The musical Wicked has conquered the world since its Broadway debut in 2003. Retelling the story of The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, the show has picked up major awards in the US and UK, and entertained millions of people across the globe. Now it has come to China, and we went behind the curtain to see how the magic is made.
As with the Wizard’s magic, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. The set fills 16 shipping containers, and take four days to assemble. There are no compromises or short cuts for the tour, we were assured by Resident Director Leigh Constantine. “This is exactly the same production you would see on Broadway or at the West End,” she told us. “In fact, we’ve added some extras.”
Almost as complex as the set are the award-winning costumes. The cast of 31 wear a total of 350 different outfits in each performance, with the quickest costume change taking only 15 seconds. Glinda’s “bubble dress” has hundreds of hand-sewn sequins, and the monkey masks are individually molded to fit each cast member’s face. There were even fabrics specially created for Wicked.
The show is loosely based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and was co-written by Stephen Schwarz, creator of Godspell and Pippin. In some ways it follows the classic blueprint for Broadway musicals, with plenty of spectacle and big set pieces. The songs tug shamelessly at the heartstrings, when they’re not tickling the funny bone, but you’d have to be jaded indeed not to feel elation at the thrilling climax of “Defying Gravity,” when music, narrative and stagecraft combine to stunning effect.
What makes Wicked unusual is that it is primarily a story of female friendship. There is of course romance too. Male lead Bradley Jaden, as Fiyero, fulfils the role of love interest perfectly (and caused outbreaks of blushing and giggliness among several female members of the press corps). His Chinese nickname is “the President,” he was told, to his considerable surprise.
At the heart of the musical though is the relationship between fiery outsider Elphaba and privileged, popular Glinda. They are destined to become the Wicked Witch and the Good Fairy, but the book plays with the shifting meanings of those words: when Fiyero purrs “Oh, you’re good,” on first meeting Glinda, he’s referring to her skill at social manipulation, not her moral virtue.
Jacqueline Hughes brings to the role of Elphaba a suitably awkward charm and vulnerability, as well as a voice of impressive range and control. The tour’s principal Glinda, Carly Anderson, was flying back from her wedding during the performance we saw, but understudy Elizabeth Futter brought out the humor and pathos in a complex character.
Anderson’s is in fact the second marriage to have taken place during the tour. The cast have been on the road for over a year now, and work hard to keep each performance fresh. “You have to approach each show as though it’s a new thing,” said Emily Shaw, who plays Nessarose. We asked the company’s Wizard, Steven Pinder, how he feels about following in the footsteps of Joel Gray, who created the part on Broadway. “It’s a responsibility and an honor,” he said. “That’s one of the things that keeps you focused for every performance.”
The enthusiasm of cast and crew for the show seems genuine. Kim Ismay talked about how she saw the original production, and what a thrill it is to now be taking the part of Madam Morrible. Iddon Jones, who plays Boq, summed up what it means to them: “it’s a show celebrating difference and making a difference.” As Constantine said, “if somebody sees this show, then notices someone sitting alone and goes over and says hello, then that’s something really good that’s come out of it.”
Photos: Andrew Killeen, broadwayworld.com
This post first appeared on our sister site, The Beijinger.