Maybe it'll stay a spell

Special to The Times

ON a recent episode of ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," the siblings of a large, close-knit Los Angeles family must lure their mother out of the house before her surprise birthday party. The ruse they employ is to have one of the daughters take her to a matinee of "Wicked."

Apparently, or so the plot went, the lawyer-brother used to date one of the flying monkeys in the show. At the least, that suggests that "Wicked" must have been playing in L.A. long enough for him to have and to end an affair, not to mention slink back to his ex for help scoring good seats for Mom.

Well, art is about to imitate art. Not in the sense that untold lawyers are poised to embark on affairs with flying monkeys. But "Wicked," the long-running prequel-to-Oz musical, is launching what's known in the industry as a "sit-down" run -- meaning an open-ended engagement -- at the Pantages Theatre starting Wednesday.

Just how open-ended is it? Let's say "Wicked's" witches don't plan to broomstick it out of here any time soon. "If we ran two years we'd be thrilled," says producer Marc Platt, who has spearheaded the show from its beginnings. "If we got one year, we'd still feel good. It has a very healthy advance here, meaning as large as any advance has ever been for L.A."

Two years may sound like a tall order for a city in which theater people must ever grapple with the overweening presence of the film and television industry. What's more, because few open-ended commercial engagements have done well here in recent decades, L.A. is sometimes touted as a tough town for sit-downs. Yet insiders predict success.

"If any show can sit down and run, 'Wicked' is it," says producer-director Peter Schneider, former chief of Disney Theatricals, whose show "The Lion King" enjoyed a lengthy sit-down from 2000 to 2003, also at the Pantages. "It has tremendous appeal. It has proven to be a huge success in New York and in Chicago where it is sitting down. It has confounded everybody's prediction in terms of it being there for a very long time. It's a phenomenon, and I think it has the opportunity to be the same phenomenon in L.A."

Down the main road on the Universal lot, huge, boxy sound stages loom to your right, while to your left, modest brown bungalows house beehives of creative activity. Toward the end of the not-yellow-brick road where the stages stop, there are signs in slimy green and black advertising a musical. And just a bit farther on is Marc Platt Productions, home of "Wicked."

Platt's independent production company, which has a first-look deal with Universal, is where the show was launched. " 'Wicked' was really born right here in these bungalows," says Platt. "There was an emotional motivation to why we decided to come here and do the sit-down, which is that the show was born here, and one of its producers is a movie studio."

Formerly president of production at Universal -- and TriStar, and Orion, as well as an attorney -- Platt first encountered Gregory Maguire's novel 10 years ago. At that time, "Wicked," which tells a tale of friendship between a blond witch named Glinda and a green one known as Elphaba, was being developed as a film, originally optioned by Demi Moore's production company.

"When you're running production, there're 200 projects you're developing, but I really gravitated to it because I thought it was such a great idea," says Platt, dressed in a gray sweater and jeans and seated in a quietly tasteful room filled with comfortable furniture, the requisite family and celebrity photos, and a faux-antique memorabilia book of "Wicked" on the coffee table.

Movie takes a back seat

SEVERAL screenplays were commissioned, and when Platt became an independent producer, he took the project with him as a film. But the screenplays, he says, "were not satisfying."

Then one day Platt got a call from composer Stephen Schwartz. "He said, 'I know you're making it into a film -- did you ever consider turning it into a musical?' " says Platt. "And the moment he said it, the light went on in my head."

And, so the story goes, starting in 1999, Platt, Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman met in Platt's bungalow for a year, working out the story line for a musical.

Platt went to Universal to see how they felt about the project. "I said, 'I know you're not in the business of the theater, but I really believe in this as a stage musical; would you mind if I didn't develop the movie any further?' " he says. "And their response was 'Go ahead and we want to stay in touch.' To what end I wasn't sure, but they were very interested."

Still, even though Platt was putting a movie of "Wicked" aside for the time being, he wasn't ruling it out forever. "For most people, the reference point of 'The Wizard of Oz' isn't Frank Baum's books, it is rather the 1939 movie, which is a musical," he says. "And I thought if we were lucky and actually established something as a stage musical, the reference point for an eventual film of 'Wicked' would become the musical, not the 1939 movie."

Directed by Joe Mantello with musical staging by Wayne Cilento, "Wicked" premiered in San Francisco in 2003. "We opened with almost a three-hour show," says Platt. "It had a lot of flaws in it. But by the fifth or sixth performance, there were lines around the block."

Nonetheless, when they opened in New York later that year, they took a conservative approach.

"We still came to New York discounted, with the hopes of filling the theater for three months," says Platt.

Indeed, the critics were less than thrilled. The New York Times review, headlined "There's Trouble in Emerald City," criticized almost every aspect of the show except Kristin Chenoweth's turn as Glinda. Wrote Ben Brantley: " 'Wicked' does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical."

"It's not like overnight it got sensational reviews, because it didn't," acknowledges Platt. "It got divided reviews. And we discounted heavily in the beginning. We've watched it build from year to year."

