On the long yellow brick road from page to stage, the Broadway musical Wicked encountered its fair share of flying monkeys: years of development, technical challenges, and the burden of reimagining characters from one of the most beloved stories of all time, The Wizard of Oz. But the show’s creative team saw a spark the first time Elphaba, the pre-Dorothy Wicked Witch of the West, appeared in front of an audience. ”It’s weird, but the moment the green girl came out, the audience was just over-the-top with their applause,” says producer Marc Platt.
Few could have predicted the gravity-defying heights Wicked would reach in its evolution from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel to one of the biggest hits in Broadway history. Credit goes to a hook-filled score by composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin); director Joe Mantello’s eye-popping production, which made witches and monkeys seem to fly; and star turns by the original leads: Idina Menzel (Rent) as the emerald-skinned loner Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) as the popular blond ”good witch” Glinda. ”To be honest with you, the reviews were mixed,” recalls Chenoweth. ”But oh my God, the audiences showed up. They showed up!”
In its 10 years at the Gershwin Theatre (and in productions in 13 countries), Wicked has reached 38 million theatergoers and grossed $3.1 billion. The show turned out to be a smart investment for the studio that bought the rights to Maguire’s book envisioning a nonmusical film. ”It’s the most profitable project in terms of profit margin in Universal Pictures’ history,” says Platt. (He says a film version of the musical is still in development.) Let’s head back to the early days with Wicked‘s main cast and crew to learn how this phenomenon took flight.
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had long been in the public domain when Gregory Maguire’s prequel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, was published in September 1995.
Gregory Maguire Author
Hollywood started making offers on the book within about 10 days of publication. Whoopi Goldberg called, and so did Laurie Metcalf, and apparently Claire Danes was interested at one point. Demi Moore already had a production company, so I went with her company, [which] had a working relationship with Universal. [Moore is no longer attached to Wicked.]
Marc Platt Then Universal production president
I instantly fell in love with Gregory’s brilliant idea, and given that it was set in the land of Oz, I thought there’s a potentially great, great movie in this.
Maguire I’m embarrassed to admit that I never saw it as a play or a musical. The entire time I was writing the book, I had cast the story in my head as if it were a big, broad British miniseries like The Jewel in the Crown. I had Angela Lansbury playing [witch headmistress] Madame Morrible, and Melanie Griffith with her high, high voice playing Glinda, and Elphaba played by [singer] k.d. lang because she has a beautiful voice — Elphaba in the books does sing — and this striking, untraditional beauty.
Stephen Schwartz Composer
At the end of 1996, on a boat on the way back from snorkeling, one of my friends — the folksinger Holly Near — said in idle conversation, ”Oh, I’m reading this really interesting book. It’s called Wicked and it’s the Oz story from the Wicked Witch’s point of view.” I thought, ”That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard.” When I got back to Los Angeles, I phoned my lawyer and said, ”Could you please find out who has the rights?” I knew I wanted to do a musical based on Wicked just from the title and the idea, before I’d even read the book.
Winnie Holzman Musical book writer
Stephen and I had been introduced six months before by a mutual contact at Disney who was hoping we might write an animated musical together. That was part of the reason Stephen thought of me, because during that lunch all we could talk about was this novel Wicked.
Platt Greg was a little resistant at first — he had his heart set on a film. I said to him, ”Let me do this, and your life will change.”
Maguire With all apologies to the [early] screenwriters, I thought the scripts were getting more and more juvenile and less rewarding. So I met with Stephen, and he told me the first song would be called ”No One Mourns the Wicked.” With those five words, I saw that he was going to put the moral question of how we label and villainize our enemies center stage.
With Maguire’s blessing, Schwartz, Holzman, and Platt began plotting out a musical based on the 406-page novel. In 2000, they held a bare-bones read-through, casting Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and Stephanie J. Block as Elphaba.
Kristin Chenoweth Glinda
I had just done the big hit sitcom Kristin for NBC. [Laughs] Stephen Schwartz left me a message and said, ”I’m writing this with you in mind.” And I thought, ”Oh, I’m so tired.” We had just shot 13 episodes. Then he sent the script over, and I immediately said yes.
Schwartz The very first reading was in the basement of the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, just with an ad hoc group of actors that Winnie and I knew. At that point we had only a first act and it was two and a half hours long.
Platt There were songs that worked better than others, songs that didn’t work at all. At the end of that reading, an African-American woman came up to us with tears streaming down her face, saying, ”You just told my story of my journey in America as a black woman.” The three of us looked at each other and allowed ourselves to think that maybe there was something in this material.
Holzman The biggest lesson that came from the reading was that whenever the girls were on stage together, or one of them was there, the play seemed to make sense. When they [weren’t in a scene], the play wasn’t as interesting.
Schwartz Winnie and I actually made a little sign for ourselves along the lines of the famous James Carville sign for the Clinton campaign: ”It’s the girls, stupid.”
While Chenoweth had been attached to the musical since day one, the creative team launched a major search for a new Elphaba for Broadway.
Platt I remember Idina’s audition vividly because it was shortly after 9/11. Idina walked in and she had on green eye shadow and fingernails, and there was something uniquely creaturelike that stood out.
