From ‘Oklahoma!’ to Oz: Ridgefield native gives backstage look at performing on Broadway during COVID

RIDGEFIELD — Although Sam Gravitte’s portrayal of Fiyero Tiggular in “Wicked” is certainly his most impressive performing credit to date, it wouldn’t have been possible without an elementary school rendition of “Oklahoma!”

The production marked Gravitte’s first on-stage appearance — specifically at Ridgebury Elementary School. Under the direction of the “inimitable” Glen Lebetkin, Gravitte knew performing would be a lifelong pursuit.

His mother Debbie Gravitte is a Tony-award winning actress, and his father Beau originated the role of Roy Johnson in Lincoln Center’s production of “The Light in the Piazza.”

“I always wanted to go into the family business, but they encouraged me to keep a wide lens as I grew up,” Gravitte said of his parents.

In addition to headlining “Les Miserables” and “The Pajama Game” at Ridgefield High School, Gravitte played for the football and lacrosse teams. He went on to play lacrosse at Princeton University, where he majored in anthropology.

After graduating college in 2017, Gravitte moved to New York City to pursue acting full time. He joined the national tour of “Wicked” as an understudy, and made his Broadway debut in the ensemble a year and a half later.

After appearing in the world premiere of the “Almost Famous” musical in San Diego, Gravitte returned to New York to assume the role of Fiyero full time.

His contract began on Feb. 25, 2020, “two weeks before everything exploded,” he said.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic became more devastating as time went on since many in the live performance industry thought the shutdowns would only last a couple weeks, Gravitte said.

The 26-year-old led a nomadic existence while the lights were out on Broadway. He lived in Los Angeles for six months, dabbled in Zoom performances, worked odd jobs and did a lot of introspection, he said.

“I think that something we learned over the pandemic is no matter how many placeholders we can develop for live performances, they’re ultimately just that — placeholders,” he added. “There’s something ineffable and necessary about the types of exchanges that happen between an audience and a performer in a live space. It’s one of the many lessons we took away from the shutdown, and I hope that people don’t forget that anytime soon.”

A silver lining came on June 3, when the producers of “Wicked” announced the show would resume performances that fall. Since Broadway League was mandating vaccinations for audience members, performers, backstage crew and theater staff, there was a sense of ease when returning to rehearsals, Gravitte said.

A COVID safety team was created to respond to ever-changing guidance and ensure company members were rigorously protected, he added.

“People walked into the space with a lot of respect and gratitude and love,” Gravitte recalled. “There are certain discomforts with having to perform mask-less at the immediate proximity of a lot of other humans, but at the end of the day hopefully what we do … supersedes that.”

During the holidays “Wicked’s” swings and understudies were called upon to fill certain roles as the omicron variant wreaked havoc on New York City. Most notably, Carla Stickler, who left performing three years ago to pursue a career as a software engineer, returned to reprise her role as Elphaba while the cast was ravaged by illness, according to the Chicago Sun Times.

“‘Wicked’ is in a privileged position to be able to call upon its alumni in situations like this,” Gravitte said. “That was one of the things that kept us open.”

While other shows have ended their reopening runs early, “Wicked” is still defying the odds. Amid all the pandemic’s uncertainty, a story of chosen family, differences and healing is still being told eight times a week live on stage.

“Whenever I show up at work, and it feels like work with a capital ‘W,’ … I can look into the audience and find someone in the first or second row absolutely beaming,” Gravitte said. “(It) gives life to performance no matter what’s going on in the outside world.”