'Wicked' secrets: Getting to the bottom of the Broadway blockbuster

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"Something has changed within me, something is not the same," sings the 'Wicked' girl with the pointy witch's hat, the magic powers and the pained, persistently green face. "I'm through with playing by the rules of someone's else's game."

Even on an ordinary Tuesday night, the atmosphere at New York's Gershwin Theatre resembles a rock concert -- crowds of screaming teenagers and their parents, a booming concession business, and hordes of people on the sidewalk all trying to talk their way into a sold-out Broadway show.

But anyone exploring the astonishing popular appeal of this quirky, messy prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" has to wait for this one monster song and the one killer moment that explains -- better than any other -- why the producers of "Wicked" have $31.5 million in advance sales in the bank. There's also a national tour beginning Friday in Chicago, a $10-million Chicago company waiting in the wings, and a slew of future plans for London, Australia and Japan.

The song "Defying Gravity," a hydraulically assisted, self-actualizing musical teenage thrust for the heavens, arrives right before intermission.

"Too late for second-guessing, Too late to go back to sleep," warbles the alienated teen who's about to grow up and become the Wicked Witch of the West.

Right on cue, Stephen Schwartz's pop-music score winds toward a melodic climax that can burrow deep inside even the most resistant skull. And the machinery that will send the green girl soaring toward the balcony slides into gear.

"It's time to trust my instincts," sings Elphaba, as the audience loudly revs itself up in anticipation, "close my eyes . . . and leap."

At that moment in the show, it feels like hundreds of teenagers are about to jump out of their seats in collective solidarity with the Wicked Witch of the West -- before the cruel world made her that way.

Suddenly, it seems, everyone is an unpopular girl with a green face.

Talk about a potent metaphor.

And that's mainly why "Wicked," which got mediocre reviews and lost the 2004 best musical Tony Award to a bunch of "Avenue Q" puppets, nonetheless became the Broadway mega-hit that critics and pundits utterly failed to anticipate.

The allure of `Wicked'

"I was in this kind of withdrawn period when I first heard `Defying Gravity,'" says Kevin Morris, a typical, 17-year-old "Wicked" lover -- and frequent presence on message boards devoted to the show --from St. Catharines, Ontario. "It brought out all these personal emotions in me. It's a song for anyone who ever has felt isolated."

The category of "anyone who ever has felt isolated" includes pretty much everyone.

Well, almost everyone.

"In that little circle of New York tastemakers," says "Wicked" producer Marc Platt -- any bitterness now assuaged by his project's colossal subsequent success -- "it was very fashionable for a while not to like `Wicked.'"

So why did so few people think "Wicked" would become such a smash?

First, there was little in Gregory Maguire's initially slow-selling novel "Wicked" -- a complex, disturbing work that used the imagined early lives of the iconic characters from "The Wizard of Oz" to explore the nature of good and evil -- that suggested the likes of "Defying Gravity." Nor did it imply the show's shrewd evocation of the Harry Potter-like school attended by the two teenage witches.

Second, the show's themes of self-actualization are so familiar, they can feel like cliches. "Defying Gravity" owes obvious debts to "I Am What I Am" from "La Cage Aux Folles," Schwartz's "Corner of the Sky" (from "Pippin") and a slew of similar self-empowerment ballads warbled by such postmodern Disney heroines as Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" and the irrepressible Pocahontas.

Still, one person's cloying cliche is another's moving truth.

"Critics always dump on Schwartz," says Carol de Giere, who runs an independent Connecticut-based fan site celebrating "Wicked" and other Schwartz musical compositions. "That's because he writes upbeat, positive material."

Nothing irritates a Broadway producer more than someone trying to get him to say his show is only for one demographic. The typical modus operandi is to subtly market to particular groups but to profess in public that the show is for everyone and has been successful because it happens to be really, really good.

And, indeed, plenty of middle-age theatergoers have found their way to "Wicked" in New York and, no doubt, will do so in Chicago.

But still, the show's clear appeal for teenagers and young adults -- a highly desirable core audience because it never shuts up about what it likes and wants to bring all its scores of friends to share the experience -- is at the core of the show's success.

"Everyone needs to go through this experience of individuating from their parents and their culture," says de Giere. "Elphaba has this epiphany in the middle of the show. She may have to live in a way that's different from what she expected. But she has to live on her own."

"In a way, it's a girly show," says Christopher Kuczewski, the 22-year-old co-president of the "Wicked" fan club, "but anyone can relate to it. Anyone who ever has felt like they are different."

Kuczewski, who just graduated in theology from Fordham University, wrote his thesis on "Wicked." It was a 25-page theological interpretation of the show's Judeo-Christian themes.

"I get a lot of e-mails," says de Giere, "from people who say that `Wicked' gave them courage."

A phenomenon is born

The transformation of "Wicked" from cultish, quirky novel to teen-friendly popular hit did not happen by accident. The story starts with Platt, whose highly successful career as a movie producer has been built mainly on movies about alienated individuals such as Elphaba.

"I've long been attracted to characters who are outsiders," Platt says. "The movie ` Philadelphia' was about an attorney-outsider. `Legally Blonde' was about a blond girl who's an outsider because she's not smart. Those films and `Wicked' may be different in tone and nature, but they tap into something that's in all of us."

From shortly after its publication, Platt had the rights to Maguire's 1995 novel and was trying to turn it into a movie -- an outsider movie, of course. Platt even had a screenplay on his desk. But it wasn't working. Platt knew that an audience would have to identify with characters -- which is tricky, when we are talking about two witches living in a fantasy kingdom that we know mainly through an old Judy Garland movie in which they were minor characters.