Idina Menzel Elphaba
For the callback they made me learn ”Defying Gravity.” I was doing really well, then I totally cracked on the high, high note at the end. I screamed ”F—!” at the top of my lungs. Then, without the piano player, I sang the note again to show that I could actually hit it and I kept going. [Director] Joe Mantello says that’s what got me the role. He could see that I was able to play a witch.
On May 28, 2003, after three years of development, Wicked debuted at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre for a trial run before New York.
Maguire I saw the play about eight times in San Francisco because I wanted it to be deeply ingrained in my head in case it closed after three weeks.
Joe Mantello Director
The scene that let me know we were on the right path was Elphaba’s first entrance. As she ran to downstage right toward the audience and stopped, the audience erupted in cheers. Idina had somewhat of a profile then, but it wasn’t entrance applause for a star. It was this wave of affection and delight at seeing this iconic character as a young woman. I thought, ”Okay, great. We get that for free.” Now it’s ours to f— up.
[pagebreak]Holzman It was like one of those old-time movies about musicals, those clichés of out-of-town tryouts where I was rewriting in a hotel room almost every night.
Chenoweth We were rehearsing during the day and then putting in changes and doing them that night. That’s why I’ve always said, ”Broadway is just not for wimps.”
Menzel That was the hardest thing, to get sleep and to learn lots of new lines that they were throwing at you. But mostly, trying to muster up as much self-esteem as I could so that I could be this powerful woman and own the stage.
Schwartz There was a moment early on in San Francisco when we knew we had something. We were running way too long and costing the producers extra money. Joe, Winnie, Marc, [producer] David Stone, and I discussed what we were going to do next, and it was the most contentious meeting we ever had. Tensions were high — there were angry words and tears. I left quite annoyed and headed over to the theater, where I saw this huge crowd outside. My first thought was that there had been a terrible accident, like a car had gone out of control and run into the theater. I went rushing up, and it was this huge line of people waiting for the box office to open. And this was after three previews.
Since the show was set in Oz, audiences expected magic — and witches who could fly. Wicked opens with Glinda entering in a giant bubble. At the end of Act I, Elphaba brings the house down with the vocally challenging song ”Defying Gravity” as a hydraulic lift raises her high above the stage.
Chenoweth I’m not afraid of heights, but I do have this inner-ear disorder and I get vertigo. Sometimes when I would go up in my bubble, I would be a little off-kilter.
Schwartz A few things never changed from our original outline, and one of those was that the end of the first act was going to be Elphaba coming into her powers and flying for the first time, which became ”Defying Gravity.”
Mantello We went round and round, months and months, trying to figure out how to get Elphaba to fly. I was at dinner one night with Marc hashing it out, and there were crayons and a white paper tablecloth. I was like, ”When Idina sings ‘Defying Gravity’ sitting at a music stand, it works. It’s emotional. We don’t have to make her fly literally. We have to get the audience to imagine that she’s flying. Nobody in the middle of this song wants to see Idina hanging from two wires.” I sketched [Elphaba rising on a platform] and this big, flowing cape, and then we got excited about that. We ripped off that piece of the tablecloth and brought it to [scenic designer] Eugene Lee. I still get goose bumps every time I see the scene.
Menzel Singing ”Defying Gravity” in the air eight times a week is [hell]. But when you think about the little girl who comes from somewhere in middle America and it’s the first time she’s seeing it, you need to do it for her. Maybe once in all the time I was there the platform didn’t go up. I had to let myself out of the safety belt and then come downstage and sing. Every other time it worked perfectly.
Wicked opened on Broadway on Oct. 30, 2003, to mixed reviews (ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY gave it a B) but great box office. The following June, Avenue Q edged it out for Best Musical at the Tony Awards. Chenoweth and Menzel were both nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, and Menzel won.
Chenoweth I always saw Glinda as a supporting role, but the producers said, ”You got these amazing reviews…. You should be in Leading Actress.” And I said, ”Whatever — I didn’t do this job to win a Tony.” I had one [for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1999]. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would win — but I was happy when my costar won, because that meant our show won.
Menzel For a long time I was worried I was going to be fired, so to be recognized that way…it’s still hard to talk about it. You don’t feel 100 percent worthy, especially when you’re on stage with someone like Kristin.
Although they played best friends on stage, talk of a behind-the-scenes rivalry between Menzel and Chenoweth has swirled around Broadway circles for the past decade.
Menzel We were like sisters, together constantly. Kristin and I have the ultimate, utmost respect for each other and admiration for what each of us can do. When you work together for a year and a half, you bite — I bite my husband’s head off nightly — but we were real advocates for each other and tried to protect each other and stand by each other.
Mantello As actors, Kristin and Idina work in very, very different ways that mirrored the dynamic in the story. Kristin is precise, polished, and deeply lovable and hilarious and outgoing. And Idina is much more private, soulful. She takes her time and her process is slower. So it was interesting to watch the two of them not only work on the show but work with each other.
Chenoweth We’re very different actors and we don’t see each other often, but that doesn’t mean there was drama. Are the Friends still seeing each other every day? Do Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow get together for lunch? They’ll forever be linked and I’m sure they’ll always have a bond, but they probably don’t get to see each other as much as they’d like.
Mantello To this day, and this is no slight to any of the actors that we’ve since had in those roles, there has never been the natural chemistry that Kristin and Idina had with each other. It’s nothing I did, and it’s nothing they did. They just had it.