Often mistakenly referred to as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz the musical features events before and after Dorothy Gale’s whirlwind visit from Kansas. During it there is a pleasingly-restrained number of references to The Wizard of Oz, though they are well-considered and cleverly done.
Based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the show opened on Broadway in 2003 and at London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre in 2006. It imagines the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West in Baum's 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
In Maguire's story, the Wicked Witch begins life as a kind, caring green-skinned girl – Elphaba - whose ‘wickedness’ comes from suffering prejudice throughout her life, and daring to go against the strict regime of the Wizard of Oz. Wicked focuses on the friendship between Elphaba and shallow-but-popular Glinda (who later becomes the Good Witch of the North). Glinda is a surprisingly funny character, given what little we know of her from The Wizard of Oz, but she has some really comical moments including one of the show’s best-known songs, "Popular." Both roles are well written, their tumultuous relationship believable, and vocally they are also challenging. Executive Producer Michael McCabe believes that Elphaba is one of the most challenging musical theatre roles around.
McCabe first saw Wicked at a New York preview in 2003 and remains a big fan of the show admitting to still finding some moments “spine-tingling” and advises audiences to look out for his favourite part of the show, the spectacular ending to Act 1. McCabe says that, with the West End opening in 2006, “We didn’t know if British audiences would react the same as US audiences had, but from the first previews there was an obvious, very emotional reaction.” He continues, “Wicked’s success is in both its familiarity and its unfamiliarity – audiences often think they know the main characters already, but they soon realise that it’s a very different story.”
Wicked presents particular technical challenges for a touring production: 150 crew members work in the Apollo Victoria on every West End performance. Add to that a huge static set, as well as a lot of moving scenery and a staggeringly impressive wardrobe and McCabe knows that, “although there’s a burst of energy with a new production, but with the ongoing challenge of transferring a show, we absolutely have to deliver on the audience’s expectations.”
With references to Wicked in TV hits like Ugly Betty, The Simpsons and in particular Glee, its popularity with teenagers is easy to understand with themes like friendship, worries about appearance, feeling like an outsider; difficult schooldays and first crushes, but the show also touches on more unexpected issues like racism, the evils of dictatorships and the importance of freedom of speech which helps it to appeal to older audiences as well.
From September - November, audiences at Manchester’s Palace Theatre can expect to be gripped by a unique friendship, with lead roles for two strong female performers and high production values – even putting aside the story and score, the costumes alone are worth the ticket price.
Wicked will transport North West audiences to another world, filled with colourful characters and delightful hints of the familiar world of Oz – but with new characters and fresh, unexpected perspectives.
- Laura Maley