, Abel had risen to the top of a crowded application field. The friendships she made during that apprenticeship would become life changing.
“PCLO is where I met Susan H. Schulman, the music director Tom Helm, and Ruth Roberts, who was a lighting designer. The three of them said to me, ‘You should come to New York and be a stage manager.' I didn't even know what it was. They found me an apartment, and the three of them pooled their money together, and paid me per week what that apartment cost.” Abel smiles, her posture relaxed at the happy memory of their generosity. “I did everything that they needed. The next thing I know, Tom was the musical director of Cats, the first national [tour], and he insisted on me coming in to do the tour. And that was it.”
As production stage manager, Abel is one of four people on the stage management team who keeps Wicked flying high two decades after it burst onto the Broadway scene. While traditional stage managers are tasked with communicating between the technical departments and the onstage performers, Abel’s job as the production stage manager is even further reaching; she is the prime point of contact between the current performers and the original creative team, decades after the show's inception.
One of the tricky aspects of long-running productions is the reality that the original creative team will, in almost every case, move on to new projects after a few years. While Tony winners Joe Mantello and Wayne Cilento directed and choreographed the original Broadway production, both have led a bevy of productions in the intervening 20 years. This season sees Mantello back in the director’s chair Off-Broadway for the final Sondheim musical, Here We Are, and last season saw Cilento leading the revival of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ for Broadway. When new cast members come into the show, it is up to Abel, alongside Mantello and Cilento’s associates Lisa Leguillou and Corinne McFadden Herrera, respectively, to maintain the integrity of the production.
“One of my favorite things to do is put people into the show,” Abel says. “I really try to convey to them as much information as possible, because the more knowledge they have, of course, then the better characters they become.” In many ways, Abel is something of a shadow director, passing on the years of experience she has to every new cast member. “It's a lot. It really is. When somebody starts in this show, having never done it before, I’m really trying to instill all the dramaturgy, all the style, the language itself; I want to make sure that I impart it all to them, and that they've got everything they need.”
Responsibility also falls to Abel when emergency changes have to be agreed upon. Wicked has a handful of alternative blocking options baked in, such as ‘No Fly’ shows when cherry picker malfunctions lead to Elphaba finishing "Defying Gravity" on the stage floor, but every so often something goes awry that requires new blocking to be developed immediately. Abel always remains quick on her feet when called upon to unexpectedly direct other alternate stagings.
“One day, the center track that carries a lot of our scenery was not functioning. I think I had been here maybe six months, and I called the whole company down on deck, and redid the first act.” With less than an hour before the curtain was set to rise, Abel took her company through their paces, restaging wide stretches of the show that would normally require significant interaction with central props and scenery, including Elphaba’s birth, the “Dancing Through Life” sequence, the arrival to the Emerald City, and more. “I went through everything in Act One, and I told that cast to come back at intermission, and we’d discuss Act Two. Of course, two minutes after 8pm they got the track back.”
While Abel is in the building for every performance of Wicked, she doesn’t watch every single performance. As the other three stage managers carry out a carefully constructed three-prong management technique during the show (which includes calling the various sound and lighting cues for the show), she is often several floors above the stage, in the rehearsal studio that sits atop the Gershwin Theatre. “I would say 80 percent of the time, I'm in rehearsal during a show,” Abel says with a smile. “It’s a bit of a catch-22, because I love being on deck, and I love to call a show—that's what stage managers love. But there came a point where I really had to focus on getting people prepared.”
In a long-running Broadway show, rehearsals aren’t only held when a brand-new cast member arrives. Brush-up rehearsals, understudy runs, put-in rehearsals, and more are all in rotation to keep the show feeling as fresh and lively as it did when it first opened. In addition to rehearsals, Abel runs fight call before every performance, and helps to deliver any applicable notes after every performance.
And she does see the show several times a month, both in support of the company and to make sure Wicked is being maintained properly from an audience member’s perspective. “Anytime anyone new goes in, I watch it that night. So for instance, this week, I've watched it three times because we had a Glinda standby go on, and then an Elphaba standby go on, and we also were fortunate enough to get both of our understudies for the Wizard on.” When Abel is watching the show, the rehearsals don’t stop: those nights are when the dance captains take over, polishing up the show’s different dance numbers for the understudies, swings, and alternate performers.
Despite the busy maintenance schedule, Abel has held an earnest optimism about her work, and the impact the last 15 years have had on the theatre community at large. “There are certain things that keep you alive during a long run. Knowing the reaction people have to this show…we have several cast members who saw this when they were kids, and they're now in our cast,” Abel smiles. “They're paying it forward to this new generation. And that just keeps happening with Wicked. It is incredible, and it's beautiful.”