Points – 126
Votes – 20
Firsts – 4
When Wicked first happened, it felt like one of those shows that was going to stick around. It felt like a phenomenon, and in Defying Gravity, it felt like we had a hit that would transcend musical theatre for the first time in a while. As the third show after Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King to break the $1 billion mark, it certainly turned out to be that way.
Wicked is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, and has one of the best premises for a story that I have heard of for a while. The Wizard of Oz has long been held as one of the most perfect stories ever written, but the hero of the story is Dorothy. What if we looked at it from the other side? What if we explored the story of The Wicked Witch of the West? There are over eighty books in the Oz series, some official, some not, but this was the first to explore that original story in this way, and it is probably no surprise to find that it was one of the first to take off.
One person who read it and was entranced was Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz is one of those musical theatre composers who has been around forever and seems to have done so many shows, but up until that point his hits were relatively modest – shows like Godspell and Pippin are by no means niche indie hits, but lacked some of the pomp and exposure of the big shows of Hollywood or Broadway. He had a problem though – Maguire had already optioned the rights off to Universal. This meant an impassioned plea for them to hold off on a film adaptation and instead give his musical a chance, something that producer Marc Platt agreed to, and Schwartz got to work on what would become his greatest hit. For those of you who were critical of me disrespecting Cats before, let it be known that Universal pushed the film adaptation of Wicked back in order to film the monstrosity that is the Cats film. They had been waiting for years for a drop in ticket sales to justify making a film, before finally accepting that ticket sales were unlikely to dwindle any time soon.
The show follows the book in many ways, but also takes several liberties – the stage show is somewhat less gruesome, and emphasises the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda rather than making the focus simply on our green protagonist. In fact, early previews highlighted how Glinda was upstaging Elphaba too much, and rewrites were needed – rewrites that still did not entirely address the issue according to some reviewers. Considering its continued success, some of the early reviews were not great calling it ‘overbown’. I don’t know what these reviewers were expecting from their musical theatre, but with a show such as this I think I would be disappointed if it were not overblown!
Despite the fact that the show is primarily known for its bigger production elements – Glinda’s bubble, the bright green make up, and a set that expands out into the audience in a way that draws you in even before the first note is played – but the levels on which Schwartz was working go far, far deeper. He is a musical genius, and hid numerous little references throughout. The one that I found most interesting is the ‘Unlimited’ theme. This is a refrain that comes back several times throughout the show, being sung as “Unlimited, my future is…” This small, repeated motif is fascinating, as the notes used are the same as those in one of the most famous songs from Wizard of Oz “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, just played in a different rhythm. A beautiful decision by Schwartz to pay tribute to the song’s original writer, Harold Arlen, that rewards musos in the audience with a love of musical theatre. These nods are so important to building up an MT canon, something recognised by Maguire in his original novel in the naming of Elphaba. L Frank Baum – creator of the Oz series – did not name the Wicked Witch of the West, so Maguire decided to pay homage to the character’s creator and name her after a (somewhat) phonetic pronunciation of his initials, LFB.
Wicked is currently in its fourteenth year in the West End, and now in addition to all of its other accolades, can add a top five finish in the DAODS’ Top 100 Musicals of All Time. What more is there for it to achieve?!
Alex’s Song Choice – “Defying Gravity” – I personally have some issues with the structure of this song – it feels too talky for a big showstopper of this quality and I just want it to go full out on everything that it promises to be – but even with that caveat I think it is one of the finest musical theatre songs of recent years.
Lockdown Pick – “What Is This Feeling?” – BE ALERT! GET IT CHECKED!