In America, The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films in history.
“It is our national fairy tale,” says David Stone, who, as one of the lead producers of the smash musical Wicked, added a glorious new chapter to the story 10 years ago. In Finland or Japan, by comparison, audiences don’t know the first thing about Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, let alone the witches Elphaba and Glinda. Nevertheless, Wicked has been an equally incredible success in these and many, many other countries — even if, as Stone says, “we had to explain in some cases what a scarecrow is.”
“The audiences in these countries take it at face value as we tell our story,” says Winnie Holzman, the book writer of Wicked. “That was a real surprise for us.”
Holzman had picked up Gregory Maguire’s novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, an inventive prequel to The Wizard of Oz, at a bookstore in the mid-1990s. After unsuccessful attempts to obtain the rights to the novel and subsequently discovering that it was going to become a movie at Universal Studios, Holzman says, she ultimately couldn’t bring herself to read the book: “I was so heartbroken that I put it away.”
Some time after that, she had lunch with composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz to discuss a possible Disney project. Although they each expressed interest in Wicked during the meal, she was still surprised six months later when Schwartz called her and said, as she recalls, “‘Listen, I’ve convinced Marc Platt at Universal to let me turn Wicked into a musical, and I think you should finally read the book now.’”
The rest is history — history that is continually being rewritten as Schwartz’s and Holzman’s adaptation sets box office records around the world. From its 1.1 million Facebook followers to its nearly 100 major international awards, including three Tonys and a Grammy, Wicked has shown the heart, brains and courage to reign as Broadway’s highest-grossing show for nine consecutive years.
(Ironically, one of the beneficiaries of Wicked’s success is Universal Pictures, which decided not to pursue the movie but did invest in the stage version. “They have said that it is the single most lucrative project they have ever been a part of,” Stone says, “and that includes E.T. and Jaws and Jurassic Park.”)
Holzman admitted that she was concerned about honoring the source material. “People really enjoyed our adaptation as long as we were respectful of The Wizard of Oz,” she says. “There’s a great affection for the movie, and we treat that as very real. We’re just trying to show other parts of the story — what could have ended up on the cutting-room floor.”
Several pieces of Wicked itself ended up cut from its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco. The producers had allowed for time to fix any lingering issues with the show before it came to New York, and Holzman says she, Schwartz and director Joe Mantello took full advantage of the extra time. “Even when the play was clunkier and too long, particularly in the first act, the audience was clearly way into it.”
Even so, she says, “it was always a question mark whether it would succeed in New York.” After 10 record-breaking years and nearly 7.5 million tickets sold at the Gershwin Theatre alone, it’s safe to say that her question has been answered.