Wicked, the Broadway sensation, looks at what happened in the Land of Oz… before Dorothy dropped in.
Likewise, there is more to Chelsea Emma Franko’s journey before landing a coveted role as a standby for Elphaba in Wicked. Her story is one with a foundation of faith in God, a passion for theatre, and parents who supported her. But that’s not all. There was a lot of hard work and rejection, grueling show schedules, along with months without booking a show. And before all of that was a little girl who loved to sing and entertain.
An only child and resident of the High Desert town of Apple Valley since she was 2, Franko took an interest in entertainment at a young age.
“My mom tells me before I was even talking, I was singing,” Franko said.
Chelsea began studying dance, then started Shenanigans’ Youth Theatre Group between the ages of 10-12, where she performed in the shows, Annie and Oliver. Her mother, Karla Franko, also a performer, directed and choreographed Godspell with Shenanigans which deepened Chelsea’s desire for musical theatre.
“But it was the trip to New York the summer after Godspell when I was 13, that caused me to look at my mom while watching my first Broadway show and say, ‘ I want to do that.’ It started my love passion for musical theatre specifically.”
Q: What was your first breakthrough in musical theatre?
A: The thing I would credit as my launching point was a competition in 2012 that I did called LA’s Next Great Stage Star. I won the competition and from there I got an agent and was auditioning for many, many moons.
Q: Was it grueling to do all of those auditions?
A: Yes, it was hard. When I won the LA’s Next Great Stage Star, I thought it would open so many doors. But I went six months without booking a show.
Q: How did you handle going from winning a competition to not booking a single show?
A: I had faith in God and I just kept on auditioning. I also worked at Victor Valley Community College. I even worked the box office to keep myself in the realm of theatre. I developed an appreciation for all aspects of theatre. I don’t take anything for granted because I know how hard it is to do all of those jobs.
Q: Your mom, Karla Franko started her own theatre company. Where you a part of that?
A: Yes, it’s called Standing Room Only (SRO). We are a 501c3 nonprofit. Since schools had made cuts, and there really wasn’t much in the way of theatre, my mom started her own company. That’s how wonderful my mom is. In SRO, she instilled old-school musical theatre skills which weren’t being taught in public schools. I moved my way up in the company and began assisting my mom and choreographing. I’ve done things from stage management to wigs for the shows. I watched and was a part of the growth of this wonderful company. All of this gave me more experience and appreciation for all aspects of theatre.
Q: Can you tell us about the process of getting to your first “big break” into theatre?
A: After my grandma passed, I took a break from school and pursued theatre. I decided to go to New York. It was then that I booked my first show called “Company” in the role of Marta where I worked with Tony award-winning actors. This was my first big trip alone at the age of 25. I believe God opened those doors. I had a friend that lived in New York where I could stay during the show. Then after the show was done, I came back home in July 2015. I did a few more shows, juggling them all at the same time. It was very difficult. I fell and dislocated my knee, but was able to continue doing the shows.
With all of this going on, the audition for Elsa in Frozen at Disneyland came up. I sent in a video audition since I was in the other shows. I didn’t hear anything. In March of 2016, my agent called and said they had still not found an Elsa. After three or four auditions, I was offered the role but, my offer was put on hold until the director could meet with me in two weeks. It was very frustrating to wait. I kept praying to God, knowing this was a test and there was something to learn. My mom said if I didn’t pass the trust test, then I wouldn’t be ready for the next big thing from God.
During the waiting period, I auditioned for other shows, one being Cabaret where I lost one of my dream roles to a good friend. I was happy for her, but I was also devastated. I used the pain of that experience at the Disney audition with the director. After 20 minutes and singing “Let it Go” twice, the director asked me to sing my own song with something to act, as well. I chose to do what I had just used for the audition with Cabaret—the one I didn’t get. I was still raw and vulnerable. After I was finished, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. On my way home to the High Desert, I did the thing I know to do: pray. Before I reached home, I got the call from my agent. I was going to play Elsa! I started working in March 2016 and left July of 2017.
Q: How did you land the role of Elphaba in Wicked?
A: Frozen was going along. My goal was to learn all I could. I heard Wicked was coming to town. So, I thought, why not? I auditioned the whole Elphaba packet which is a lot of material. They called me the next day and had me come back in to sing the songs multiple times in a row. I didn’t think it was going to happen. There were so many girls who wanted this from New York to LA. My agent emailed them asking for feedback about me. Within ten minutes, they called and said they wanted me as a standby in the spring. It was hard to know this information and go back to work at Disney and again…wait… for 6 months. At the time, Disney wanted me to sign a new contract. At 10:00 a.m. I got the contract information from Disney in an email. I stopped and prayed, asking God for his help. I didn’t want to sign with Disney if I could be getting (a role in) Wicked. At 10:05, I got a call from the casting director of Wicked! It was the most God moment of my life! Within the next two weeks, I had the job as standby for Elphaba in Wicked with an 8-month contract. In 2018, they offered me an extension to my contract through October of this year.
Q: Were there heartaches and struggles along the way and how did you handle them?
A: Oh, yes. It’s hard to put yourself out there and be rejected. I did a lot of crying, prayed, and talked with my mom who consoled me but also said, “This is part of it. If you cannot take the rejection. You need to get out.”
Q: How have you stayed strong in your faith in the midst of the hard times?
A: I do a lot of praying. The foundation was instilled very young. We are a very faith-based family—both my mom and dad. When I would question my mom about why I didn’t get the jobs I wanted my mom would say it wasn’t my turn and that God would open the door. It would not be a holy thing if I tried to beat down the door. Trusting God is hard, but the more you practice it, the better you get at it.
Q: What are your favorite Scriptures?
A: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” Jeremiah 29:11.
It helps me see that even if you are feeling despair at the moment, you will eventually come out of the fog and the place the Lord has made for you will arrive. You are planting the seeds now for the future. You have to allow them time to grow.
I also like Proverbs 16:9. I try to make plans and it seems God comes in and changes it because He has a better one. Learning to be flexible is the key. If we get so set in stone about our plans, then we won’t have the ability to see when God puts a new plan on your path. We have tunnel vision, but God sees it all. It’s a full circle thing with Him. We have to allow ourselves to keep moving forward. When I look back, I see how if I would have gotten this one job, then I would not have been available to what led me to a better thing.
Q: Who are your inspirations?
A: Barbara Streisand, Sutton Foster, and my mom and dad. My mom put her life on hold to take care of her mom, my grandma, and also started a company for me to have opportunities. My grandma was a survivor and taught my mom to be a survivor. My mom is still spinning several plates, with her company and doing shows. My dad, Ron is a school teacher and brought home the money so we could go off galivanting. And that needs to be celebrated, too. Both of my parents sacrificed so much for me.
Q: What things do you enjoy when you’re not acting?
A: Cooking and baking. When at home I really enjoy organic gardening. I like to plant seeds and watch them grow. I play the ukulele. I’m an avid Netflix watcher. My favorite show of all time is Frasier. I’m into The Office, Gossip Girl, and This is Us. I also love to read. Right now, I’m reading Origin by Dan Brown. I like to read someone else’s views on a certain subject. I think it’s interesting to see people try to poke holes in Scripture. I read The Hunger Games and The Divergent. I’m on Instagram and FaceTiming my friends.
For show locations, dates and tickets go to https://wickedthemusical.com/north-american-tour-tickets
Connect with Chelsea on Instagram @thechelseaemma or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/chelseaemmafranko/
Article first appeared in Southern California Christian Voice