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The history of Wicked

Sarah O’Connor and Laura Pick are remembering when they fell in love with Wicked. The hit musical generates devoted fans and the two actors are among them.

Glinda (Sarah O'Connor) in light blue ballgown, holding wand, surrounded by bubbles

Dublin-born O’Connor discovered it as a teenager on holiday with her family in New York. ‘I listened to it on repeat in the CD player, singing it in the kitchen,” she says. “I’ve loved it so much for so long.’

Wakefield-born Pick tells an almost identical story. ‘I got the CD and the music book for my 14th birthday,’ she says. ‘The poor people that had to drive me to any rehearsal – my mum, my dad, friends’ parents ­– with me sat in the back, belting out the songs… that was my life.’

For both actors, it is a dream come true to find themselves starring in a show they have adored for so long.

In the spectacular touring production, O’Connor plays Glinda the Good, the teenage witch who makes a grand entrance to Shiz University in a bubble. Before long, we find she is not quite as good as she likes to think she is.

Pick, meanwhile, plays Elphaba, the green-skinned student who wants to make the world a better place even though she is destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West.

‘It’s always relevant,’ says Pick. ‘Never mind the incredible songs and the music, it goes back to people feeling like they can connect with these characters – whether they’re a Glinda or an Elphaba. It’s a special show that means a lot to so many people.’

O’Connor and Pick are not the only ones to be repeatedly drawn back to Wicked. The first time producer Michael McCabe saw the show, it was to support his friend David Stone, the renowned American theatre producer, who was opening it on Broadway. “I was completely blown away,” says McCabe. “The audience was enraptured by the story and euphoric in its response.”

This was in 2003 when no one knew quite what a phenomenon Wicked would become. In little more than a year, it would recoup its $14m investment and, two decades on, it has become the fourth longest running show in Broadway history.

Written by composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and scriptwriter Winnie Holzman, it has been performed in over 130 cities in 16 countries and has been seen by 65 million people. Soon to be released is a two-part movie version starring Ariana Grande, Michelle Yeoh and Jeff Goldblum.

‘There is also the spectacle of it,’ says McCabe to explain Wicked’s success. ‘The world that director Joe Mantello conjured up with all his designers felt so unlike anything else and utterly of the world of Oz.’

He too has had his life shaped by Wicked. Once the show had proved its worth on Broadway, McCabe got the call to come on board as Executive Producer for its run in London’s West End. He opened it at the Apollo Victoria Theatre on 27 September 2006 and it remains there to this day.

‘Joe Mantello’s production expertly marshals a remarkable kaleidoscope of magical shocks, surprises and sensations,’ said the Evening Standard after the opening night. ‘And Wicked works like a dream.’

Laura Pick as Elphaba waving her hands as though casting a spell in a forest at night

‘Every time we do auditions, we acknowledge how lucky we are that people still want to be in Wicked,’ he says. ‘Whether you’re going for a principal role or it’s your first job out of drama school, there is this spirit that exists around the show that makes people passionate to be in it.’

Now Wicked is on tour and they are doing nothing by halves. With a cast of 33, the production has taken to the road with over 80 people.

In each city, it picks up local dressers and stage crew, taking the total to over 100. ‘This tour replicates everything you see in the West End,’ says McCabe. ‘It’s a colossal production and a huge undertaking.’

Fiyero (Carl Man) lifting lantern at night

How, then, to account for Wicked’s popularity? The story begins in the 1990s when a novelist specialising in children’s fiction turned his hand to a book for adults. Gregory Maguire was a lifelong fan of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and the Judy Garland movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). But something bothered him about a story that depended on the extremes of good and evil.

Did the Wicked Witch of the West have no redeeming features? Might the Good Witch of the North be just a little bit flawed? Maguire was writing at the time of the Gulf War when the US and her allies were portraying Saddam Hussein as a cartoon-like baddie. The novelist knew Saddam was a dictator, but he hungered for nuance.

That is what he set out to create in his novel, Wicked – The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), in which he provided an origin story for Baum’s famous characters. Instead of showing the Wicked Witch of the West as a nightmarish figure haunting poor Dorothy Gale’s imagination, he portrayed her as a young girl called Elphaba (a name created from L. Frank Baum’s initials) who wants to right the world’s injustices.

In his rave review in the Los Angeles Times, critic Robert Rodi called it ‘the best fantasy novel of ideas’ he had read since Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and Frank Herbert’s Dune.

‘It keeps getting more relevant,’ says McCabe. ‘Gregory’s novel was so extraordinary in its darkness and the notion of a character you could have been misinformed about – and where better to look than a character whose name contains the word ‘Wicked’? I remember sitting there the first time and thinking, ‘Good God! Everything you thought you knew about this person is a lie.’ In our era of ‘fake news’, it’s such a clever notion.’

Schwartz and Holzman loved the idea and realised there was tremendous emotional power in the story of the shaky friendship between Elphaba and Glinda. It is this evolving relationship, going from enemy to comrade, that sits at the heart of Wicked. ‘It appeals so broadly because it is about friendship,’ says McCabe. ‘It’s not an easy friendship and it certainly doesn’t start as a perfect friendship but how it evolves gives it a universal appeal. It is all too rare for a musical to lead with two women who have a complex relationship that develops into something profound.’

Having made this friendship the focus of the adaptation, Schwartz came up with a score that drew on everything from classical to pop, via big power ballads and tear-jerking duets. The dynamic Defying Gravity is the stand-out hit, a song describing Elphaba’s transition from confinement to liberty, a rite of passage everyone can identify with.

Along with Popular, For Good and What Is This Feeling?, it became one of the most downloaded tracks from the Broadway cast recording.

‘The music is very of now,’ says McCabe. ‘Here is a brand-new show with a brand-new score and original story that talks to a wider, more modern audience as well as traditional theatregoers. And it is a story that stands squarely on its own two feet irrespective of whether you know The Wizard of Oz.’

By Mark Fisher. Image credit Matt Crockett.

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