Text by Siobhan Doyle and images by Dujonna Gift, Troy David Johnston and Alex Ballester, United Kingdom
Nicola Espallardo, proud mixed race Filipina English actor, breaks new barriers by appearing as the first Asian to play Elphaba in the widely acclaimed musical WICKED on UK stage.
Born to a Filipina mother and an English father, Nicola used to always put on shows for her family growing up which led to her parents enrolling her in dancing in singing lessons. Years after performing in the living room, she has made history becoming the first ever Asian to play the iconic role of Elphaba in the West End production of the highly acclaimed musical Wicked.
‘I was over the moon,’ she reminisces about the moment she got the call. ‘Being in Wicked and playing Elphaba has been my dream ever since I saw the show on my 13th birthday.’ Nicola auditioned for the role several times but couldn’t quite believe it was finally happening – she says she felt incredibly lucky to be working on a show she always wanted to be a part of. ‘I still pinch myself every time I do it.’
As a child, her musical-loving parents would often take her to the theatre for special family outings. This sparked her deep interest and passion for the theatre world: singing along to soundtracks, learning the choreography in the living room, and making her own costumes.
Initially, Nicola wasn’t sure she could actually pursue a career in musical theatre. But as she got older, she discovered drama schools from theatre programmes and later pursued a BA (Hons) in Musical Theatre at the Guildford School of Acting in Surrey, England. Following her degree, Nicola joined the ensemble cast of Les Misérables in 2018 and a year later was cast as a cover for Eponine in the staged concert of the show.
In 2021, Nicola played an array of roles in a stage production of A Christmas Carol. And last year, she became the first Asian to play Elphaba (perhaps better known as the Wicked Witch of the West for all the Wizard of Oz lovers out there) in a UK production of the show.
WICKED, the West End and Broadway musical phenomenon that tells the incredible untold story of the Witches of Oz
Her dream role in a musical has been Elphaba ever since she was a child. ‘Being the first is a great honour, and I really hope I will be one of many,’ she says, expressing the importance for the global majority to see themselves in stories such as Wicked. ‘We can all connect to what it feels like to be an outsider,’ she adds.
Nicola reflects on the representation of Filipinos within the UK theatre scene, stressing how she wishes to see more of us playing roles we haven’t seen us play yet. ‘For a long time, it looked and felt like there were only certain shows and characters you would see us play. That’s simply not the reality.’
She praises the talent, versatility, and tenacity of the Filipino theatre community, drawing inspiration from the likes of Rachelle Ann Go and Eva Noblezada whom she says ‘floored’ her in the West End revival of Miss Saigon (2014-16) and admired them playing strong women in shows such as Hamilton and Hadestown respectively following the Miss Saigon run.
‘Small victories are happening for the Asian theatre community,’ she says. ‘But there is still work to be done and we must continue championing each other.’
Nicola recalls when Lissa deGuzman, the current US National Tour Elphaba who is also a mixed Filipina, reached out to her after her debut.
‘For the first time, I felt such sisterhood from across the pond.’ And she hopes that much like Lissa she continues to play roles that ‘help push the boundaries for the Asian community’.
When asked about what she thinks the UK theatre industry can do to seek more Filipino talent, Nicola emphasises the importance in equity versus equality.
‘While there are many fabulous Filipino performers undeniably we need more,’ she explains. ‘So, it’s important first for young Filipino performers to see themselves on stage represented. To feel inspired. To see it’s possible to live out their dreams and pursue it. This is how we can foster real change within the industry.’
Nicola continues to be a swing/cover of Elphaba in the 2023-2024 cast of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London, UK.