Why Wicked feels so good

The epiphany happens during a backstage tour at the Apollo Theatre in London.

I am one of a gaggle of Irish journalists who has just watched the hit musical Wicked — the untold story of the witches of Oz — and, just as Dorothy discovered that a machine is the source of the wizard’s power, so too do we suddenly come across the nuts, bolts and props that make the magical show happen.

We also meet a life-size, pea-green rubber baby — it’s obviously a prop but most of the women in the group coo as they pass. And we encounter the wizard’s throne with its giant head — all wires and gee-whiz technology behind. It’s the real stuff of magic.

Through a warren of steps and narrow corridors, we come to a final halt at the costume room. Stuffed with more than 400 costumes designed by Susan Hilferty, we get a close-up view of her zany, intricate work: a tapestry of shapes, endless material, chiffon, ribbon, beading and no small amount of craftsmanship. Some costumes are really heavy, though you would never guess it from the way the actors glide across the stage.

“It is as much a performance and ballet backstage as it is on stage,” says Anthony Field, the high-energy company manager. “There are some scene changes where you literally have to stand in a certain place at a certain time.”

With 170 production staff, the choreography must be complex.

We have been invited to see Wicked on the day its producers announce the show will open in Dublin on Nov 27. Having first opened on Broadway in 2003, nine international productions are now running concurrently. Wicked has been seen by 38m people, pulling in $2.9bn at the box office.

The show is supported by a loyal legion of teenage fans, with some super fans having seen it hundreds of times. With its appeal to the social media generation, it’s no surprise to hear that the New York show has more than 600,000 friends on Facebook. Fans also use Twitter and dedicated sites to chat about cast members and swap secretly recorded video clips. Punch the show’s title into YouTube and you’ll find a stream of clips — official and unofficial.

Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel written in 1995, the plot of Wicked runs parallel to the original story — though at times slipping into prequel and sequel mode. Elements of L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz weave in and out of the plot — we meet Dorothy, Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow along the way — driving the narrative along a predictable path. The show also offers a familiar setting, echoing the immortal line, “there is no place like home”.

At one level Wicked is a story of friendship between two teenage girls. From the outset, it’s an unlikely alliance. Popular but shallow Glinda is all blonde tresses with peaches and cream skin. Bright but socially awkward, Elphaba has her dark hair scraped back from her face and is green from head to toe.

Their preoccupations are typical: clothes, making friends, difficult teachers, rivalry over boyfriends and working out who they are. Though arch enemies when they first meet, their on-off friendship ultimately leads them to discover their true power: Glinda the Good Witch becomes leader of Oz and Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West, finds the courage of her convictions.

At another level the show is about the redemption of the Wicked Witch of the West, one of the most reviled figures in children’s literature. We learn she is a passionate defender of animal rights and is prepared to take on the might of Oz to protect them, even if it means she may have to pay the ultimate price. Elphaba, we realise, is in fact the good one, the one who remains true to her values. In a word: evergreen.

At yet another, wider level, we encounter what happens when corruption is allowed to run unchecked and those who challenge the leadership are demonised. It’s a familiar political tale we’ve seen acted out down through the generations and will strike a deep chord with Irish audiences in the context of the banking disaster.

Along with the theatrical and political aspects, there is an outreach anti-bullying programme for teachers which brings the core message of tolerance and acceptance — “everyone deserves the chance to fly,” sings Elphaba — to the heart of the classroom. Bringing the show’s commitment a step further, last year Wicked executive producer Michael McCabe announced its partnership with England rugby player Ben Cohen who has set up the StandUp Foundation.

Moral tales and responsibilities aside, Wicked never strays far from its roots — a rousing song and dance show with a feelgood message. Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics deliver big belters like ‘Popular’ and ‘Defying Gravity’. The acrobatic dance troupe inject an important energy to the show, lifting sky high what at times is a troubling story of deception and loss.

Then there’s Winnie Holzman’s fast-moving script which, with its clever gags and jibes at the original script, never allows the story to sag. And the lavish set is a joy to behold.

Our backstage tour ends where it started, on the tilted stage which opens out to the empty vast cantilevered auditorium of 2,292 seats. Yet another revelation awaits us.

Between rows of seats near the front, two teams, a mix of performers and production staff, play volleyball using a temporary net. With the show entering its seventh year and many of the original team still on board, there is what Anthony Field refers to as, “a big social thing going on with the group” .

I spot the Wizard of Oz among them. Off-duty and dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he is jumping and reaching into the air with gusto. Could it be that Ephaba has transformed him from cruel oppressor to team player? That the magic of Wicked continues beyond the stage? Or perhaps I’ve a had an epiphany too many.

* Wicked runs in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin from Nov 27 to Jan 18. bordgaisenergytheatre.ie; 0818-719377

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