Alyssa Fox as Elphaba in "Wicked."

Alyssa Fox Defies Gravity, and History, as Broadway’s First Asian Elphaba

The Japanese American 'Wicked' lead is changing the landscape of Asian representation in Broadway

Alyssa Fox as Elphaba in "Wicked."

Joan Marcus

Thirteen years ago, Alyssa Fox—a Japanese American actress hailing from Dallas, Texas—began her journey to Oz playing the understudy in the San Francisco production of Wicked, a musical retelling of the classic Wizard of Oz movie through the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba. Wicked is one of the longest running musicals on Broadway, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a movie adaptation hitting theaters in 2024, helmed by Asian American director Jon M. Chu. Much like the Wizard of Oz’s protagonist Dorothy, who journeyed on the yellow brick road in hopes to get to a magical space unbeknownst to a girl like her, Fox hoped to reach a magical destination of her own: the Broadway stage. In March, Fox’s long trek down the golden path led to a history-making destination—she became the first ever Asian American woman to play the leading role of Elphaba on Broadway.

I spoke with Fox over Zoom to discuss her journey to the Broadway stage, the barriers she experienced getting there as an Asian American woman, how much Elphaba speaks to the Asian American experience, and Broadway’s history and future of Asian representation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Andre Lawes Menchavez: What was it like for you to endure that 13-year-long journey as a woman of color in the industry? What were the inspirations that you had that kept you going? As another creative of color, I could only imagine the burnout and imposter syndrome you must’ve gone through.
Alyssa Fox: It was a lot of hard work. There were numerous times where I was like, “Okay, maybe I should just give this up. Maybe this should be the last try.” But then I kept going because there was something in me, even that first time that I auditioned for Wicked, that I was like, if I keep going, I will get this. I was kinda seeing that as my North Star that I follow, it always kept me going. After 13 years, I kept getting passed over so many times. That can be very discouraging, you know, and being an Asian American woman in theater is not a super common thing…It’s a journey of waiting and hoping and working. But I have a pretty strong work ethic and I had no problem hitting the pavement and really seeing the end goal.

ALM: It’s tough for minority communities to break through the boundaries in the industry, so I applaud you greatly for being so committed to your craft despite it all. But speaking of your background, one of your parents is Japanese—
AF: Yes, my dad! My parents moved here in 1971 and lived in Hawaii for 10 years, and then moved to Texas. And that's when my parents met and got married and had me and my brother.

ALM: Wait, I always love asking this question with creatives of color, but when you told your dad you wanted to pursue theater full-time, what was that conversation like?
AF: [Laughs] Well, I always sang since I was really little! He knew that that was a passion of mine and he knew that was a gift that I had from a very young age. So, it was actually encouraged, but more as a hobby while he was still being like, “I want you to still do really good in school.” Being an immigrant, you really have to pound the pavement. I think there's that fear in my dad that was like, “You need something more stable than that.” Which I totally understand now after having an unstable life and having to really strive towards success. I feel like he supported me, but there was always the, “But you should always have a backup.”

I don't think that it really set in for him until he saw me on stage. We went to lunch one day when I was in Frozen (as the Elsa standby in early 2020). We sat down and he was just like, “I'm really proud of you.” And I'm sure you know, as a child of Asian people, that is a huge thing to hear. And that was very life changing to me because I know where our relationship started and now where our relationship landed. He flew up for my lead Elphaba debut and was there for me that whole day. It was such a wonderful experience that I got to have with both of my parents supporting me wholeheartedly, finally.

Alyssa Fox.

Courtesy of Alyssa Fox

ALM: I’m so glad you had those precious moments! Are there any aspects of your Japanese heritage that have inspired or motivated you in your craft, not only during your 13-year journey grinding to this point but also currently with you taking the stage eight times a week on Broadway?
AF: Well first, it’s really interesting being a mixed Japanese woman and having that imposter syndrome when it comes to my identity. Like, my Japanese grandmother was the most important person in my life and she passed away in 2009. I carry so much of her with me. I think, being a mixed-race person, I never felt like I belonged in the Asian American community. And now that I have had some success, I feel like I am being recognized for how I identify for the first time. [Secondly], I think a lot of my grandmother, who always believed in me. The whole reason that she moved as a single mother with her four sons to the United States was so that we could have more opportunities, even creatively. A couple of my uncles are bass players and one of my uncles was in a very famous rock band in the ‘70s in Japan. So we had a musical aspect to our family that my grandmother knew we would have more opportunities for here in the United States. So I feel like I'm carrying on that intention of why she moved our family here.

ALM: That is beautiful! But, going off on what you were talking about regarding being mixed race, I wanted to ask you a bit more about your character Elphaba in Wicked and your resonance with the character as Elphaba too is a child of both worlds. I recently realized that Elphaba resonates a lot with the Asian American experience—
AF: I totally agree! I feel like being the first full-time Asian American Elphaba on Broadway, hopefully I'm bringing some of that into the character…Feeling belonging, you know, it's a big deal, especially for children of immigrants. And I think the character of Elphaba, very much goes through that journey of wanting to belong, wanting love, wanting to feel like I deserve this thing and yet has to work harder than everyone else to get to that place.

