Nobody foresaw the success of Wicked. As it comes to Ireland, Marjorie Brennan chats to one of the stars about the musical’s particular appeal among young females
WHEN the musical Wicked opened on Broadway in 2003, no-one could have foreseen the phenomenon it would become. It certainly wasn’t a hit with critics, with the the New York Times writing:
However, two breakout performances from Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, an engaging plot and belting songbook proved hugely popular with audiences. Another potent ingredient in the success of Wicked was that it offered something relatively unique to fans of musical theatre — a female-centred story.
Based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked is a prequel of sorts to L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and follows the complicated friendship between Glinda and Elphaba who meet at boarding school, long before they become, respectively, the Good Witch and Wicked Witch of the West. Like the movie Frozen (in which Menzel played the role of Elsa) traditional romance takes a back seat to a different kind of love story: how strong bonds of friendship and sisterhood can help us weather the slings and arrows of life.
While Wicked entranced audiences of all ages, male and female, it seemed to cast a particular spell on young girls. Its appeal was enhanced by the rise of social media as young fans went online in their droves to discuss the musical, offering precious word-of-mouth publicity. They embraced its themes of empowerment and self-realisation, seeing their own lives reflected in the central characters’ struggles with insecurity over their appearance and angst over romantic relationships.
In the 15 years since it opened, the show has been seen by over 50 million people around the world and continues to draw huge crowds. Irish audiences will get another chance to see the show, as it returns to Dublin next month after a hugely successful run in 2013.
Helen Woolf, who plays Glinda in the touring production, agrees that the female-driven nature of Wicked makes it different from most musicals.
“For two female performers to be the leads in a musical theatre production speaks volumes. A lot of the stuff that’s out there, it’s about the male/female love story. What I love about this show is that it’s about girl power,” says Woolf.
The show’s portrayal of friendship complicated by rivalry resonates with female audiences: how Glinda and Elphaba navigate those tensions to come out stronger in the end is a key part of the story.
“People look at Glinda and think she’s a bright bubbly airhead but she makes some really tough decisions, as does Elphaba… it’s about their emotional journey throughout the show. They both go through huge highs and lows. The thing that brings them back together is their friendship, which is lovely.”
While Wicked has been the subject of many feminist readings, Woolf herself is hesitant to call herself the ‘f’ word.
“I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it… I think anything that empowers anyone or tells a story or does some good in the world is alright by me,” she says.
Wicked features a glut of strong vocal numbers, including the show-stopping ‘Defying Gravity’; Glinda and Elphaba are plum roles for any aspiring performer, something of which Woolf is very much aware.
“It is such a privilege to be able to play this part. In the history of Wicked — because I’m sure it will go on forever — my name is going to be up there with those people who I really aspired to be when I was training. Most days I have to pinch myself that I’m actually doing it but eventually it becomes the norm. Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back and think, gosh, look at this massive dream machine that we are part of… it’s wonderful.”
It’s also a hugely demanding role. For the touring production, Woolf performs in eight shows a week and she has a routine outside of performances that helps her cope with the vocal and physical demands.
“We have a four-week rehearsal process before we start the show and literally every bar of music is drilled into us. It then becomes a bit more like muscle memory. I think it is as important to have time away from the show as it is to dedicate yourself to it. Having a healthy mind is a massive contributing factor to getting through an eight-show week. I stay physically fit, I try and eat healthily. I don’t go out much anymore which is a bit boring, but my pay-off is I get to play this incredible role.”
Woolf was in the original UK and Ireland cast for the touring production of Wicked, and was then part of the London company for three years. For her, there is a special energy that comes with touring.
“I love it when we do a venue change. Every time we move, there is a slightly different vibe in the theatre. There is barely ever a single night where the audience isn’t up on its feet at the end of the show. You know you are part of something special and magical but when you’re the one out there delivering that story, I guess you are looking for that gratification. It’s lovely that it does translate wherever we go. When I was part of the original UK and Ireland tour back in 2013, we played the Bord Gais Energy theatre and the crowd there was brilliant so I’m really looking forward to coming back and experiencing that again.”
Musicals continue to hold their own as our attention spans shrink, with classic shows such as Wicked retaining their appeal and innovative productions such as Hamilton drawing in a new generation of fans. Woolf says musicals offer people something that is becoming harder and harder to achieve — a chance to switch off and immerse themselves in an enjoyable cultural experience.
“I love coming to work and leaving my phone in my dressing room for a few hours but it’s also great for the 3,000 people we are performing to. It is so healthy to shut those doors and get immersed in something for a few hours and it is so rewarding that we get to deliver that.”
In terms of future roles, Woolf says there is one other legendary musical that she would love to be part of.
“One of the first musicals I ever listened to was The Phantom of the Opera, the part of Christine is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’d love to add that to my CV one day but we’ll see.”
Woolf didn’t attend drama school until she was 27, something she says was an asset to her when she became a professional performer. Having that life experience and maturity meant she was well-prepared for the often-daunting audition process.
“It was a bit later in life than most people but having life experience and being able to bring real-life situations to a role, you can’t train for that. You have to experience life, love and loss to be able to replicate that and communicate that when you are telling a story.
“Going into auditions, the best thing I ever learned was to be prepared and be yourself.”
Wicked runs at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin from July 17 to September 1