You can never relive your past, but sometimes you can return to it.
William Youmans, Wicked's original Dr. Dillamond on Broadway, has returned to the Gershwin Theatre stage for the first time since leaving the production more than a decade ago. The experience has been a supremely emotional one for Youmans, especially in light of the productions busy preparations for its 20th anniversary.
"It is beyond belief," Youmans states, his voice warm with emotion. "This is really the greatest thing that I have ever experienced, to come back to Wicked. When I took my final bow in 2005, I came out with a sign that said, 'I'll be back.' Because Wicked was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. My career was completely revolutionized...To finally come back after 18 years, it's magical. There's really no other word for it. I broke down in tears."
The latest member of an artistic dynasty (William is the nephew of Vincent Youmans, a Broadway composer known for his work with Oscar Hammerstein II and Ira Gershwin, in addition to his enduring classic No, No Nannette), he made his Broadway debut as a replacement actor in The Little Foxes opposite Elizabeth Taylor in 1981. He quickly found a home in musical drama. Though he had meaty supporting roles in Big River and Titanic, Youmans explains that prior to Wicked, "I had never played a principal role in the original cast of a Broadway show."
In the years between Wicked engagements, Youmans has appeared on Broadway in The Pirate Queen, Billy Elliot, Bright Star, Hands on a Hardbody, Carousel, and more. Last season, he acted alongside Jim Parsons in A Man of No Importance Off-Broadway. Returning to his dressing table at the Gershwin only felt right in the lead-up to Wicked's 20th anniversary celebration.
"Jerry Orbach famously said, 'Never leave a hit.' And he's right! Never leave a hit." Youmans laughs. "But in my case, they were great enough to take me back when I was ready. I get a chance to redo this part of my life. There's just nothing like Wicked, and while I don't regret anything I did in between, I'm thrilled to be back."
Youmans plays Dr. Dillamond, the talking goat professor that befriends Elphaba, warning her that "something bad is happening in Oz," which kicks off the core plotlines of Wicked. While the character may seem auxiliary, even a cursory glance at the script will reveal that Dr. Dillamond is the lynchpin that holds the show together; without him, Galinda would have remained blissfully ignorant, Fiyero would have never uncovered his empathy, Elphaba would have remained an outsider, and the Wizard would have continued his cultural domination unopposed.
"Wicked is a deceptive show," Youmans explains. "There's all kinds of levels going on at once, in almost in every scene. Dr. Dillamond is the intelligentsia, he's the professor, and he has a wider scope intellectually than we find in the populace of the first scene, for instance. Part of Glinda's journey is learning to find that the depth of thinking that he's trying to impart to them, this way of questioning authority."
In many ways, Dr. Dillamond is the mouthpiece of L. Frank Baum's original political intent within The Wizard of Oz. "He's questioning the messages of an authoritarian government. He's the inspiration for Elphaba, he's the person who's calling them on what they're doing. But he's also an animal, so he represents the minority, and the class of people who are being scapegoated in order to bring society together. Like the Wizard says, there's no better way to bring people together than to give them a good enemy." Youmans shudders before continuing on. "The main story is about the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda, of course. But what the animals are going through activates their main break. Glinda goes one way, and Elphaba goes another, and it's all over what the Wizard is doing to the literal scapegoat."
Carrying the trauma of Dr. Dillamond's eventual imprisonment and execution is no easy thing for Youmans to shoulder. "It's hard to play a character that is completely destroyed. It is devastating to do onstage, and it can stay with you. I was in Titanic for two years, and I have dreamed for years afterwards that I was on the actual Titanic, and it was sinking, and I couldn't get off. It does get under your skin." To maintain his mental health, he has developed a preparatory ritual that he does before every performance, grounding him in the space and establishing the distance between the show and his life offstage.
"I enter the theatre really early: for me to get ready to perform is a Herculean task, and I have to do a lot of exercise to get out of my head. I walk across the stage and just look at it, when nobody's there. Then I go up into the rehearsal room an hour before half hour, and I do some yoga up there while watching the closed circuit TV as the stage hands set up the stage and do the light check and all of the automation checks." By watching the practical pieces come into place, Youmans is able to ground himself in the theatrical tricks of the show, keeping track of what is and is not real life. "It really does help me to watch them. They're the show before the show."
And of course he needs time to get into character. Youman's physical transformation in Dr. Dillamond may appear dramatic to the audience, but in reality it is a relatively simple process to transition from human being to goat man. "It's ridiculously easy. The design is really brilliant," Youman's says, laughing, referring to the rubberized mask he wears as Dr. Dillamond. "It just goes over your head, and there it is. There's a little bit of makeup, and there's some hair that attaches, but it's very fast. It takes maybe five minutes to do the entire transition from the mob character that I play in the first scene into Dr. Dillamond."
As the Time Dragon Clock ticks toward Wicked's 20th birthday on October 30, Youmans can't help but be amazed by how the show has grown into a phenomena.
"It's really staggering," he exclaims. "There's a lot of spectacle in Wicked. But to me, Wicked is so powerful because it is the story of two young women who find their power and overthrow an authoritarian regime. That's amazing. And they do it! They actually do it, and they find their power. It gives people hope that we can set things right. All the stuff that's around it is fabulous, but we fill the Gershwin with that heart."
In fact, Yeomans sees Wicked’s important message manifesting in real life. As he exclaims proudly: ”Greta Thunberg is my Elphaba!”