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Oohs & Oz

Musical about the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West casts a spell on audiences

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2011 (3202 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Was the Wicked Witch really bad or just the victim of bad press?

JOAN MARCUS

Was the Wicked Witch really bad or just the victim of bad press?

Struggling American writer Gregory Maguire was far from Munchkinland when he first contemplated a trip down the yellow brick road.

Maguire had landed in London in 1990 at a time when he was musing about the nature of evil and noticed the way the Western press vilified Saddam Hussein as the next Adolph Hitler in a blatant attempt to whip up public support for military action against Iraq.

It prompted him to ask whether anyone is truly bad or simply a victim of bad press.

As a subject, Hitler was a tad overexposed, so the children's book author opted to focus on the second-scariest character in contemporary culture, the never-before-written-about Wicked Witch of the West, last seen in the iconic 1939 MGM movie melting into a hissing green puddle.

L. Frank Baum's 1900 book -- the basis of the Judy Garland film classic -- tells readers she's wicked but not why. Maguire asked the question: What if she isn't?

He then concocted the untold backstory of the green sorceress and for the first time gave her a first name: Elphaba (an amalgamation of the first three vowels of Baum's name).

A scene from the original Broadway production of Wicked.

SUPPLIED

A scene from the original Broadway production of Wicked.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West has sold four million copies since its release in 1995, after which it was optioned as a movie by Hollywood producer Marc Platt (Legally Blonde, Nine). Several failed screenplays during the late '90s left the door open to composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) to pitch his idea of turning the story into a stage musical with TV writer Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life).

ImageTag)What emerged in the fall of 2003 was Wicked, the only musical in the last 20 years to match the boffo box office of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Last week it became the 15th longest-running show in the history of Broadway, where it continues to sell every ticket every week. Worldwide, there are seven Wicked productions, one of which stops at the Centennial Concert Hall for the first time on Wednesday and runs through Sept. 4.

Maguire's novel has since been overshadowed by Wicked, which has been seen by 28 million people around the world. The play's pop-culture cred was evident last May when Glee, itself a television phenomenon, filmed its season finale on the Broadway stage where Wicked has been presented over 3,230 times.

It threatens to become more popular than its beloved inspiration.

"That depends on where you are in life," says Platt, the 50-something former president of three movie studios. "I grew up on The Wizard of Oz and it has a special place in my heart and perhaps nothing can replace it. Younger people, when they think of those Wizard of Oz characters, they think of Wicked."

That the stage musical has become a recognizable global brand isn't lost on Warner Bros. when it comes to marketing its prized The Wizard of Oz movie. Traditionally, advertising has depended on the image of Judy Garland and her ruby slippers, but recently that changed when it came to selling a new anniversary DVD.

"For the first time, the advertising was all about the green witch, which shows how the culture has shifted," says Platt, during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "It did make me smile."

Wicked finds a family-friendly happy medium between Maguire's first book for adults and the familiar events from The Wizard of Oz. The morality/fantasy tale remains true to Maguire's theme of political corruption, but it's centred around the burgeoning friendship of Elphaba and the blond social climber Glinda, Oz's Good Witch of the South. Instead of the infamous black-clad crone on a broomstick, Elphaba is an attractive, albeit green, outsider whose emotional journey is a magnet for those theatre-goers who see themselves as life's misfits.

"I think a lot of people can relate to feeling outcast and misunderstood, no matter what age you are," says Anne Brummel, who is playing Elphaba in the American touring production. "I think everyone at one point has felt that."

Sharp-eyed theatre-goers who can see through her green makeup will recognize the 31-year-old Brummel, who played the shunned glamour feline Grizabella in a touring production of Cats eight years ago, and appeared and in a 2008 Manitoba Theatre Centre revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which starred her father David Brummel alternating the role of Tevye with Jay Brazeau.

The New Yorker remembers the latter run fondly, despite the midwinter temperatures, because it was the first time she worked professionally with her dad.

"It was as cold as you get," she says. "I can't say I was able to see a lot of Winnipeg."

Kermit the Frog famously declared that it's not easy being green, but Brummel doesn't find it much of a chore. It takes her about 25 minutes in the makeup chair, and by curtain time, she's pretty hot for a emerald-skinned girl, if she does say so herself.

"The first time I looked at my green face in a mirror I thought I looked beautiful," she says. "It's a beautiful makeup job. Your cheeks are accentuated, your eyes are accentuated. You look great."

Meanwhile, Platt is still intent on developing a Wicked movie, it's just that he's not in a hurry as long as it continues to be a licence to print money.

"It is fast becoming one of the most, if not the most, profitable shows in Broadway history," says Platt, whose new movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, opens next month. "It remains the number one show on Broadway. We're not dragging our feet as much as we're not in a hurry."

Theatre preview

  • Wicked
  • Aug. 24-Sept. 4
  • Centennial Concert Hall
  • Tickets: $76.50-$138.70 (includes fees) at Ticketmaster

Daily lottery for $25 Wicked tickets

Wicked will be holding a daily lottery where names will be drawn for a limited number of orchestra seats at $25 each. Each day, two hours prior to show time people who present themselves at the Centennial Concert Hall box office will have their names placed in a lottery drum and if their names are drawn 30 minutes later they can buy orchestra seats for $25, cash only.

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History

Updated on Monday, August 22, 2011 at 12:02 PM CDT: Number of worldwide productions corrected to seven.

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