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The Evolution of Wicked

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Wicked the Musical has become a global sensation, breaking box office records around the world and gaining a legion of fans. Now after over half a decade in London’s West End the first ever UK National tour is hitting the road and flying in to Manchester first from Sept 2013 at the Manchester Palace Theatre.

So let’s take a look at the evolution of the show and how it went from critically disliked to publicly loved. The musical written by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman and based on the bestselling novel by Gregory Maguire started life in San Francisco with a much hyped out of town try out. Before the show even played a single performance all eyes were on the show with people predicting it would either be a huge hit or an epic flop.
During its try out mixed reports came from San Francisco, the show had problems and some audience members on theatrical chat boards were ready to write the show off as a muddled mess. The show seemed to have all the ingredients to be a big family hit show but they still had a lot of work to do. Opening a show out of town allows the creative team to get feedback before moving it to Broadway and putting the show in front of the notoriously tough New York critics, this way the team can make changes that need to be made.

The show opened to the press in San Francisco on June 10th 2003 to mixed reviews. The creative team were already aware of the problems with the show though and were changing things on a nightly basis during its try out. A song called "Which Way Is The Party" was dumped and replaced with "Dancing Through Life", scenes were reworked, cut and added, choreography changed etc etc. One of the big problems the show had was that Elphaba (played by Rent star Idina Menzel) was getting overshadowed in the show by Glinda played by Kristen Chenoweth, the show needed refocusing to balance the parts out.

With only a few months in between closing out of town and opening on Broadway the cast and crew worked hard to extensively retool the show. Previews began on Broadway on Oct 8th at the Gershwin Theatre, and more changes were made and on 30th October it opened to the New York Press. Reviews were not what anyone involved in the show were hoping for, the all important New York Times critic Ben Brantley loved the production but not the actual show, he also had praise for the two lead ladies.

Criticisms were pointed heavily at the book for the show with plot holes galore and fans of the original novel were horrified how ‘family friendly' it had become (the original novel is much darker). On the business side however Wicked was becoming a monster hit, box office was high and the producers of the show had realised that the shows main fan base were young girls who could relate to the stories of the two central roles.

Wicked had fast become the big financial hit of the year, if not a favourite with critics and regular theatre goers, those young girls would keep the show running to this very day. Even with its huge success, the theatre industry were ready to deal it one final blow. During the Tony Awards that year the show seemed like a lock to win Best Musical (on the other run up award shows it had just done that), an award which can hugely increase your box office sales, but it was not to be. Whilst Menzel walked away victorious it would be Avenue Q which had thrilled critics and audiences that would win Best New Musical.
Around the rest of the world the show has had a similar reception, opening in the West End the show broke box office records but critics largely dismissed the show calling it ‘overblown’, ‘preachy’ and ‘lacking heart’, although many did enjoy the spectacle of it all. The show also failed to receive an Olivier Award Nomination for Best New Musical.
So why has a show that was largely written off by the critics and theatre awards endured and enjoyed such success?  It’s simple, behind the spectacle of it all are two female characters who its target audience can believe in, relate to and understand, the unpopular girl who just wants to belong and the popular girl who learns to see past outer beauty and see the person inside.

The show is a feel good spectacle, a name, an attraction, it’s a safe bet for those buying tickets. Wicked will never be a great musical, but it does exactly what you hope it will do and has enough chord changes and power anthems to keep the general public satisfied.  And whilst the book may be clunky and the score is hit and miss, it IS an original score, something becoming more rare in musical theatre as jukebox musicals especially here in the UK are taking over.

So, whilst it might not be a musical favourite of mine I can see many people have been spellbound by the show. I personally welcome Wicked to Manchester, after all it’s a new show for the North West and looks set to do big business for the magnificent Palace Theatre.

So if you want to see the musical that defied the critics and industry and came out flying then book to see Wicked, it’s a safe bet for a good night.
Until next time,
- Craig Hepworth

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