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.
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"I was in this kind of withdrawn period when I first heard `Defying Gravity,'" says Kevin Morris, a typical, 17-year-old "Wicked" lover -- and frequent presence on message boards devoted to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.