On the day after Christmas, Carla Stickler was driving to Michigan for a vacation from her job as a software engineer in Chicago when she heard from the Broadway production of Wicked. “We were in the middle of nowhere,” she said, “and I get a text that’s like, ‘Hey, what are you doing this week?’” The next day, a Monday, she got on a plane to New York, watched a performance of the show at the Gershwin Theatre, then settled into a hotel room in midtown for regular COVID tests, waiting to see if she’d be called to cover a role in the production. That Saturday, she got the call, went to the theater, got into the green makeup, and went on as Elphaba for the first time since 2015.
Back before she committed to a life of coding, Stickler worked in the company of the long-running, belt-heavy musical about the witches of Oz — first with a national tour from 2010 to 2013, then in the Broadway ensemble until mid-2015. On Broadway, Stickler performed in the company while serving as an understudy, primarily for the infamously difficult lead role of Elphaba (a.k.a. the green witch who sings “Defying Gravity”). After she left, she remained available as a “vacation and emergency” cover for Wicked, checking in with the production when the leads might be out in order to fill in for performances, whether as Elphaba or as the “track” of characters a typical Elphaba understudy would play when she steps up to the lead.
With COVID numbers spiking in New York City due to the spread of the Omicron variant, numerous Broadway productions have stopped performances as cast members tested positive or relied on banks of covers, swings, and understudies to step into parts they don’t normally play. Stickler’s story caught attention as one of the more extreme examples of someone returning to perform in the midst of an emergency. She spoke with Vulture over the phone about the surreal experience, why she went into software engineering, and how coding is a bit like being an understudy.
When did you first get the call to come in?
I live in Chicago now, and I had the week off after Christmas. My husband and I were driving up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’d been reading about all this stuff going on, like in The Music Man, and I was like, I wonder if they’re gonna call me, because I’d been an emergency cover for the company for a long time. Then I get a text. So I flew the next morning from Michigan and made it just in time to watch the show on Monday night. At that point, I didn’t know if or when I would go on.
Did they tell you specific tracks to cover for the week?
This time, it was just to be an offstage cover for Elphaba. Usually when I swing into the show, I cover the ensemble track that understudies Elphaba, but this time, they were like, “We just need another Elphaba in the building right now.” They wanted to make sure they could have a show if anything happened. And because of the way we test every day, I didn’t know if I would be able to help each day until I had a negative test. I had an idea of when I might go on, but it wasn’t until that morning when I took a test at 7 a.m. that I was like, Okay, I’m definitely doing this.
What do you do to prepare once you know you have to go on?
I sat in my tiny hotel room and did the entire show for the mirror and sang through all the songs in the shower. There came a point where I was like, I have to trust that I know it, and just do it. The beautiful thing about Wicked for a cover is that you’re shot out of a cannon at the beginning. You run onstage screaming at everybody and then sing this song [“The Wizard and I”] about being excited and nervous and scared, and you channel all of your emotion into that song. That’s what settles me. Once I’m there, I just ride the wave.
How did it feel to do the show?
It felt like I had been doing it every day, which was bizarre. Everyone in the theater was supportive, and I couldn’t have done it without their support. After the show, I told the hair-and-makeup team and the wardrobe team, “Thank you for your positive energy.” They were like, “You got this!”
When was the last time you were at the Gershwin Theatre performing in Wicked?
I last went on as Elphaba in the spring in 2015. Then I left the show full time, and starting in 2016, I would pop back in maybe once a year for a week or so, understudying the ensemble track. At that time, I never went on [as Elphaba]; I was making sure I knew the role but not doing tons of rehearsal for it. Up until 2019, when I was still living in New York and there was a possibility I would go into the show, I was also teaching voice and maintaining my voice. But the past two and a half years, I don’t sing as much and don’t teach as much as I used to. When I was driving with my husband in Michigan and got that text, he was like, “Do you need to sing through something?” I sang all the numbers and was like, Oh, great. Muscle memory and good technique will carry you through anything.
How did you decide to pivot into software engineering?
When I was younger, I was always good at math and music theory, but I never imagined it was something I could do because I always did theater. But eight shows a week takes a toll on your body, and I didn’t think I could sustain it for the rest of my life. I had gotten a master’s in education when I left, and I was teaching a lot, but that was still hustling. Then a friend of mine who was a songwriter showed up at my birthday party and said they were a software engineer now. It piqued my interest, and I went home and taught myself stuff, signed up for a boot camp, and I was hooked. It required a similar kind of focus that understudying does. When you’re working, you’re fully in the thing you’re doing — problem-solving at its max. You’re forced into a situation where you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re figuring it out.
When the pandemic started, a lot of actors lost their side hustles — you couldn’t wait tables anymore — and a lot of people reached out to me about coding. I have a few friends who started a group called Artists Who Code. It’s fascinating to watch all these people explore this other side of themselves.
It’s midday Thursday. Are you still on call for Wicked now?
I fly home Saturday, and I’m not gonna lie: I’m very tired. I really want to see my husband and my dog and not live in a hotel room. Right now, I’m offstage as an additional cover.
Have you heard much from other women who’ve played Elphaba as you’re going through this?
All the girls who I have either understudied or stood by for when I’ve been in Wicked have been so supportive. I think any one of them would have done this if they could have. There’s a camaraderie among the witches; we love the show and would do anything we could for it. The fun thing is that I’ve always been an understudy, and you don’t get a lot of recognition for what you do. It’s been overwhelming to get a little bit of acknowledgment for the hard work I’ve put into this role. It has given me a lot of closure.