Ever read the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West as published in 1995? If you saw the Broadway musical then bought a copy in the hope of reliving on the page what you enjoyed on the stage, it’s possible you were surprised. They’re not the same. And it’s a difficult read. Rewarding, certainly if you’re an avid reader. It was a New York Times bestseller. But it’s not going to be what you remember as the untold true story of the Witches of Oz. It’s the other untold true story.
As with all Broadway musicals, the show went through a lot of development. First, it was a screenplay, but that didn’t pan out. Then it was approached as a musical for Broadway, which seemed a better idea. And as producer Marc Platt added each new element – Winnie Holzman for the book, Stephen Schwartz for music and lyrics, Joe Mantello to direct – new things came to be. In early drafts, Glinda hardly showed in the first act, but through a couple of years of rewrites, tryouts, songs written, songs removed, more rewrites and tryouts, plus the involvement of Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel during all the performance development stages, the show took on a life of its own. As writer Holzman said when quoted in the behind-the-scenes book, Wicked: The Grimmerie, “Suddenly, it was all about the friendship between Glinda and Elphaba.”
Since the show’s premiere in 2003, first in San Francisco then on Broadway, the show has made all kinds of theatrical history. At a time when new New York productions were often revivals or jukebox musicals, Wicked was something of a rarity; a brand new original musical. In the way that the development of the show took on a life of its own from the Maguire novel, so has the production itself. Wicked is so undeniably popular (which in this case should be pronounced pop-pew-ooo-lar) that sixteen years after its opening, the Joe Mantello production has become virtually critic-proof.
This current national tour, known as the Munchkinland Tour, is back at ASU Gammage in Tempe. The show has visited the valley five times. The last was in 2015 and it remained at Gammage for a six-week run. The current production will be in town until May 5. It would be fair to say that a great deal of the valley audience will have seen the show before and know exactly what to expect. So, here’s the question: How do you review a production you’ve already reviewed several times? Plus, considering this is the same Joe Mantello directed show that started with a reading in 2000, opened on Broadway in 2003 and began its first national tour in 2005, what can possibly be different? The answer’s easy. Not a lot.
Glinda’s comedy appears broader with each new visit, and this time around there seems to be a lot more of that atmospheric dry ice fog effect billowing across the stage, then disappearing down into the orchestra pit. For those who can actually see the conductor, amusingly it often appears as though he’s in his own magical cloud that swirls around him as he waves his baton like Harry Potter might wave his wand. But other than some different faces in the cast, that’s about it. And that’s just how the opening night audience liked it.
The spectacle that has become Wicked has turned the show into a virtual rock concert, where audience reaction is every bit as entertaining as the show itself. The buzz of excitement as audience members take their seats and gaze at the now familiar pre-show curtain with a design of the Land of Oz as interpreted by J.R. Tolkien is practically palpable. Then, once the lights dim on the proscenium framework that looks as though it’s built from large clockwork cogs, complete with an oversized metallic puppet dragon with the glaring red eyes perched at the top overlooking everything and everyone, the audience doesn’t just cheer, it roars. And it roars some more.
We’re also at the point where the mere appearance of a character receives applause, regardless who the performer might be. When Erin Mackey as Glinda glides in on her floating bubble and announces “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?” the line not only gets a laugh but also a louder than normal cheer as if a friend had revisited and was quoting herself. And when Mariand Torres as Elphaba first bursts on stage in a flurry, from the ecstatic reception she receives by merely showing up, you’d think Streisand had suddenly made an unannounced guest appearance in the middle of a performance. These people are truly loved.
But that applause isn’t reserved just for the fictional characters. Torres’ powerful rendition of The Wizard and I brings the house down, and it’s only the third song in the show. When Mackey begins, “Whenever I see someone / Less fortunate than I…” the applause of recognition for Popular has already begun. And Defying Gravity has become a phenomenon in and of itself. Not only is the packed crowd making a noise when Torres begins with, “Something has changed within me… ‘ the response at the moment when the green witch suddenly rises and takes flight center stage, declaring to the guards, “It’s not her you want – it’s meee!” things have already reached fever pitch. By the time the song reaches its grand climax with Elphaba’s grandstanding rebel yell and those trumpets sustaining that one long note until the dramatic blackout concluding Act One, you’d swear the plaster on the Gammage ceiling was about to crack. The cast has to feel like rock stars.
Even on this fifth time around, there’s no sign of aging. The show remains slick, the costumes and set design are as eye-catching as they ever were, and the cast with new faces are just as the audience wants to see. Wicked has become the epitome of a musical theatre crowd-pleaser. And to give the show’s success some perspective, consider the following; in an industry where almost 80 percent of Broadway shows rarely earn back their investment, and those that do recoup those production costs can take up to three years to reach that level, in just 14 months, Wicked earned back its $14 million investment. That was in 2004. It hasn’t stopped playing to packed houses. In London where the show seems to have found a permanent home at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, bookings are well into 2020.
And when you go to see the show at Gammage anytime in the next four weeks, look for the name Beka Burnham in the cast. It doesn’t tell you in the program notes, but Beka is a valley native, born and raised in Apache Junction. The first time she saw the musical was when the initial tour came to Gammage at a time when she was busy performing at local community theatres. Beka was with the tour the last time it came to town in 2015, and she’s back with the company for this presentation. Look for her in the energetic ensemble, though at some point in the next few weeks you might catch her as a principal player; Beka is also the understudy for both Glinda and Nessarose.
Wicked continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until May 5
To read a special Q&A with local talent Beka Burnham conducted in 2015, CLICK HERE
For more regarding time, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammge website.