From Wicked‘s very first preview in San Francisco in 2003, audiences learned early on that, no matter how old they are, there is something in the musical for everyone.
The Stephen Schwartz–Winnie Holzman hit celebrated its 15th anniversary on Broadway last year. Wicked recently passed its 6,500th performance and is now the 6th longest-running show in Broadway history. It is still selling out in New York, on tour across the country, and in many cities around the world. “We didn’t expect this level of success,” says David Stone, one of the show’s producers. “No one can expect this level of success.”
It is true that young women naturally take to the story of two recent high school graduates who are now college freshmen: Elphaba, the green-skinned serious student, and luminous blonde Glinda (née Galinda). Many a lass in the audience knew from bitter experience that beauty gives any girl a head start on becoming popular, and that any girl with any kind of flaw — and green skin certainly qualifies — will struggle to find acceptance.
“But,” says Stone, “Wicked isn’t just about popularity. When I went to the first reading, I expected the show to be delightful. What I didn’t expect was how moved I’d be by the focus on the value of friendship and how someone different from you can completely change your life.
“That’s when I knew I had to be a part of it, because the shows that succeed the most are the ones that promise you something — and then deliver even more and exceed your expectations. When you deliver more than you promise, that creates the best word of mouth from everyone.”
Stone says he always believed that Wicked would appeal to young and old, straight and gay, and to every ethnicity. That belief was confirmed from the show’s first preview in San Francisco.
“The back wall opened and out ran this young, idealistic, hopeful, innocent, beautiful, green girl,” Stone recalls. “And the audience went crazy, as they have really at every performance since. It wasn’t for Idina Menzel and it wasn’t entrance applause,” he says before correcting himself. “It was entrance applause, but for Elphaba from an entire audience of adults,” he says, following that word with a chuckle, knowing that he’s just made his point. “In one instant, the audience realized that this character — the Wicked Witch of the West, the person they probably feared most in their whole childhood — wasn’t who they thought she was. There was more to her than that, and there was another side to the story.”
Stone witnessed this from the back of the theatre. “When we saw that 1,600 people in the Curran Theatre understood it in one second, the hair on the back of our necks stood up. We knew the whole show was in that moment. Wicked says we are all more complicated than people think, which is a very big idea for an entire audience to get instantly. But they got it.
“Look, we were all outsiders when we were younger, and every one of us still has a ‘green girl’ inside us. Every single one of us,” he reiterates. “And in Australia, Britain, Japan, and Holland too. Everyone winds up feeling the same way: Elphaba is not who you think she is — and I’m not who you think I am, either.”
Stone’s memories of the first Broadway preview are equally vivid. “At the end of the first act, people didn’t just explode with applause. They ran into the lobby and got on their cellphones to say, ‘Oh, my God, you won’t believe what’s happening here.’ On matinee days, we saw people who’d just seen the show go up to the box office to buy tickets to see it again or to bring someone to see it. They wanted to share it with their family or best friend.”
Wicked opened on October 30, 2003. Stone certainly recalls being handed the reviews on Halloween morning — and finding as many tricks as treats. “The reviews weren’t mixed; they were divided,” he acknowledges. “The four daily papers didn’t like it, but the major national publications and the suburban papers did. And yet, that day the reviews came out, we still grossed the highest numbers we’d ever done to that point. That critical divide actually got people interested. They wanted to know why the critics were so polarized.”
And here it still is. “Wicked is what my producing partner, Marc Platt, calls an ‘8-to-80,’ meaning a property that appeals to people of all ages. Everyone loves finding out that a shallow girl who’s popular can become a good person, and that an outcast can wind up being appreciated and accepted. There’s also the fun of putting together the puzzle of what they know about The Wizard of Oz.”
Ah, yes: the Wizard of Oz factor. It’s often been said that one can’t go more than 48 hours without somehow running into a Wizard of Oz reference, be it the many permutations of “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” or “Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!” or a complaint that a boss is “the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Stone acknowledges that The Wizard of Oz — which he calls “our national fairy tale” — helps with Wicked’s success. “But that’s in America,” he quickly adds. “In England and Australia, they know the movie, but not the way we do. In other countries, like Germany and Japan, they don’t know The Wizard of Oz at all. Winnie even had to add a few explanatory lines for those productions. And yet, German and Japanese audiences are also interested in these characters without knowing their backstories. The fact that it played in Japan for years tells us that this isn’t just The Wizard of Oz carrying us. Yes, it helped tremendously in America to be able to say, ‘It’s the story of the Wicked Witch of the West before she became the Wicked Witch of the West,’ but we weren’t able to use that in most of those other places. When Annie Lennox and her daughter came to see the show, she said that knowing The Wizard of Oz might even blind you to some of the darker things that the show is saying.”
That wasn’t all that Lennox had to say. Recalls Stone, “She also said, ‘You really went after the politicians, didn’t you?’”
He smiles before he concedes, “Well, yes, that is there, but we don’t focus on it. Actually, Gregory Maguire [the author of the 1995 novel Wicked, on which the musical is based] wrote it as a response to the British media’s demonization of Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. He wasn’t saying that Saddam Hussein wasn’t an evil person; he was saying that the media and culture decide who’s wicked and maybe don’t know the whole story. What if he wasn’t wicked? What if he were misunderstood?”
And that certainly is a grown-up concept, Stone says, “for adults may well see the parallels of how governments and societies decide on what’s good and what’s wicked based on how people look.”
“Adults are also very keyed into the story of female friendship — how women become friends and stay friends,” he observes. “There are also the choices and sacrifices that women in particular make in a male culture. So, all of these different people of different ages see the same show, appreciate it and want to talk afterward about many different things, because different audiences see different things, no matter the age, no matter the ethnicity,” he says.
Stone does acknowledge one teenage girl who loves the show — but she is hardly the type found in the usual Broadway demographic.
“A 17-year-old Arab American girl gave her commencement speech describing how ‘This is my story too,’” he reports. “Even during the show’s earliest readings, we were hearing the same thing from African American women. ‘Green’ in the show is a metaphor for anything that’s ‘other.’ Young people feel this ‘otherness’ very fully, but we all feel it and carry it with us.”
That brings him to a very different example. “Nancy Gibbs,” he says, referring to the show’s general manager, “was recently at a fundraiser in Denver with a bunch of bankers. A guy in his fifties approached her and said he loved Les Miz and Phantom, but Wicked was his favorite show, and he’d seen it 10 times. This was a fiftyish, heterosexual married man with kids type of banker,” Stone says in a case-closed voice.
Well, we certainly know there’s one girl who probably hates Wicked: Dorothy Gale. The native of Kansas, who’s used to being the star of The Wizard of Oz, can’t be pleased that she only gets minutes of stage time in the musical.
At least the actress playing her in Wicked hears “oohs” and “ahhs” of recognition for her brief appearance. Just as much as anyone else in the cast, she can tell you that those sounds are being made by voices male and female, young and old — and everything in between.