ALM: Completely! I think of “Defying Gravity,” the moment where Elphaba really harnesses her own identity despite being different from everyone else around her, acknowledging her difference as her strength, which is so relatable to the Asian experience of having to be your own supporter in spaces where people don’t look like us. But what else, for you, were your connections to Elphaba, and did you always feel drawn to her?
AF: Yeah, I always felt very close to Elphaba. There was bullying that happened to me in my elementary school experience, which I think a lot of kids experience, but that was a big thing that I brought into my character. And, especially being a woman and coming from a very, like, intense religious background growing up Southern Baptist in Texas and having this sort of identity experience with the world, I feel like it really does reflect the journey that Elphaba has also gone through. Where she begins the show is not where she ends the show. Elphaba has this acceptance of herself and her power and can then own it and use it. That gives me as the actor permission to do the same in my life and in my work.

ALM: In terms of resonance, I also felt so connected with you after seeing you be so open about your mental health on social media. What an important topic given how typically within Asian cultures it’s not talked about at all. I was wondering how important you think it is for you to bring up these topics on your platform, especially as the leading Asian figure in modern Broadway history and an inspiration to so many young Asian theater hopefuls across the world?
AF: I think there are a lot of people and kids who feel so alone in their experience of depression and anxiety. There was a time in my life that I was struggling so much with my mental health that I did not think that I would be a functional adult, I did not think that I would have a career, I definitely did not think that I would be where I am today. But thankfully, you know, my mom encouraged me to go to therapy. I still go to therapy, I take medication, and have gotten help from doctors. And when I was younger, and having such a struggle, it didn't seem like there was a way out of that. It didn't seem like there were any other options, but to be in this dark hole. But there is help out there.

Culturally, it can be very difficult to express your emotions. I would try to suppress them for so long and I found that that would make me more anxious. What my therapist always says is: “You have to walk through the burning building to get to the other side.” And that's very difficult to do when you really feel like you're completely burning up inside the house, right? But just to keep going and to get that help from other places that are there for you is such an important thing. I would never be where I am today without the help that I've received. And I think that's just such an important thing to share with people that you're not alone. This is something that I've experienced very deeply and I never thought that I would get out of it. I play Elphaba on Broadway and I still take a step back and am like, “Wow, at one time in my life, I never thought I’d do what I’m doing right now.”

ALM: An incredibly important conversation that I’m so glad to hear you’re unafraid to speak up about, but another conversation to be had is on the history of Asian representation in Broadway. We recently have Here Lies Love and the now canceled KPOP musical formerly on Broadway, but before that, we had this dark history, like the yellowface in Miss Saigon, for example––
AF: Jonathan Pryce being in yellowface and getting acclaim for that? Yeah. There’s a big history of that.

ALM: Yes! What are your thoughts on Broadway’s representation of Asians so far?
AF: I think it's really interesting that the Asian stereotypical characters have been put into these boxes of like, the sidekick friend or the funny friend or the smart friend, or like, you're always the supporting character…So I think it's so important that there are much more expansive roles to tell more expansive stories, like my mixed Japanese story is not the same as somebody who grew up in Japan, you know? There is just so much of a rainbow of an experience. And I feel like we have been put into this box where we have to be this one thing and that is not the reality of our humanity.

There is just so much of a rainbow of an experience. And I feel like we have been put into this box where we have to be this one thing and that is not the reality of our humanity.

ALM: Nuance is so needed. But although the future is uncertain for our representation, what we do have in the present is history being made through you. How does it feel to represent the community and shifting Broadway’s history, especially in a kind of “rainbow role” that you mention, where you’re in a role that’s not secondary or an Asian person doing stereotypical “Asian things”?
AF: It feels really incredible. There's only one point in the show, plus the bows, where I can actually see the audience and look out into the audience and see who's out there. And when I see Asian audience members, it gives me such joy because I hope that I can share our story and that touches them as well. And it was so wonderful. When I started I would get messages like, “We're so excited to come see you, the first Asian American Elphaba on Broadway!” I was just like, wow, these people respect me, and I am a reflection of them. So it's very special. Every time I see an Asian face in the audience, it just gives me a little heart flutter.

ALM: Do you have any advice for those Asian supporters of yours in the crowd?
AF: Realize your point of view and your perspective. Your upbringing and culture belongs in the entertainment industry. I think it is so necessary for all of us to tell our personal stories and bring that into the work that we do in art.

ALM: Beautifully said, I really need to hear that advice, too. It's been a tough year for a lot of us creatives of color out there—
AF: Well, baby, it's our year! You got this.

ALM: Yes we do! Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the future: What’s the dream look like for you now that you’ve achieved this momentous North Star you’ve been following your whole life?
AF: I would love to continue doing Broadway. I love it. I think live theater is something I'm very passionate about. But as of now, I have not been a part of an Asian-led production and I would love to be in something like that. I would love to bring more of my identity into something that is a story about our culture and our experiences. That is a goal of mine that I would love to do. And I'm not really sure what that will look like in reality in the future. But I'm really excited to see how all of this blossoms for us in the industry.

Published on October 18, 2023

Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez

Andre Lawes Menchavez (he/him) is a Filipinx, Indigenous and queer community organizer who uses journalism as a tool of activism, constantly seeking to lift up marginalized communities through his work. He received his bachelor of arts degree in law, societies and justice at the University of Washington and his master of arts in specialized journalism—with a focus in race and social justice reporting—from the University of Southern California. Find him on Instagram at @itsjustdrey.