Margaret Hamilton would be proud.
The late actress became forever known as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 Judy Garland film The Wizard of Oz, and though she had an early love-hate relationship with the association, she came to embrace it — and even poke fun at it — as time went on.
She gets her due in Wicked, the hugely successful Broadway musical that opens a three-week run Wednesday in the Stranahan Theater.
Based on the book by Gregory Maguire, Wicked is the story of how Elphaba, the daughter of the governor of Munchkinland, became the Wicked Witch; how Galinda, a social butterfly, became Glinda the Good, beloved protector of Oz, and how many of the elements in the novels by L. Frank Baum came to be.
Conversations with Marcie Dodd, who plays Elphaba, and producer Marc Platt reveal two people who believe in the show's message, appeal, and staying power.
‘Outside the norm'
Born with green skin, Elphaba “is the poster child for being something different,” Dodd said in a telephone interview from Dayton, where Wicked was playing last month.
“No one quite understands what to do with her,” and that speaks to anyone who has ever felt a little bit outside the norm, she said.
Elphaba and Galinda (she has not yet changed her name) meet at Shiz University, where the former is mocked and shunned by her classmates, both for her skin color and for being a serious student, and the latter is the original Miss Popularity, with perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect laugh, and perfect wardrobe.
To the dismay of each, they become roommates.
Other students at Shiz include Elphaba's younger sister, Nessarose, who is traditionally beautiful but unable to walk; Boq, a Munchkin in love with Galinda, which is a source of glee to the shallow girl, and Fiyero, a handsome prince who attracts the attention of both Elphaba and Galinda.
Dodd, who played Elphaba on Broadway in late 2008 and early 2009, said her favorite part of the show is not the one most people might expect — “Defying Gravity,” the close of Act I during which Elphaba first takes to the sky. Rather, it's the scene set to the song “Popular,” in which Galinda and Elphaba take tentative steps toward friendship.
“I think that transition is a really big step for both Elphaba and Galinda, for them to kind of let their guards down and see something new as exciting and not scary, see something new as something to be embraced,” Dodd said.
From film to musical
Initially, Wicked wasn't supposed to be a stage show.
Platt, who spoke from his office in Los Angeles, said he bought the rights to Maguire's book and was trying to develop it as a film for Universal Studios but the screenplays he'd commissioned were not working.
“There was something lacking in the stories. They really weren't magical in some way,” he said.
Then one day, he got a phone call from composer Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, Fosse), who suggested turning it into a stage musical.
“And the moment he said ‘musical' I thought that's exactly what's missing. This is a world … that wants to be musicalized, and that's where the magic will come from, and I said to Universal Pictures, ‘I'm going to stop developing it as a film and go develop it as a stage musical,' and I never looked back,” Platt said.
The show opened on Broadway in October, 2003, won three Tony Awards, and is still running .
What makes it work
Platt says four elements contribute to the phenomenon that is Wicked.
“First and foremost, it is an utterly satisfying experience from beginning to end,” he said. It's the great spectacle that audiences have come to expect from big Broadway productions; the story has wit and charm, and it's all built on a foundation of Schwartz's “magnificent” music.
“No. 2 is, I think, a great attraction in watching familiar characters take unexpected turns,” he said. Large segments of the audience come to the show with a familiarity with the characters, whether from Baum's books or Garland's movie, and to see that familiarity sort of turned on its ear is an unexpected delight.
The third element is that something about the story and characters stays with an audience long after the applause has subsided.
“People are provoked to think about the world they live in, the nature of friendship, the nature of good and evil, the notion that history sometimes rewrites itself, and why we label outsiders as good or evil. All those themes that underlie the entertainment are very moving to people.”
The last reason for the show's popularity is that it has something for everyone, Platt said. A young girl can take great delight in the female empowerment that Elphaba provides or the charisma of Galinda and her wardrobe; a 50-year-old man may be more interested in the politics of Oz; music lovers will respond to Schwartz's score, and Wizard of Oz fans can get pleasure from seeing the origins of characters they know.
Dodd agreed with Platt's assessment and added some of her own: Even though Wicked revolves around strong female characters, everyone can relate to its universal themes.
“I've gotten comments and letters and e-mails from Marines and husbands and dads and sons, everybody relates to it.”
It's also timeless, she said. By setting it in a fantasy world, there are few elements in Wicked to date it or make it irrelevant.
“It's a great inside story, kind of like if you took the camera from The Wizard of Oz and just shifted it a little bit, you'd see a different side of the story that's interesting.”
“Wicked” opens Wednesday and runs through April 18 at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. this Thursday. Seating is extremely limited for some performances. Remaining tickets are $73 and $83. Information: 419-381-8851.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6130.