Ready for a return

TODAY the show has three companies in North America: Broadway, the national tour and a sit-down in Chicago, which opened in 2005. In September, it added a sit-down company in London. In summer 2005, the touring company played seven weeks at the Pantages. It also recently stopped for two weeks at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

It has, to quote one of the show's songs, become only more "Pop-u-lar." Wickedly so. During the holidays, it topped a Broadway box office record for a single week, taking in more than $1.8 million at the Gershwin Theatre. At the same time, "Wicked" also set house records in three other places: $1.69 million in London, $1.56 million in Toronto and $1.37 million in Chicago. Moreover, the latest Broadway grosses available at press time show "Wicked" taking in $1.3 million for the week of Jan. 29 through Feb. 4, playing at 96.4% capacity.

With this accrued strength, Platt and his team of producers felt it was time to give L.A. its own company. John Rubenstein, star of composer Schwartz's "Pippin" on Broadway 35 years ago, will play the wizard, with Eden Espinosa as Elphaba, Megan Hilty as Glinda and Carol Kane as Madame Morrible.

"Wicked's" decision makers were emboldened in part by the success of "The Lion King" at the 2,700-seat Pantages. Another plus was the availability of that theater.

"One question always is: Is there a theater available?" says Schneider, former president of animation and chairman of Disney Studios. "Jimmy Nederlander Sr. renovated the theater at our request for 'The Lion King.' He established the Pantages as the place to come in L.A."

Platt was also encouraged by strong box office in Chicago. "We had done a sit-down in Chicago, another city that probably even less than L.A. has not been traditionally a city of sit-downs," he says. "Our thought -- again, being very conservative in our approach -- was that if we can sit-down in Chicago for a year and then take that company to L.A. and get a year, then go to San Francisco, the combination would make it economically viable."

Caution is something Platt and Schneider emphasize. "L.A. is a market where you start slowly, see what demand you have," says Schneider, who directed and produced "Sister Act: The Musical," which recently broke all records at the Pasadena Playhouse and is now in a pre-Broadway run in Atlanta. "With 'Lion King,' we hoped for nine months. So you extend for three, and extend for three more."

Still, the "Lion Kings" are few and far between. "Les Miserables" ran for 62 weeks in 1988-89, but it was "The Phantom of the Opera" that broke all the rules, running for 224 weeks, from 1989 to '93 at the Ahmanson, and grossing $156 million. "The Lion King" which was the next-longest-running hit after "Phantom" and also the most recent successful sit-down, grossed $142 million, after 933 regular performances and 19 previews. Total attendance was 2.3 million.

Not just the regulars

ONE key factor is getting the word out. "When shows play three to four weeks, you're mostly just reaching traditional theatergoers," explains Steven Schnepp, president of AWA Touring Services, a company that distributes plays and musicals across North America. "But when you're in a market for 18 weeks or more, you're reaching people who don't go to the theater on a regular basis."

And that outreach can be all the more difficult and expensive because L.A. is so geographically vast. Yet Schneider, for one, disputes L.A.'s reputation as a tough town for a sit-down. "I'm not sure L.A. deserves the rap; it's a very good town for doing things," he says. "L.A. has proven with 'The Lion King' that you can have long runs and it will support it, and I think 'Wicked' has the opportunity to beat those records."

Further, there are only a few cities that are as big a potential market as L.A. Says Schneider, "What town in America gets a sit-down -- only Chicago, L.A. and San Francisco." Adds Schnepp, "Part of the premise is that if you play one of these three markets, it helps pepper the brand for the rest of the country."

Speaking of peppering the brand, visit any performance of "Wicked" and you're likely to see a lot of that happening in the lobby at intermission -- in the form of giddy 13- or 14-year-old girls, text messaging away or hanging by the merchandise booth. The presence of these girls has prompted more than a few articles to be written, claiming them as key to the musical's success. Indeed, in 2005, Nancy Coyne, chief executive of the marketing firm Serino Coyne Inc., which designed the ads for "Wicked," was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying: " 'Wicked' is a phenomenon because of teenage girls."

Say that to the producers now, though, and hackles are raised. "That's a bit of a misnomer, because you can't possibly do the numbers that 'Wicked' has done around the world and be a show about 13-year-old girls," says Platt. "I don't want to dismiss 13-year-old girls because they're a vital, great part of our audience. But the demographic study we've done is that the show actually tracks very similar to most Broadway shows; it's not any younger or older."

The study to which Platt refers was commissioned by "Wicked" producers to dispute this commonly held conviction. They hired a firm called Live Theatrical Events, which is a collaboration between the Nielsen National Research Group and Broadway.com. And the company's conclusion, based on roughly 6,000 questionnaire responses, was that the "Wicked" audience members were just slightly more likely to be over 35. Or it could be that fewer teenage girls in the audience felt like filling out their questionnaires.

And yet, no matter whether you believe the study or observational evidence, there is little doubt that "Wicked's" success with teens is part of a larger trend toward general audience fare.

"If you look at the success of 'Beauty and the Beast,' it is the first show that kids go to see, it is the introduction to theater on Broadway," says Schneider. "This is what it's all about -- introducing kids to the theater. 'Beauty and the Beast' introduced a family-friendly theater, and 'Wicked' has benefited from the emergence of a family-friendly theater, as everything before that has benefited."

That alone could keep "Wicked" flying at the Pantages for years. If it does, it might help dispel any lingering notion that L.A. is not a good town for a sit-down. "One can hope that if enough 'Lion Kings' or 'Wickeds' come in, that other producers will say L.A. is a great market," says Platt. "That can only benefit the city. Success begets other success."

*

'Wicked'

Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Opens Wednesday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Price: $32.50 to $150

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°