Having a familiar, even mythical, character take unexpected turns is a savvy technique of the revisionist storyteller.
Of the many components that have made the musical “Wicked” such an international box office and critical success, this wholesale re-imagining of a beloved story, “The Wizard of Oz,” may be the secret to its staying power.
But after nine years and a gross of $2.5 billion, no one really has the answer.
“I don't think it can be reduced to one ingredient,” says “Wicked” producer Marc Platt, a stage and film impresario who formerly ran the movie studios Orion, TriStar and Universal. “No one can predict when or how something becomes a phenomenon and takes on a life of its own in the culture. But ‘Wicked' is a very satisfying entertainment for the broadest possible demographic — all ages and backgrounds.”
Yes. But why? “First, the essential idea of an iconic story being revisited and retold is conceptually kind of brilliant, I think. And of course the individual elements of the music and lyrics and the book each contribute to its being a phenomenon.”
Make way. The phenomenon comes to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center for a nearly two-week run beginning Wednesday.
Before Dorothy Based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, the musical takes place in a time well before Dorothy drops in to walk the Yellow Brick Road.
This time, the story is told from the perspective of the Land of Oz's resident witches: Elphaba (played by Anne Brummel), the misunderstood girl with emerald-green skin, and Galinda (Tiffany Haas), the lovely, ambitious and popular blonde who eventually becomes known simply as Glinda.
How these two unlikely friends evolve into the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North, enduring along the way a rivalry over the same love interest, is the focus of a tale that speaks to present-day social issues, says Haas.
“Wicked” is a story of a friendship between two girls from different walks of life who take the opportunity to discover each other. During one song, you have Elphaba on one side of the stage all by herself and Glinda on other side surrounded by all of her friends. One alone, shunned, and the other is supposed to be this perfect girl.
“It's really a story of our society. It's so easy for people to just go along with the crowd or to bully those who are different. It takes that one person willing to step out of the crowd and get to know someone for who they really are, putting all judgments aside.”
More than a prequel Haas says “Wicked” can be seen as a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” that centers on two of the film's supporting characters, but that the musical inhabits its own universe.
“ ‘Wicked' stands on its own as an original story without the reference point,” adds Platt, whose work in television includes HBO's “Empire Falls” and ABC's “The Path To 9/11.”
“It has two strong female protagonists who are very different, and I think very aspirational for young people. It's a little bit of a Cinderella story, too. Audiences are transported, yes, but it is still a story they can relate to their own lives.”
For Glinda, it's also about self-discovery.
“She finds she must persevere and prove herself not only to others but to herself,” says Haas, who understudied the role as a member of the Broadway company. “As an actor, I'm constantly doing the same thing, proving myself, so obviously I can identify.
“Anne and I are friends off stage and on, and we have a blast doing the show. It's thrilling how much we all love and believe in the story. To also experience its success is something special.”
A throne totters Initially, Platt was developing “Wicked” as a film, but was not satisfied with the storytelling in the screenplay. Then Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Enchanted,” “Pocahontas”) called him one day and “a light went on.” Platt realized he had a natural-born musical in his hands. Bringing Holzman (“My So Called Life,” “thirtysomething”) on board wouldn't hurt.
“The approach was a way of opening a door to all sorts of wonderful things,” Platt says. “I knew the story in its best form should exist first on stage and then become a film — we've just begun to develop another screenplay, by the way — and I'm proud to say that the performances and production quality of our touring companies is every bit as good as it was on the Broadway original eight years ago.”
At this pace, “Wicked” may in time supplant “The Phantom of the Opera” as ruler of the musical theater summit. There are seven productions of “Wicked” at play worldwide: in New York, London, Japan, Holland and Australia/Asia as well as the two North American national tours.
“It certainly is not yet near the level of longevity of ‘Phantom' — 25 years — but in terms of what it has grossed, ‘Wicked' is remarkable,” says Platt. “We may have eclipsed ‘Phantom' on Broadway in this respect, but keep in mind that prices are higher now and we performed on Broadway in a much larger theater.
“There have been other musicals that, from time to time, have been transported around the world, like ‘The Lion King,' but it is certainly not the norm. The subject matter doesn't necessarily translate abroad, though. With ‘Wicked,' it does.”
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.