As with Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," the peripheral nature of those characters worked on Maguire's page. But Platt well knew it would not have engendered the necessary popular appeal, because popular appeal requires mass-identification. As it turned out, that was tough to pull off with a "Wicked" screenplay.

"I kept trying to get at the relationship between the two girls," Platt says, "but it required an enormous amount of inner dialogue. In a film, characters cannot easily say what they are feeling. But musicals allow you to musicalize that inner dialogue."

As it happened, Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin"), already had been hammering away at Platt to let him make a musical from the novel. Hamstrung by the problems with the screenplay, Platt finally agreed to do the thing as a live show.

And then Schwartz came up with a masterstroke -- he hired Winnie Holzman to write the book to the musical.

Ever since she wrote the short-lived, 1994-95 cult television show "My So-Called Life" (which starred Claire Danes) Holzman has been renowned for her ability to get inside the minds of teens -- especially girls -- who like to cast themselves as outsiders. In many ways, Holzman reconceived the Elphaba character as another incarnation of her most beloved character -- Angela Chase, as performed by Danes in a series that many teenage girls still watch on DVD.

Angela, of course, lacked the green skin and magic powers. But the two characters otherwise have a lot in common. Both are warm, vulnerable, sensitive and in the midst of adolescent angst and the long process of learning to have the courage to bang their own drums.

Holzman, of course, sees it a little differently.

"I get a little tired of people saying I write teenage girls so well," she says. "I try to write people. I don't have any special-interest groups."

Still, "Wicked" does revolve around two witches -- one popular, one not -- who happen to be teenagers for much of the show. Good witch Glinda, originally played by Kristin Chenoweth, is also an empathetic figure. Like her uglier sister, she's not entirely happy.

"Glinda knows her life is missing something," Holzman says.

In the end, neither girl can push away their questions about the nature of their identities. In other words, good-looking kids (or good-looking grown-up kids) can emphasize with Glinda -- the popular girl hurting inside. The geek or the Goth or the otherwise expelled from the mainstream can pull for Elphaba. Even the tweens -- one of the hottest marketing categories of the moment -- are well taken care of by "Wicked."

"Those girls," says de Giere of the show's two leading characters, "are just old enough that some in the audience can look up to them."

In Holzman's view, there's much more to it. She didn't set out to write the parts as vessels for mass-identification. Still, it's not exactly a coincidence.

"There are two young women on the stage in `Wicked,'" Holzman eventually allows. "They are playing parts that have complexity and depth. Maybe you don't see that every day."

Since Broadway currently is dominated by satire and pastiche, that's a true statement.

Completing the magic spell

There is, of course, more to the success of "Wicked" than teenage identification. The show riffs on "The Wizard of Oz," a penned-in-Chicago work that's universally familiar. "People are excited to discover," de Giere says, "that their favorite characters could have a history."

Better yet, "The Wizard of Oz" has long been established as a repeatable cultural experience -- the movie and its myriad cultural spinoffs are watched and rewatched.

On Broadway, a desire for multiple viewings means box-office gold. And "Wicked" has it. People are willing to come back several times. "At intermission," Platt says. "We always see people headed to the box office to buy tickets."

Shrewdly, "Wicked" tells a prequel -- or a back story -- rather than a sequel. Audiences tend to resist sequels as somehow exploitational of the original film or novel. Similarly, musicals based directly on movies always risk being seen as rip-offs that are inferior to the original. "Wicked," which feels fresh and respectful of its hybrid source, shrewdly avoids both traps.

The last piece in the Broadway success story of "Wicked" is the complex persona of Idina Menzel (who won't be appearing in Chicago). Aside from being an actress with a huge voice, palpable vulnerability and uncommon intensity, she was already well known to fans of "Rent," another New York show that relied on youthful repeat business. Menzel also wasn't a conventional Broadway star -- or, at least, she was sold as an unconventional kind of Everywoman -- someone with whom one could relate, and a shrewd contrast to the conventionally cute Chenoweth.

In certain youthful circles, Menzel's presence established the cultish bonafides of "Wicked," right from the San Francisco tryout.

Ever since then, the producers of "Wicked" shrewdly have repeated one of the buzz-inducing "Rent" innovations -- holding back a small number of tickets and then releasing them through a daily lottery for $25 a ticket.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Chicago audiences will embrace "Wicked" as intensely as people in New York. Early box-office sales have been strong -- the initial run is almost sold out, but there will be plenty of tickets available for later in the year (blocks on tickets go on sale a few weeks at a time).

Even with a blockbuster such as this, theater remains a local business. Most of the "Wicked" fans with the scores of online chat rooms and fan sites are clustered near New York and Toronto -- cities that already have seen the show.

When a group of teenagers at the Latin School of Chicago were asked about the show last month, the title provoked only vague recognition.

Come Friday, though, people will be able to see the show at Chicago's Oriental Theatre. Much hype will follow.

With past experience to back them up, the "Wicked" people are hoping that bulletin boards and word of mouth will light up the Midwestern sky -- and help empathetic Elphaba loosenthe gravitational pull of conformity for year after profitable year.

- - -

By the numbers . . .

Broadway budget of "Wicked": $14 million

National tour budget: $10 million

Chicago production budget: $10 million

Typical weekly gross on Broadway: $1.3 million

Likely weekly Chicago gross: $1.3 million

Broadway advance: $31.5 million

Anticipated worldwide gross of "Wicked": $150 million or more

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cjones5@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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