Few stars are as versatile as musical theatre’s golden girl Willemijn Verkaik. The Dutch luminary has starred in the German and Dutch version of Disney’s blockbuster Frozen, and played lead roles in the musicals Tarzan, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Mamma Mia, Elisabeth, We Will Rock You and Aida.
But the character she is most synonymous with is that of Elphaba; for more than a decade Verkaik played the green-hued witch in various productions around the world (including shows on Broadway and the West End) before finally stepping down from the role last year. She’s currently playing Molly in Ghost the Musical in Berlin. She spoke to LINE HILTON.
iSing: Why did you start singing?
Willemijn Verkaik: I started at school when I was about eight years old. I just noticed that singing gave me a sense of freedom. I also noticed that people were listening to me, and it felt good. It was a dual thing; it made me happy, but it made other people happy too.
iSing: Who were your vocal idols?
WV: Whitney Houston was one of my favourite singers; she had such a fantastic tone and soul in her voice. Celine Dion is technically one of the best singers I know. I also love Barbra Streisand.
iSing: What drew you to musical theatre?
WV: When I was young I watched the movies of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I thought that it [musical theatre] was really fun, but not for me. I wanted to be Whitney Houston. Then, by chance, I auditioned for a musical in Holland, and I fell in love with musical theatre. I noticed that there was so much going on in this field; so much to develop and achieve, and so many options and styles.
iSing: What lessons have you learned from musical theatre that you can take back into the contemporary world?
WV: Playing eight shows a week is a very good base. You learn how to maintain your voice and how to handle different circumstances. Getting to know my voice for musical theatre has helped me create a base for vocal style. For instance, if I want to do a husky voice, use distortion or a growl, I can consciously take it out when I think it might hurt me. That was something I needed to learn.
iSing: You’ve performed Elphaba in German, Dutch and English. What challenges did you face?
WV: I’m Dutch, but I found the Dutch language the most difficult one of the three. Dutch is spoken in the back of the throat so you have lots of guttural sounds. Singing Defying Gravity in Dutch (Ik Lach Om Zwaartekracht) involves singing in the back of the throat. It was a big challenge for me to make that guttural sound. The German and English are very similar. The vowels in German are quite forward, which makes for a sound that is a little bit different from the English/American sound, but it is healthy and much easier technically. The English/American of course is very twangy, so you can push that everywhere, and that makes it easier to maintain.
iSing: Generally, musical theatre is quite ageist when it comes to lead roles. How have you managed to continue into your forties?
WV: I know how to keep myself strong and energised. I just love it, and I’m just grateful that I’m still able to do it.
iSing: How do you keep vocally fit?
WV: By taking lots of rest. The minute I don’t have to do a show I make myself sleep. Sometimes on a Sunday I take a vocal rest for the whole day; I don’t speak or sing, so all the phlegm and the muscle tension can dissolve. I’ve learned throughout the years what my voice can and can’t do, and what it feels like when my voice is a little bit tired. I then know I need to place this vowel a little bit differently, or put a bit more twang into there, so that I stay safe.
iSing: How do you adapt your voice for contemporary music theatre shows such as We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia!?
WV: For me, that’s a very natural way of singing. I’ve played all the female lead parts in We Will Rock You. They all have a rock sound, but they’re all a little bit different. Killer Queen sounds more adult than Scaramouche. I used lots of distortion on the voice, which was really cool. Scaramouche needed to sound a little bit younger, which I did by just putting my larynx up a little bit; for Killer Queen it is a little bit lower. When I got the job of Elphaba, I told myself, “okay, you need to take the distortion out”. Even though distortion is great, and really cool if you want to do it eight times a week, it might be dangerous. Taking it out was a bit of a challenge but I made it work.
iSing: A few years ago you stopped performing to have a back operation. How did this affect your singing and career?
WV: That was tough, because all your energy goes to that problem. Mentally and physically you’re exhausted. It’s very hard to be in a big role in a big musical and not be able to be there for your audience. I felt like I let the audience down. But it didn’t really affect my career, luckily; it actually made me stronger, better and more energetic than before.
iSing: What advice do you have for a singer who wants a career in musical theatre?
WV: Believe in yourself and work hard. Listen to everyone around you – not just to people who you think sing well – and figure out what are they doing, and why are they doing it. Copying is fine. I’m copying Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand all the time because I know that they have good technique. Get to know yourself: know what you can and cannot do, and what your strengths are. Don’t be afraid to learn.
iSing Sessions: Willemijn Verkaik covers ‘All By Myself’, a major hit for Celine Dion